anger management & the holidays
Shortly after the holidays there is an uptick in people seeking therapy in NYC for anger management.
It’s as if many of the feelings we have about family dynamics and relationships lie dormant, like sludge, at the bottom of a calm pond until the holidays burst into our lives like roaring speed-boats stirring up waves and kicking everything up off the pond’s floor.
Why is this? Why do so many people have an emotional hangover after family visits?
Well, it may sound harsh but the honest truth is that families are notoriously bad at dialoguing constructively about the strong and complicated feelings that people have toward each other. Families do many things very well, but not this. I’m not saying that there is not a ton of love, closeness and deep connection happening among family members, but when it comes to dealing effectively with negative and conflicted feelings, the institution of FAMILY needs work in this regard. And when we humans are unable to process intense feelings in healthy ways, we end up “acting out” those feelings either through:
FIGHT – criticism, blame, belittling, mocking, sarcasm, yelling, aggression, etc.
FLIGHT – shutting down, being dismissive, superficial relating, avoiding intimacy, numbing out via excessive alcohol, drugs, food, pain pills, anti-anxiety meds, etc.
the roots of anger
But let’s back up a minute and review where anger in general comes from. Basically, human beings get angry for two reasons:
- When our needs/desires/preferences/expectations are unmet.
- When we perceive our physical or emotional/psychological safety to be threatened.
As we know, unmet needs and physical/emotional unsafety are all-too-common aspects of many people’s childhood experience, resulting in emotional wounds that can fester over the years. When these wounds are not sufficiently addressed and healed, the stage is set for some deep emotional discomfort to surface when families get together.
anger is a habit
Managing anger effectively begins with recognizing that it is a habit and that habits develop over time. If anger has become problematic in your life, it’s clear that somewhere in childhood, teen years and/or young adulthood, you learned implicitly that “getting angry” felt good (i.e. adrenaline rush, feelings of power and control, distraction from fear/anxiety) and also produced some desired results in your life (i.e. influenced people to back off, kept you safe, motivated you to take action, etc). However, if you’re seeking therapy for anger management, then clearly anger has started to work against you in one or more of these ways:
- Pushing people away and ruining relationships?
- Leading to physical health issues?
- Polluting your daily moods and exacerbating your stress and unhappiness?
- Excessively occupying your mind and getting in the way of your productivity?
- Contributing to self-destructive behaviors?
learning to use anger well
So how do we learn to effectively manage our anger? Here’s how: we do the work of emotional growth. We get serious about learning new ways of seeing and being. We refuse to be controlled by our own anger and we commit to re-shaping some of the habits of our own hearts.
“Ok, but how do we operationalize those platitudes?”
We work each and every day on becoming more skilled at:
- Identifying our own anger in the kindling stage, long before it builds into a festering inferno
- Slowing down, pausing and creating space between stimulus and response
- Compassionately acknowledging the more vulnerable feelings that lie underneath anger (i.e. hurt, disappointment, fear, embarrassment, longing, shame, etc).
- Handling situations as best you can with constructive methods (assertiveness & creativity) rather than destructive methods (anger & hostility).
- Congratulating yourself for ANY AND ALL efforts made toward changing harmful patterns.
As is the case with learning anything of value, it takes time, effort, dedication and repetition. Given that the holidays are coming, it is likely you will have ample opportunities to practice.
Chris Kingman lives with his wife and daughter in Park Slope, Brooklyn and has a full-time private therapy practice in Manhattan, NYC where he works with adults and couples. Follow Chris on Twitter or Facebook.