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Thursday, August 15, 2019

What's the Difference Between Healthy Anger and Unhealthy Anger?

Anger often gets a bad rap because people consider anger to be "bad" or "unhealthy."  While it's true that there are instances when out of control anger can be expressed in an unhealthy or maladaptive way that's destructive and hurtful, a healthy sense of anger can be adaptive in terms of it mobilizing you to defend yourself or to make positive changes in your life (see my article: Using Your Anger to Mobilize Yourself to Make Positive Changes).

What's the Difference Between Healthy Anger and Unhealthy Anger?

Anger can also act as an internal cue as to what's going on for you emotionally below the surface because anger is often a secondary emotion that covers up sadness, shame or emotional vulnerability (see my article: Anger as a Secondary Emotion).

Healthy Anger vs. Unhealthy Anger
Unhealthy anger is often unregulated and used to intimidate or dominate others.  It can be triggered easily or can be chronic.  It's usually destructive to the self, others or both.  It's also often verbally or physically aggressive.

Healthy anger can be triggered easily in some instances, but the difference between healthy anger and unhealthy anger is your behavior.  For instance, if another driver cuts you off on the highway, you might feel a flash of anger, but what you do next with that anger will determine if it's healthy or unhealthy.

If you pursue the other driver aggressively, curse at him or give him "the finger," this is out of control, unhealthy anger.  But if you're able to calm yourself and eventually brush it off or reframe the incident for yourself (e.g., maybe the other driver had a sick passenger and needed to get to the hospital quickly), this is a more adaptive way of coping with your anger.

When you can use anger to make positive changes in yourself, this is adaptive.  On the other hand, if you're consistently angry and blaming other people for things you don't like in your life and you're not making an effort to take positive action, this is maladaptive.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Healthy Anger vs. Unhealthy Anger
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how a person can learn to change his mode of behavior in therapy from using anger in an unhealthy way to a more healthy and productive way of coping and behaving:

Joe
After his wife gave him an ultimatum that he either seek help in therapy or she would leave him, Joe went to see a psychotherapist recommended by a friend.

During the initial consultation with the therapist, Joe focused on his wife's complaints about his anger.  He said he didn't see a problem with his behavior, but his wife had been telling him for years that she didn't like his temper, and after a recent incident of "road rage" in which she felt Joe placed their lives in danger based on his reaction to the other driver, she gave him the ultimatum.

The therapist noted to herself during the initial part of the consultation that Joe took no ownership of his behavior in the "road rage" situation, so she asked him to reflect upon it.

What's the Difference Between Healthy Anger and Unhealthy Anger?

Joe responded that he hadn't really thought about it before, but he said he could see where his wife had some concerns.  At the same time, he showed his ambivalence about his behavior because he tried to justify it by saying he thought "anyone in my shoes would have been angry."

As Joe recounted other incidents where he lost his temper with his wife, his adult children, his friends and his subordinates at work, a pattern emerged of sudden outbursts of anger.

When the therapist asked Joe about the consequences of his behavior, Joe thought about it for a while, and then he admitted, "My anger has created problems in my relationships--both personal and professional, which surprises me, because anyone who knows me well knows that I don't really mean the things that I say in the heat of anger."

As they continued to talk about the consequences of his anger, Joe became sullen, "My sons aren't as close to me as they used to be.  They're close to my wife, but they seem to avoid me because of my outbursts of anger.  At my company, a few managers who worked under me left because I lost my temper with them.  These were people that I hired, groomed and I hoped to continue to groom for higher positions in my company, so it was a terrible loss.  And now my wife is fed up with me.  So, as I think about it, I guess she's right."

His therapist saw his acknowledgement of his problem to be a healthy sign.  They agreed to meet once a week for therapy sessions to get to the root of the problem and to help Joe to learn healthier ways of coping with and expressing his anger.

During their weekly sessions, Joe talked about his father's temper tantrums and his perfectionism, which he imposed on Joe.  Joe said he tried to be "perfect" for his father because he knew his father expected nothing less.  But, inevitably, he made mistakes and felt very ashamed because he knew he was letting his father down.  Although his father was tough, his mother was easygoing, but she was also intimidated by Joe's father, so she didn't stand up to him when he lost his temper with Joe and criticized him.

His therapist helped Joe to see that, as a child, he was traumatized by his father's anger and unrealistic expectations.  She explained that most children would have reacted the same way that he did, but the way he learned to cope as a child was no longer serving him because he was imposing his perfectionism on others, he was reacting in much the same way as his father did, and he was ruining his relationships (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective).

Gradually, Joe realized that when things happened that he couldn't control--whether it was a mistake that one of his sons made, a problem with a subordinate or a problem driver on the road--Joe felt "out of control," which he identified as one of the worst feelings he could experience.  Feeling out of control frightened him, and he realized that underneath the anger, there was fear.

His therapist recommended that they use EMDR therapy to process his childhood traumatic memories of feeling ashamed for disappointing his father and the ongoing fear he had as a child of losing his father's love (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

Over time, Joe realized that the current situations that caused him to lose his temper triggered his earlier fear, sadness, and shame, so he and his therapist processed the current and past memories as well as his fears for the future.

The work in EMDR therapy, although faster and more effective than regular talk therapy, wasn't quick.  However, after several months, Joe could recall his childhood memories without feeling the negative feelings he usually experienced.

Through his work in therapy, Joe had a lot of compassion for the traumatized child that he had been (see my article: Having Compassion For the Child That You Were).

He realized that his father had grown up with a father who was also a perfectionist, and Joe developed compassion and a sense of forgiveness for his father (see my article: Trying to Understand Your Father).

In addition, as he progressed in therapy, Joe also realized that he was no longer overreacting with inappropriate anger to current situations, and his relationships with his wife, sons, friends and employees were improving.

Conclusion
Unhealthy anger often hides shame, sadness and other related emotions from the past, and it's often related to unresolved trauma.

It's not unusual for there to be a history of unhealthy anger in a client's family of origin due to intergenerational trauma (see my article: Intergenerational Family Dynamics).

Trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy, helps to process unresolved trauma and related emotional triggers (see my article: Coping With Trauma and Trauma-Related Triggers).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you've been struggling with anger and this article resonates with you, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Resolving the underlying issues that contribute to your angry behavior and learning new ways of coping can help you to have better relationships and a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, AEDP and Emotionally Focused (EFT) therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.