"First thing is first," the over-eager young woman said to me. "I want to learn how to control my anger."
After listening to her explain how she no longer wanted to have explosions and get into fights with her loved ones, I indicated that I knew exactly how to help, but that the answer would likely confuse her. She assured me she was up for whatever I had to say.
"Well," I began. "You're not actually angry when you have an outburst."
Silence filled the room. "What do you mean?" She asked.
I followed with my patented schpeil about how anger is a secondary emotion. I explained that anger sits on the surface, and carries with it a variety of externalizations that are easy to act upon. We discussed how angry people often act without thinking, because anger doesn't require thought. She stayed with me, but insisted that her experiences were solely anger. So, I did what any self-respecting adult does when kids decide they don't know what they're talking about. I bet her a candy bar that I was right.
"Tell me about the last time you got really angry," I invited.
She provided a detailed account of an argument that occurred the night before when her brother had teased her for being forgetful and disorganized.
"Do you like being forgetful?" I asked
"What about being disorganized, is that something you're proud of?"
"I don't mind really," she insisted.
"Does it seem like it gets in your way though?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do your organizational skills make you successful, or unsuccessful?" I asked. I suggested she consider her follow through on homework, her grades, how often she gets in trouble at home, and what for.
"It makes me unsuccessful, I guess."
"Do you like to be reminded of that?"
She shook her head.
"Hmm, so there's some shame there huh?"
"Yeah!" She responded passionately.
"And what happens when you feel ashamed?"
"It makes me mad," she said.
I didn't make her buy me a candy bar. Instead, we talked about what would have happened if she had chosen to tell her brother about her hurt feelings rather than explode on him. How that might have impacted her reaction, and if he would have received the information in a way that felt emotionally safe for her. Then, we went on to another example of a time she felt angry, and another. Slowly, we pulled out that her anger outbursts really stemmed from feeling incapable, unsupported, and unheard.
In later meetings, she and I worked to define a wide range of emotions so that she could enhance her understanding of how discomfort and pain can vary more widely than black and white; angry or not. Then, I told her about times I felt angry, and had her guess what feeling I was hiding from her. She made a lot of progress.
Did she stop feeling anger all together? Of course not.
Anger, as I have told her repeatedly, is a normal human emotion. We all feel it, and that's okay. The problem is that we often forget to listen to anger. It makes us communicate in ways that we can't hear ourselves, and others don't want to listen to us. This causes more problems than it resolves. Before we know it, we are angry because we are angry, and the original pain is so deeply buried under a colossal pile of anger that we feel suffocated. The trick to resolving that is to reframe our understanding of anger. We need to learn that anger is a cue to listen harder, to ourselves, and to those around us.