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john hibbs counsellor east auckland

Understanding Our Anger

by John Hibbs

I have worked as a Counsellor with anger over many years with all types of people from children to older adults. I have identified that it can cause a lot of misery for the person themselves and people around them. I would like to take this opportunity to make some central points about anger and provide some ideas for working effectively with this powerful emotion.

Anger is a primal emotion which has as its purpose protection it is linked to the fight or flight response in the old reptilian brain. Anger instinctively increases tension and inflates the ego, and in doing so our peripheral vision of other things in life decreases this is why anger is sometimes referred to as the selfish emotion.

Anger that is left unchecked can grow into rage and inner torment either in the form of sadness or nervous tension. However anger that is identified early can be a useful tool in telling us exactly where we are stuck, particularly interesting is to look under the emotion of anger by asking yourself what secondary feeling lies beneath? There will often be hurt or some form of psychological pain and this is where we start to make meaning of our own anger.

Running a victim mentality can often be synonymous with huge internal anger saying to your-self "no one respects or acknowledges me".  If this line of thinking is present then the real work is around your own self worth and that is up to you and not dependent on others responses or lack of acknowledgement.

Anger can be the backbone of healing

I liked the quote I read many years ago that "anger is the backbone of healing" (Bass & Davis, 1988). Certainly for many of my clients it is that angry energy that finally gives them the motivation to call and visit me. Many report improvement prior to the appointment and this appears to be linked to more self observation. A balance of offloading and skill building is always important in therapy as well as looking at your anger in new ways. Anger that is identified early and skilfully understood shows you where your boundaries are and will aid you enormously in your self-awareness. It is also a very powerful energy source and can be channelled into productive outcomes, both physical like a burst of focussed work, or mentally like pursuing a goal in your life. At a young age I noticed the power of anger and consciously channelled the energy to achieve my own goals. I distinctly remember being put down for various reasons by another person and as it was happening what popped up was there are several positive ways I can respond to this stuff and this idea lead to a lot of personal progress without getting sucked into either retribution or being victimised.


Monitor your anger and use it well

The key skills with anger involve really consciously monitoring your own anger, being highly aware of your thoughts and physical sensations linked to anger and then being able to reflect on previous anger and set some goals to improve your responses to your own personal trigger points. Most importantly as mentioned earlier, is to understand the underlying message anger is sending us. When these steps are achieved then stepping back and creating space around the emotion is possible and this is the stage when you take back control.  I sometimes use the analogy of the owl with its ability to see everything but remain still to step back and let it all pass by beneath on the forest floor, another way to say it is to be the witness to your passing feelings.

At another level anger can also be relieved by music, exercise, time out or any method which distracts the mind and sets up a new pattern of thought. All these distractions do one thing they give us space to re-focus.

As Counsellor’s too it is a prerequisite to deep practice that we clear our own anger and baggage in order to maximise our equanimity, this quality alone will help others. I have always been fascinated by the research finding that it is not the technique used so much as the attitude of the therapist that really counts in client progress.

If you would like to reflect further on anger a book that is hard to beat for good anger awareness is Harriet Lerner’s “The Dance of Anger”
Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. 1988. The Courage to Heal
Harriet Lerner. The Dance of Anger

Copyright John Hibbs 2011
Article posted 28 January 2014

John Hibbs is a counsellor in private practice in Auckland arrow-10find out more