Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I hate Anger Management

     One of my biggest gripes as a therapist is that 'Anger Management' is a widely accepted term to refer to a course of treatment that should more accurately be termed, 'Emotional regulation skills'.  It bothers me that Anger gets a bad rap, as far as emotions go.  In my experience, emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are.  They can be uncomfortable, in the sense that we do not enjoy the experience of feeling that emotion (sadness, depression, humiliation, fear) or they can be comfortable (peace, tranquility, happiness, joy).  I try to help people understand that depending on the context, ANY emotion can either be helpful or unhelpful in that moment.
     Most of the 'Anger Management' courses I have come across do a great job at helping people manage the symptoms of uncomfortable feelings like anger.  They teach you to relax, calm down, take a break, scale your feelings from 1-10, etc.  The really good courses also go beyond managing symptoms and help build skills to manage the emotions themselves. 
     Here is one of the first steps that I try to take with clients who are struggling with managing their emotions:

Step 1: Change how you talk about your emotions. 
     I hear people say all the time: "You make me so... (insert emotional word here)"  It is such a commonly heard phrase, no one stops to question the implications.  If it is true that another person can MAKE us feel a certain way, that is very scary.  That means that another person has tremendous power over me.  On the other hand, it also frees me of the responsibility for my own emotions.  In a way, when I use language like that, it frees me from being responsible.  For instance, if "YOU" are making me angry, then I can't possibly NOT be angry until YOU stop making me that way.  See? 
    It is more accurate to understand that others can contribute to how we feel, they can do annoying things or have hateful actions toward us, but our feelings.... how we choose to feel in response to their behaviors... those are our individual responsibility to deal with. 

   So when it comes to changing our language, "You make me so angry!" becomes "I am feeling angry right now."  That is it.  Simply own the feeling. 
"You are getting on my last nerve!" becomes, "I am feeling irritable."
"You always make me feel like a loser!" becomes, "I feel like I'm worthless"
"You make me so happy!" becomes, "I feel happy when I am with you."

An interesting shift happens when we start using our words to accurately reflect what is happening.  Whereas the former statements all contain an element of blame, the latter statements are blame-free.  Can you hear the blame that comes with "You make me sooooo ANGRY?"  It is an accusation about something YOU are doing to ME.  Naturally, when someone accuses me of something, I look to defend myself.  When I get into defense mode, I will eventually realize that the best defense is a good offense and I'll attack (accuse) you back... and suddenly we are stuck in a blame cycle.

When we can own our emotions and stop accusing others of MAKING us feel a certain thing, then we reduce the likelihood that they will need to go into defense mode, and our communication starts to improve.

Try it out and let me know how it works for you.  Take the simple step and change how you talk about your emotions.  No one can "MAKE" you feel anything.  Our feelings belong to us and are our own responsibility.