Anger Management Therapy

By Dennis Coghlin, LCSW


The effect of widespread mismanaged anger in the world is obvious to the observer. Violent crime rates are on the rise. Gang violence is so common it is hardly reported anymore. Workplace and school violence, once unheard of, is now a frequent occurrence. The roads are full of rageful drivers. News reports of countries around the globe embroiled in political and social upheaval goes almost unnoticed. The list seems endless and we have become somewhat desensitized to it all. Well-intended politicians and law enforcement officials crack down, have a war on this or that and push for harsher and harsher punishments for offenders. Educational administrators enforce a mindless zero tolerance policy and governments use their armies to quell protests and stifle dissent.

One would think that with all of these “get tough” policies and strategies, the problems would have been eradicated long ago. Instead, they just keep getting worse. Why? The answer lies in understanding the hidden purposes of dysfunctional behavior. Once this is done, we are able to use this understanding to respond to anger situations in better ways - ways that actually work for a change. It does not make sense, for example, that so many people are destroying themselves with alcohol and other drugs, risking everything abusing loved ones, damaging business relationships, and otherwise engaging in self-destructive behavior, unless one considers the core attitudes of self-contempt at the root of these behaviors. It should be clear by now that punishment and control alone are not the answer. Without a better understanding of the interplay between anger and behavior we can expect more of the same. Through this lens the hurtful, out of control and crazy-making behaviors we are so used to reacting to unconsciously, are really nothing more than attempts to find emotional relief. These childish attempts, however, make it worse and when we cooperate with them the situation can rapidly deteriorate into a chaotic mess or a lonely and hopeless situation.


In anger therapy, anger problems are used as opportunities to heal and grow. Anger is defined simply as a painful emotional response to a grievance, not as scary or out of control behavior. That kind of dysfunctional behavior is a throwback to childhood behaviors. It did not relieve the pain then and we know it will not work now either. We define behavior that does not need to be done as “mischief” and we learn to disengage from it emotionally so that we can stop trying to prevent it, control it, or mindlessly defend against it. We can then live life in the present and do whatever is required – no more, no less. For example, we tell the angry person that we are sorry they are angry. Attitudes that used to cause us to engage in dysfunctional behavior are replaced with attitudes that allow us to behave like grown-ups and focus on what needs to be done right now. We realize the power of choice and this realization is liberating. I can continue doing what I have always done and expect the same results, or I can do something different for a change. I am free to act on my own behalf on my own appropriate grown-up terms, not yours. Once scary situations are now seen as opportunities to change old attitudes and habits and allow new, more functional ones to take their place. We develop deeper self-awareness by making unconscious attitudes conscious. Self-contempt is replaced with self-respect as new, effective ways of relieving the pain of anger are learned. In the process, a deeper understanding and appreciation of the power of adult judgment is gained. Instead of living in the past and allowing old attitudes to control our behavior, or living in the future trying to anticipate what is about to happen, we learn to live in the present, doing what needs to be done.

There are five steps to this approach:

Step 1: Call it by its rightful name. As a sign of self-respect we get used to calling anger and other emotions by their proper names. This simple step begins the process of replacing negative attitudes about emotions with a healthy respect for our feelings and the feelings of others.

Step 2: Understand the hidden purposes of mischief: We do this by learning about the four types of mischief and their hidden purposes, and see the behaviors as expressions of self-contempt and shame.

Step 3: Disengage from the mischief of others: Disengaging means learning not to take the provocations personally. From the safety and security of this distance we learn to observe the behavior and see what it says about the mischief-maker, not us.

Step 4: Do the unexpected: Instead of cooperating with the mischief-maker the way he expects us to do, we do what our adult judgment says is the appropriate response. This has the effect of catching the mischief-maker off guard, wondering what is going on. When we are not busy cooperating with the mischief we are free to respond on our own behalf on our own appropriate grown-up terms; terms that make sense in the real world. We can validate the mischief-maker’s pain without cooperating with his mischief.

Step 5: Disengage from our own mischief: We learn to observe ourselves reacting unconsciously to the mischief-maker the way we have always done and instead respond on our own behalf, on our own appropriate adult terms in ways that are consistent with our newfound self-respect instead of our old attitude of self-contempt. I realize that I am not required to react to your yelling by yelling louder, or to your name calling by calling you a name. I can say what needs to be said and leave it at that. Or I can say nothing at all; it’s up to me.


As a result of anger management therapy: