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Psychology: Anger Management - Emotional Conformity or Therapy?

In BBC News: Look Back at Anger questions are raised about anger management. Is it a new form of emotional conformity or an authentic form of therapy designed to help reduce a real problem? Either/or scenarios like these can be misleading since they focus our attention on the opposite ends of a spectrum, but it is interesting to use such questions as probes into the issue...

If I were to take an initial position on the issue, I would say that learning anger management as a means to prevent an escalation toward rage and violence is obviously beneficial, however, to sterilize a natural and necessary human emotion like anger and market it as socially unacceptable is misguided.

Anger is also an important and valuable source of emotional energy for learning.

It is possible that what we are seeing here is the creation of a new industry that is both the source and solution to a problem. In BBC News: Look Back at Anger we read, for example, a fifteen year-old being held in contempt of court and being forced to take anger management courses for swearing at a judge. Perhaps the underlying anger toward the judge was completely justified even if the swearing is over the line. The assumption is that the judge is correct and the fifteen year-old is not - an assumption that may be completely false.

In addition, we see a clear example of how a legal system can provide a core marketing strategy for the anger management industry. By assigning the fifteen year-old to anger management course the judge is, by default, giving support to that industry as a solution to a problem. And I wonder if the judge's own self-esteem might be so insecure as to not be able to withstand a verbal pounding from a minor. Psychologists seem to have a reasonable degree of influence in the legal system and if they are able to have judges sentence people to their programs they are, of course, in an enviable business position.

The British Association of Anger Management (BAAM), the UK's "centre of expertise" on anger and conflict management, has a team of consultants, counsellors and trainers who offer anger advice to the general public, children and teenagers, government bodies, corporations, the educational sector, personnel managers, and anyone else "dealing with their own or another's anger".

I would hope this advice being offered is focused on preserving and leveraging anger toward beneficial action when the anger itself is completely justified. This helps to fuel learning. If anger management is merely a psycho-consulting tactic to build an industry designed to pacify uncomfortable, yet completely normal, feelings and emotions then we are doing ourselves a great deal of damage. It may be ideas like anger preservation and the ecology of anger are just as important as something called anger management

There is also the possibility that by making anger socially unacceptable we are in fact setting the stage for another virulent victimization tactic. When any authentic expression of anger becomes wrong simply because a person is angry then we are all in bad shape. Anger, in this context, can be used as a tactic to deflect one's attention away from the underlying cause. For example, an authoritarian can use the expression of anger to subvert those under his/her leadership and successfully deflect people's attention away from the real problem, which may in fact be the authoritarian. This brings people into a state of submission and passivity.

Think about road rage. If anger evolves toward rage, then we create a form of violence that can result in injury and death. It is obvious to say that rage combined with four-wheel guided missles is a serious problem. However, for people not to feel a degree of anger at sitting in rush-hour traffic four-hours per day would be the sign of a serious lack of consciousness. And if modern society is so smart with all its bells and whistles, why do we keep intensifying the problem by designing urban centres surrounded by too many cars? And we expect those trapped in it not to feel anger?

We also see a reference to bullying in BBC News: Look Back at Anger. Just yesterday the issue made yet another appearance in the news here in Canada. There is a great deal of discussion about what vicitims of bullying should do, yet there is little to no discussion about what specifically should be done about the bullies themselves, or why their anger is becoming more and more like violence and rage. Perhaps their is a valid complaint about the situations and circumstances they find themselves in that are being inappropriately expressed. It may be that the bullies themselves are just as much a victim as those they vent their frustrations on.

Anger is a reaction to circumstances and it is one element of many that shapes learning. It doesn't make sense to view it in isolation - as the sole cause of something. It may be perfectly valid or it may be misguided. On a personal level I know that anger in the past has gotten the best of me at times by inspiring immediate and misguided responses to something I hadn't taken the time to think about effectively. Anger has also been part of the equation that lead to some of my better moments in life and has been beneficial. In other words, I have made mistakes because of it, and I have also been able to accomplish positive things in life because of it. I continue to learn from anger, my own and that of others, and perhaps I manage it in the sense of not allowing it to become destructive or pervasive in my being, but I also will not sterilize it or allow it to conform to the spiral of transient social norms.

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