Anger Management Failure and “Healthy Anger”

In their attempts to describe anger, many authors, therapists, and anger management instructors use words that make anger problems worse. Pseudo descriptions of anger like, “appropriate, normal,” or “healthy,” tell us nothing about what happens during anger arousal or what causes it. They are normative terms with no meaning apart from the values, ideologies, and biases of those who use them. “Appropriate anger” only means that the person using the word probably would get angry at the same thing under the same circumstances and that everyone should be like him or her.

Anger is certainly natural. It is part of the innate fight/flight/freeze response we share with all mammals. Anger in all animals carries a powerful motivation to prevail, dominate, or retaliate in protection of juvenile offspring, self, territory, and, in the case of more cooperative social animals, pack mates. (To check this hierarchy for yourself, think of when you will get the angriest, if your neighbor, yard, you, or your children are threatened.) It takes a dual perception of vulnerability and threat to activate the emotion of anger. Like all animals, we respond to lesser threats with greater anger when we are tired, hungry, sick, physically injured, or emotionally wounded.

Despite the universality of anger, modern humans are the only animals that have anger problems and the only social animals who consistently use anger against juvenile offspring, self, territory, and pack mates. That’s because we have recycled the primary function of anger from the protection of life, loved ones, and fellow tribesmen to protection of the ego. Today, something like a verbal insult seems to make us feel vulnerable and require the protection of anger, even against loved ones.

The “Healthy” Way to Experience Anger

Adjectives not only fail to describe the function of anger, they come nowhere near to what actually happens to us when we experience it. Yet everyone wants to know about “healthy” anger.

When members of the press naively ask about “healthy anger,” I enjoy giving the following accurate description of what occurs during anger arousal: 

“I am angry (or resentful, impatient, irritable, shut down, cranky, etc.), which means that I am presently in an impaired mental state that reduces my ability to grasp ambiguity and see any nuance of a situation. The adrenalin rush I’m experiencing makes me magnify and oversimplify that which has stimulated my anger, while it degrades my judgment and renders me incapable of seeing other perspectives or seeing other people at all, apart from my emotional reaction to them.    


“I am probably more self-righteous than right. I am doubtless engaged in a petty ego defense that will make it more likely that I’ll violate my deepest values than protect them and that I’ll act against my long-term best interests.

“I am less able to control my impulses and tolerate frustration. My fine motor skills are temporarily deteriorated.

“I should not try to drive, negotiate, analyze an issue, or do anything important, until I have regulated this temporary state that has prepared me to fight when I really need to solve a problem.”  

Of course, we are unlikely to experience anger in this truly healthy way, without a great deal of practice. The point here is that the use of normative terms to describe anger obscures and distorts what happens in the experience of anger and thereby compounds problem anger – a recurring form of the emotion that makes us act against our long term best interests.

Don’t Justify, Improve

The real motive behind the use of normative terms to describe anger is to justify certain kinds of anger and condemn other kinds, as if you have a right to experience some forms of anger but not others. What are mere conceptual problems for authors, therapists, and anger management instructors who try to distinguish “justified” from “unjustified” anger turn into disaster for people who use these pseudo-descriptions as a guide for ordinary living. It makes you attempt to justify, rather than improve.

Of course you have a right to be angry and to experience any kind of anger. (You have a right to shoot yourself in the foot, for that matter.) The more important question is this:  

“Is my anger helping me be the person, parent, intimate partner, friend, or coworker I most want to be?”   

This question invokes your deepest values, which are the foundation of your ego, as well as its ultimate strength. If your behavior remains consistent with your deepest values, your sense of internal value increases, reducing the need for ego inflation. With increased internal value, you become less dependent on getting value from others. With reduced dependency on others, you are able to see them as separate people, who, like you, are often blindly and sadly protecting their own inflated egos; in other words, you become more compassionate. You perceive less internal vulnerability and less external threat, which makes you less likely to stimulate reactive anger in others. In short, you make anger less necessary in your life. You begin to see anger as not at all a bad thing but an important signal to get back to your core value.

Unfortunately, reducing the dual perception of ego vulnerability and threat by raising core value has not been the history of treatment for anger problems, including anger management and traditional psychotherapy. But that is a topic for another article.