Psychotherapy & Couples Counseling
Bernard McDowell, lcsw
Psychotherapist & Licensed Clinical Social Worker
811 NW 20th Avenue, Suite 104, Portland, Oregon 97209
Transmuting Anger Into Gold:
Through The Doorway of Sadness Rather Than
Bernard McDowell, lcsw copyright 2003
There are endless
books, classes, and theories about the virtues and dangers of
feeling or expressing anger.
Some exhort women to
express anger for their health. Others warn of the
correlation of anger and violence for men. In a comprehensive
book about anger, Carol Tavris found differences but many more
similarities between women and men. Surprising to many,
little variance in blood pressure readings is found between those who
freely ventilate anger versus those who suppress it; however, another
study concluded that “venting” anger doesn't get rid of it but
leads to more anger; and chronically angry people develop
cardiovascular disease at six times the rate of the rest of the
population. There are many books on how to corral anger or how to
express it. Compared to the cost of angry outbursts, reading
this article and a few books may be a great bargain. Why reinvent
the wheel? Especially, if you've already failed to live up to
your promises to yourself. See the recommended reading list below.
The contradictions in
these ideas about anger are remindful of the story about blind men
touching an elephant. One felt only the trunk and mistook the
elephant for a big scary snake while another jumped to the conclusion
that the leg was a small lovely shade tree. In fact, to
comprehend anger we must consider the whole person. This
article examines what role anger plays in human dynamics: Its
positive functions as well as its destructive effect on relationships.
We will review common “anger management” tools, but, more critically,
explore the context and underlying elements involved in anger-to go
beyond “management” towards incorporating fundamentally different and
more satisfying emotional responses when appropriate. (The
commentary below concentrates on the problems of people who get angry
too frequently and too destructively rather than those who may need to
learn that its OK and healthy to express anger. Aspects of
that are addressed implicitly in other articles on this site about
“Anger Management” Tactics
Most anger management
classes and books rely primarily on “cognitive behavioral” changes to
help people gain control of their anger. Typically, a person desiring
to change their angry ways is taught to 1) identify the
context in which they usually get angry (family events, talks
with their partner about unpaid bills, etc.), 2) monitor
their initial physiological reactions (tightened neck, fists,
etc.), 3) interrupt their pattern with time-outs
(count to ten, listen to three songs on the radio, walk around the
block, etc.) at the early warning signs of building anger, and 4) learn
to reset their attitudes (e.g.s: keeping perspective,
remembering to pick one's battles).
Pop psychology has
long advised people to “not take things personally”.
This is wise advice but it can take a bit of work
for people to learn how to do that. The rest of this
article explores a more comprehensive view of anger dynamics
aligned with “depth psychology”. Anger
relates to our way of identifying ourselves and
sadness is considered as a better
alternative that both supports self esteem and communicates
more effectively. In addition the role of
appropriate assertiveness skills will be referred to.
Anger and Its Functions
What would happen if
you go to your car or bicycle and someone is trying to steal it?
Many people react instantaneously in anger followed by
attempts to chase the thief away or call for help. In such a
case, anger certainly serves a healthy purpose. It says, in
effect, this is my territory and thieving intruders don't belong here.
In these situations,
anger may help prevent loss (e.g.: of the car) by chasing the thief
away and, perhaps, mobilizing the body to action for a just cause.
When angry, muscles tense, skin temperature rises, and pulse
rate increases. There are other common physiological
responses as well; e.g., epinephrine rises and pupils dilate, though
these also happen during other emotionally stressful events.
many, if not most, people reflexively respond in
anger to emotional losses--to a much worse end. For
example, people getting angry when they are put down, slighted, refused
a raise, or can't find their keys. As defined here, these are
all examples of losses--any unfulfilled need or desire.
When put down, there is a loss of approval; when slighted,
there is a loss of credit that was deserved; when searching for our
keys there is a loss of time. In the case of the lost keys,
there are greater losses lurking in the background--being late could
mean anything from a little embarrassment to getting blamed by one's
partner to losing a job. And any of those events may mean a blow
to nothing less than our sense of identity and self worth.
Angry reactions to others in these types of circumstances may
occasionally be an effective communication of a "primary emotion"; even
more rarely the person it's aimed at will change their behavior and
admit to some wrong doing. However, in the great
majority of cases of repetitive anger, it alienates the people it's
of Angry Emotions and Their Structure
Clearly, anger is a
common response to loss. It is a relatively high energy
response. Sometimes, its as if it puts the body on high
alert, ready for action. Imagine anger on a spectrum of
emotional reactions which all share some critical structural elements.
At the mild end, start with annoyance
followed by frustration, mild anger, anger, fury, and blind
rage. The exact names or sequence isn't important
for now. The essential feature is that all of these
reactions have, at least, some structural sequence in common:
1) a person wants or seeks something and 2) isn't getting
what they want (praise, the keys, credit, etc.), and 3) they have an
emotional response to that loss along the spectrum of anger.
The various reactions
on that spectrum differ primarily by the vector of intensity.
I would go further to suggest the value of considering anger
not just as a reaction but as an attempt to make the loss go
away-particularly those related to our identity.
This may be obvious in some cases. Anger at a
spouse, a merchant, or any other person may intimidate them enough to
do what the angry person prefers-e.g., issue a refund.
Imagine someone getting angry at a spouse for a put down.
Certainly in some instances, a spouse will make a
sincere apology. But more often than not such anger comes
with a price--resentment, withdrawal, or retaliatory anger.
Almost any kind of repetitive, intense anger in a close
relationship isn't just to defend or advocate a position on particular
issues. Rather, by the very nature of psychological
identity, we are quite vulnerable to the way others
see us. In the face of a slight, a put down, or virtually any
loss, we are challenged to varying degrees to maintain self
worth and/or our preferred identity. Now, we're
getting to the crux of the matter. If we can learn the
psychological skills to self validate in these cases, there will be
little need for destructive anger.
Anger, Couples, and the “Prime Psychological Force”
Couples most often
get angry, irrespective of the specifics (bills, in-laws, children,
etc.), when one doesn't fully acknowledge the value
of what's vitally important to the other . Here's a typical
scenario. A man came in for therapy and stated that he wanted
to quit gambling. He said that he's tired of wasting time in
front of slot machines and feeling foolish about $1,000 he's racked up
in credit card debt. But within a few sentences, he related
how his wife responded when he told her he was going to quit gambling.
In sharp tones, she said “you better quit
gambling”. At first, he calmly repeated that he recognized
how stupid his gambling was; but she became even angrier with
accusations about how his gambling was threatening their retirement.
Then, he lost his cool and came back with antagonism and
rebuttals; and she came back with more anger. Within minutes,
he was yelling that how they had a sizable 401(k) and that he worked
hard for his money and had a right to spend some. He stormed
off to the bar and played video poker until 2 AM. Amazingly,
even as he told the story to me, he failed to notice that he'd lost
track of his goal to quit gambling--even in the
counseling session presumably dedicated entirely to his goal, almost
his entire energy and focus stayed on the insensitivity of his wife.
Before analyzing what this angry argument is really about,
let's investigate a similar scenario.
A woman sought
counseling saying she really wanted to get back into
exercising--knowing how much better she'd feel. Indeed, she
met her partner in her early 20's at a running event. As the
years went by, her work demanded longer hours. Having had a
parent who died of congestive heart failure, her partner, a nurse,
started to get on this woman's case for high cholesterol and weight
gain. After just a few comments, she told me how she had some
ice cream the night before and “kind of hid” the container out of sight
in the back of the freezer. But her partner found it and
angrily confronted her about breaking her commitment to cut
back. After three angry exchanges, she was yelling that she'd
eat as much junk food as she wanted--and she did! In both
examples, these clients lost sight of their stated goals very quickly.
these couples are discussing gambling or healthy eating except at the
most superficial level. Sure those words are in the
“scripts”, but the real discussion is better understood in light of the
force”--the desire (frequently the intense need) to be seen and
acknowledged in accordance with our preferred identity.
Right below the surface discussion, the exchange amounts to:
“I'm not getting your validation and that hurts; so I'm
clobbering you with anger and telling you what you're going to do so
that I don't have a loss”; the other responds with a variation on “Oh
no, I'm hurting even more than you because of your unwillingness to
give me validation; so I'm angrily telling you where to get off”.
Both partners want
the other's validation, respect, and support. Intellectually,
they may be clear they don't really need
a supportive response, but, at the level of their
psychological identity, their hearts are nothing less than
sharks blindly striking out in anger to get what they want.
I'm using dramatic images like “prime force” and “sharks” for
good reason--getting validation or being “seen” by others isn't
optional. As elaborated in another article on this site, it
is actually necessary for fundamental human
development-even for developing some physical movements.
It really doesn't matter if a person has a PhD in Physics or
Psychology, when very sensitive, painful issues hang in the balance,
logic is out the window. When these partners didn't get the
acknowledgment they thought they deserved, they reflexively
responded along the spectrum of angry emotions.
The issues never got discussed.
Of course, many
people who habitually react in anger assume that anger is appropriate
to communicate in these situations because its “justified”; but chronic
anger rarely effectively communicates anything other than “be scared of
me”, “stay away from me” and “do what I tell you to do”. The
examples above were offered to highlight the problem of anger.
The resolution to couples problems of this sort have many
other aspects, so let's look at one more example of anger in families
and then consider a solution that goes one step beyond typical “anger
Anger and Families
A 16 year old
teenager came home two hours past curfew for the third straight time.
The parents had already established the consequence,
grounding for the weekend of a big dance. In frustrated
tones, dad reminds his daughter of her fate and, at some point, the
daughter reacts by calling him an obscene name. Now consider
two different types of responses from dad at that moment.
Father A points his finger in her face and screams “no
daughter of mine is going to talk like that. You'll never
call me a name like that again”. Father A literally uses a
direct command form of the verb telling his daughter what to do.
The father believes he's justified in his anger and
presupposes it will help his daughter grow moral fiber. But
remember the prime psychological force. From his
daughter's gut level viewpoint, his anger isn't a moral lesson that
calling a parent an obscene name is wrong. From the
perspective of her “prime psychological force”, her father is trying to
assert his dominance and she has no choice; and, at the emotional
level, no right to be a separate person!
Now, all daughter can do is either knuckle under to his
commands (while feeling her sense of self overwhelmed by his anger); or
she can try to preserve a sense of unique “personhood” by resisting
with silent withdrawal or angrily fight back by telling dad what to do
with his rules.
Through The Doorway of Sadness Instead of Madness
Now, let's consider a
different style of response. Father B takes a half step back
and says, “God, I can't believe its gotten to the point that you're
calling me names like that. It breaks my heart that our
relationship has dropped to this level. It's really so sad!”
Typically, the teen will be responsive to this communication
because it respects her sense of self or choice in responding to him.
It doesn't trigger the prime psychological force.
The father knows his daughter understands that calling him a
name is disrespectful; that leaves room for her to come forward and
exercise her responsibility. In contrast, Father A's response
presupposes he needs to tell her what respect is and what actions she
has to take. Instead of responding with anger to the
loss of respect and connection with his daughter, Father B
expresses his emotion of sadness over those losses.
At that moment, he isn't asserting his dominance over her
ability to go to the dance though he's fully intending to hold to the
consequence. So, she can hear his sadness over the disrespect
and his logic about the curfew. This doesn't mean he condones
it anymore than Father A. In fact, Father A is much more
likely to shout an obscene name back at his daughter and then justify
it by blaming the whole of the exchange on how his daughter started it.
Sadness may be
conceptualized as a spectrum of emotions just as anger. At
the mild end is disappointment. At the intense end of the
spectrum might be grief or all out feeling bereft.
Irrespective of the details, consider again both anger and
sadness as responses to “loss”-any unfulfilled need. However,
in most cases of chronic anger, sadness functions much better.
In chronic anger, people project their unmet needs onto
others and blame them for the pain the angry person feels.
That presupposes that angry person is at the “effect” of the
other who maintains the “cause” position. But that means that
the angry person can't control his or her life because the other is in
control, “at cause”. In effect, even if the anger is
justified, it leaves the chronically angry person with a victim
Of course, Father B
could be just as effective by staying emotionally neutral.
Whether sad or neutral, he doesn't take his
daughter's behavior so personally. A routinely
angry parent may initially balk at exploring how their own
self esteem is involved in their anger. But that can be quite
freeing. Take a parent angry at a child for not doing a chore
after they've talked about it a “million times”. Frequently,
the parent emphasizes the child's “disregard” much more than the chore.
Consider a mother of a 5 year old who says, “I hate you
mommy”. The mother who takes offense has difficulty
holding on to a sense of her own self
love and simultaneously condemns herself to a lot more of the same
behavior by the child. A relaxed mother, confident in her own
self worth, might simply and lovingly put her hand
on the child's head and say, “Oh honey, it's so hard to hate, isn't
People brought up by
parents who were quick to anger often can't imagine how they could
respect a parent expressing sadness. It is completely
counterintuitive for them to express “sadness instead of
madness” over a loss of any kind. They believe
Father A is the tough one and Father B is wimpy. The opposite
is true. In reality it is much more often the angry
parent who has difficulty sticking with consequences.
Often, the angry parents feel badly for their
outburst which sunk to the level of the daughter's, for the
tension it created for other family members, or for giving a
ridiculously exaggerated consequence in the heat of the moment.
In contrast, Father B is at home with loss. Through
sadness, he easily empathizes with his daughter's sadness for missing
the dance and sustains through that sense of loss all the way
through the completion of the consequence. Chronically
angry parents do anger habitually precisely for lack of ability or
predisposition to handle or feel loss in other ways. In a
sense, they are more likely to have difficulty feeling their child
suffer for weeks at a time leading up to the dance that will be missed-because
of this or any of the reasons above, they are more likely to
renege on the consequences.
The angry parents and
couples in these examples have “openness disease”.
Frequently, accused of being too defensive, they are better
characterized as not defensive enough.
That is, every perceived slight or put down from another gets
right in on them and their habitual defense of anger tries to push that
toxic energy back out of their psychological space.
Generally, it's healthy and necessary to allow love and
information in from others. But chronic anger is actually a
symptom of letting others' influences in too easily. Perhaps
the primary mark of psychological health is the ability to make
critical differentiations between one's own evaluation of self in the
face of others' opinions, emotions, and demands. While basic
cognitive behavioral anger management may be helpful for the symptoms
of anger, more in-depth therapy is called for growing boundaries that
breathe, a healthy osmotic membrane allowing love and connection while
“differentiating” out harmful energy. Of course, that process
may involve some pain in recognizing oneself as so vulnerable to
others, but it is very freeing to develop healthy ways to keep others'
attacks, perceived or real, from incorporating into one's self image.
There is an ancient
story about a fishing village which shares a number of boats.
A man takes one out to fish before dawn. It's still
dark when a strong wind comes up. Heading back into the pier,
he sees another boat recklessly heading for his boat. His
first thoughts flash to how he was the victim of a boat accident the
year before. He's angry and begins yelling at the other boat
to “watch out” and to “stop messing with” him. But then the
boat comes close enough so that he sees its empty! It had
broken loose from it's mooring. Immediately, he realizes that
his anger isn't doing any good. This story may remind us how
ineffective anger is for communication. But at a deeper level
it's hinting at the possibility of being like an empty boat-in other
words, don't take things personally. Most
of us have a good idea of the wisdom of that but completely lose this
perspective in close relationships. (Other articles on this
site elaborate detailed skills for self validating and appropriately
A Few Caveats
The anger in these
examples creates tension and separation while the sadness invites
connection. Expressing sadness rather
than madness is the most fundamental emotional
antidote to anger. For the most
part, sadness is simply a more appropriate emotion to meet loss.
Yet, for many chronically, reflexively angry people it is
almost impossible to conceive of expressing sadness or grieving over
loss especially over something like losing one's keys. It
simply doesn't compute and, by no means, am I suggesting that by
reading this, a person with problems about anger will be able to do
this. A few will but for most it will take a
significant therapeutic guidance. For some I recommend a kind
of emotional yoga. That may be as basic as learning self talk
like, “I'm so disappointed” rather than “That's so infuriating”.
Of course, “keeping perspective”, time outs, and other anger
management techniques are important to master, but for the habitually
angry person there is a great benefit to really get at home with loss.
It is possible to
experientially learn how sadness is empowering. Listening to
very sad music while appreciating the beauty of it is one simple way.
It is crucial to make a few distinctions: Sadness
or active grieving is completely different from depression;
and sadness is not weakness. They are
entirely different phenomena discussed in greater detail in the
articles about depression. Also, when learning to
shift out of anger consistency plays a big role.
We might say that a person on the receiving end of
chronic anger develops an emotional allergy to the anger.
After the pattern is established, the angry person doesn't
even have to blow up, just a raised eyebrow or a frustrated tone is
enough for their partner to react in withdrawal. When a
parent tries the experiment of dropping their habitually angry
reactions to a child, it takes repeated trials for the child to trust
that. Even if the parent makes quite a dramatic change, the
process will suffer a significant setback the first time the parent
slips back into their angry mode. The same holds true with
People are capable of
an amazing diversity of emotional responses. Different
cultures encourage wildly different emotional displays: some
encourage polite laughing and others loud lamenting. Many
marriages “succeed” with a fair number of angry exchanges.
There is a
principle of communication: the “meaning of the communication
is the response
that it elicits”. More often than not, anger gets the
opposite response from what an angry person consciously intends while
chronically angry people leave a wake of destruction in their path.
There are many possible tools to help people let go of old
angry habits. For some, common anger management techniques
work sufficiently well. For others, refining a healthier
sense of self will be necessary.
Recommended Reading on Anger
Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion ...................................................Carol Tavris
Written by a social psychologist, this classic
book reviews and summarizes a great deal of research on anger. It’s not a how to book though it does review
expert takes on how to curb problematic anger.
And that’s a good thing for people seriously motivated to learn ways to
groove healthier ways to express anger (or forgo it altogether). This tome considers anger by biological
roots, physiological ramifications, cultural and gender perspective. It dispels
is the commonly held notion oft repeated as, e.g., “I blow up and move on. I get it out of my system. She needs to move
on”. In fact, the more people vent their
angry emotions the more they are likely to vent them again…not less!
Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide To Changing the Patterns of
This book focuses on anger from a gender perspective with some emphasis
on women expressing anger to other women.
In my view, it’s general perspective is at least as value for men. It does offer what I consider to be an
essential element of a useful self help book—alternative dialogues for handling
interpersonal conflict. My main
criticism is that those alternative dialogues don’t help the reader/learner
differentiate sufficiently. The book
addresses angry relationships between overly enmeshed mothers and daughters.
I’m more recommending this book for the
simple fact that it’s written by a man addressing other men; some men may then
find it easier to digest, especially with the realization that your guide, the
author, has been there himself. Here it’s
hard not to recognize the swath of damage unchecked anger leaves in its wake
while quickly enough leading the way to
Beyond Anger: A
Guide for Men: How to Free Yourself from the Grip of Anger and Get More Out of
For people with problems
expressing anger whether too much or too little learning a repertoire
of skills to handle interpersonal conflicts is crucial. The
following books, then, include at least some sections with exmaples of
specific dialogues to navigate such conflicts. As noted, I
recommend reading most of the material in these books only after
turning to the pages modeling out what to say when you feel .
There are many similar books.
books For Handling Conflicts in Relationships
I Say No I Feel
Skip the cheerleading about how you deserve self esteem and turn directly to the few tried and true
chapters on easy reliable templates for what to say when you're under attack or
feeling pressured by a partner. Again, there are no miracle
instructions here and this book isn't aimed at couples per se, but the
differentiating dialogue skills are much needed to navigate conflicts
in relationships. There's a reason this self help book has stuck around for 35 years.
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy..........................................................David
This is one of the all time best selling books on beating
depression by changing your thoughts. But just like quite a few
successful self help books there is inevitably chapter on specific
dialogue skills. I say go directly to that chapter entitled
Verbal Judo in this book; his model is better than most, so these
"techniques" apply across many different contexts (home, work, etc.). Ironically
this chapter attests to the critical aspect of the interpersonal over
your own thought habits though the theory behind the book purports that
your depressive thoughts cause depression. Of course, much of
psychology emphasizes how interpersonal dynamics are internalized
into how we think about ourself and the world. It works the other way
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High .........................................................................Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler
If nothing else, this book underscores that very, very successful
people keep learning how to navigate conflict at high level of
priority. Further, they don't just read one book or take one
course on the matter.
The Gentle Art Of Verbal Self
Defense.........................................Suzette Haden Elgin
is NOT inspirational. For those who are willing to work with
this book, it offers step by step learnable instructions for
responding to verbal attacks, pressuring comments, and manipulations without
sinking to those levels. In effect, these are verbal
"differentiation" skills, invaluable for successful relationships.
To Be An Adult: A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration
This is book doesn't emphasize dialogues. I'm including
it because despite the clunky title, the message isn't preachy.
It's is refreshing and simple enough for many people to accept.