Disappointment > Anger (Part 1)

What I’ve been noticing more and more lately in my practice as a Certified Anger Management Specialist (CAMS-1) is that when the surface is scratched, underlying anger is typically disappointment.

As an example, a client was telling me recently about an incident with a classmate with whom she and others were working on a project. The client related that she became enraged at her classmate because the latter didn’t come through when it came to fulfilling her responsibilities. The upshot was that my client had to pick up the slack because no one else on the team did so or even offered to help.

My client was enraged (not just angry) at her classmates, particularly the young woman who failed to do her part.

When I questioned her as to whether or not she had said anything to either the classmate or the others she said no. Her default position has always been and was in this case, that she can’t depend on anyone but herself and things only get done and get done properly when she does them herself.

There are a lot of issues here that we addressed in this and subsequent sessions. The first is that she seems to have had expectations that this other person was capable of being responsible and fulfilling the tasks. I explored whether or not the person had demonstrated this to her previously and she said no, quite the contrary.

So issue #1: unrealistic expectations

We then talked about her keeping her feelings to herself rather than sharing her anger with the person. She reported that she was concerned that given her level of rage, she would be unable to control herself and would emotionally hurt her.

So issue #2: an inability to express angry feelings in a non-destructive way so “stuffing” those feelings causing herself harm.

When I pointed out to her that her response to the situation was extreme (it made sense that she was angry but enraged was out of proportion), and I was wondering what had “triggered” those intense feelings, she was after a time able to express how disappointed she was in this person and the others in the group. This led to a discussion about her reactions to people who disappoint her and how hard it is and always has been for her to let in those feelings.

So issue #3: difficulty feeling disappointment in others and using anger to cover those feelings up.

If I were working with her exclusively “psychodynamically” which is really about insight, we would have explored in depth her history with others disappointing her, particularly parent figures, and especially in early childhood.

We did a little of that to the extent that she developed some understanding of the underlying causes of her rage.

But one of the wonderful aspects of Anger Management work is the focus on learning new tools to deal with these intense and at times out-of-control feelings.

In particular, we used the Anger Log, which breaks down situations into date/time, situation, trigger thoughts, emotional arousal (scale of 1 – 10) and aggressive behavior (scale of 1 – 10).

She was able to see that for example, this occurred at a time when she was exhausted, hungry and stressed. We also discovered that what triggered her thoughts was feeling that now another person had failed her. She was able to own that her emotional arousal was at an 8 and that her aggressive behavior was turned inward through the stuffing of her feelings. The result was that she became depressed. (There is the theory that depression is anger turned inward).

We also came up with some solutions.

For starters, she was encouraged to keep an Anger Log and write down anger-inducing incidents that sent her into an emotional spiral.

She was taught how to notice in her body when her anger was escalating (e.g., rapid heart rate, tightness, voice caught in throat, etc.). When that happened, she was taught how to do deep breathing to lower her heart rate and decrease the body tension.

In addition, we role played constructive ways of dealing with this conflict. She began to learn ways of expressing herself without annihilating the other person but not avoiding telling him/her about how she felt. Using “I” for example: “When you didn’t do your job I felt….” It takes time to learn this skill but we had made a start.

Change occurs one small step at a time. This client was motivated to do things differently because her depression was interfering with her life. We have since processed other incidents where her anger got the best of her but, for the most part, she is working on it and showing signs of being less depressed.

From her perspective (and mine), what more can you ask?

Stay tuned for Part 2: What’s Underlying the Disappointment