How to understand anger

Learning to understand the role of anger and how to control it

Familiar with this scenario?  The idiot cuts in front of you, causing you to nearly crash into him.  Your pounding heart, flushed face, tight chest, and gritted teeth tell you:  you are angry.

Or, maybe someone you know violates you in a despicable way, steals from you or betrays you.  You are a “nice” person, so you don’t experience anger, but a dark cloud descends over your life.  You stew.  Nothing is fun anymore, and you feel grumpy.  You, too, are angry.  

We’ve all felt this way.  Anger may be the most written-about emotion: an internet search on it generates 155 million results.  Yet it is often the emotion we love to hate.  We wonder how to manage it and see no purpose in it.  I’d like to address that aspect today:  the function of anger.

An angry part of ourselves causing trouble

There is a well-kept secret in Psychosynthesis psychology.  It assumes we all have badly-behaving parts, called “subpersonalities”, which form in order to help us meet needs.  By getting to know these errant parts of ourselves – such as the angry one inside – we can act more effectively.  Let’s have a look at how an angry subpersonality might operate within us.   To illustrate the process, I’ll run a parallel description of the work my client “Paddy” did toward “anger management”.

The process:  behaviour, world view, wants, needs, quality

In a nutshell, this heading describes what we want to find out about a part of ourselves we may be  frustrated with and (typically) want to get rid of.  For many clients, it is the angry part that seems to be causing relational ruptures and career problems, and destroying any possible inner peace.  We normally think of the part as an enemy.  So, to “defeat” the enemy, we have to get to know it.  I begin by asking the client to describe the part, give it a name, tell me how he is feeling about it, and then describe its behaviour.

  • Behaviour

Paddy said that his angry part was ugly, mean-looking, and wizened.  Its name was Sid, and it had been with Paddy since late childhood.  Sid got angry at “stupid” things, like when the kids left their bikes out in the rain or left the fridge door open, whereupon Sid would bellow mightily.  

What might your angry subpersonality look like?  Male or female?  Does it have a name?  What behaviour is it doing that you don’t like (e.g., swearing at bad drivers)?  How do you feel about this part? Paddy HATED Sid for wrecking his family harmony and making him feel bad about himself.

  • World view

Moving a little deeper, we want to ask how the angry part of ourselves would have to see the world in order for it to act in the way it does.  Paddy’s Sid, for example, said it didn’t matter how much Paddy gave to his kids; they were always going to be ungrateful and inconsiderate.  Sid’s world view ran something like, “The world is a mean place; people will take advantage if given half a chance.” How does your angry part believe the world works?  Does it see the world as dangerous?  Selfish?  Betraying?  Exploitative?

  • Want

Next we ask our angry part what it wants.  Sid wanted Paddy’s family, and in fact life in general, to merely consider Paddy a little bit, not to dismiss him.  Does your part want justice for you?  Freedom to be yourself?  Honest treatment without betrayal?

  • Needs

There is usually a (legitimate) need lying beneath our wants.  What does your angry part need?  Paddy realised that, growing up in a home where his little brother was always the focus because of a serious medical condition, Paddy’s needs were often neglected or minimised.  He “got” that he unconsciously created Sid to help protect him from always being ignored or having his needs not taken seriously.  What needs is your angry subpersonality trying to help you meet?  What is it protecting you from?

  • Quality

This last bit is the clincher.  We ask ourselves:  if our needs above were totally met, what quality could come into our lives?  Paddy understood that, if his need to feel considered, seen, and taken seriously were met, he would feel good about himself.  A sense of worthiness, the quality of self-esteem, could come into his life.  Sid would not be as prominent when Paddy could meet his needs to feel ok about himself.

Making peace with your angry part

In session, Paddy turned to the chair where Sid was “sitting”, and said, “OK, Sid, you can stay [Sid wasn’t going anywhere anyway!], but you get a new job description.  You can still protect my sense of worthiness, but now you have to do it more relationally.”  Paddy began to be gently assertive with his kids and wife, and at work.  He became more relaxed and confident.

Psychosynthesis practitioners can work through a process like this with you if your anger is getting in your way.  But you can also set up an extra chair at home and start the conversation yourself, alternating between the two chairs.  Following the steps Paddy did, get to know your angry subpersonality.  Mostly, see if you can figure out what it is protecting; it is always something precious.  When you get that, you can help your anger protect you in a more adaptive way; after all, it is on your side!

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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