From Anger Management to Anger Transformation

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D.
President, INPM
Research Director and Professor
Counselling Psychology Department
Trinity Western University, BC, Canada

"I am very angry. God knows that I try, but I can't help it - I have every reason to be mad." If this sentiment sounds familiar, it is because all of us have experienced similar inner struggles with respect to anger.

  • Wouldn't you be angry, if what you have built with sweat and blood is snatched away from you by force and handed it over to someone else?
  • Wouldn't you be furious, when your trusted friend stabs you in the back and turns against you?
  • Wouldn't you be filled with righteous indignation, when religious leaders abuse their subordinates spiritually and psychologically, all in God's name?
  • Wouldn't you be filled with rage and pain, if your house was destroyed and your family killed by bombing?
  • Wouldn't you be mad, if you were arrested and imprisoned for interrogation for no other reason than your ethnic-racial background?
  • Wouldn't you be fuming, if your country was occupied, and your freedom and rights were taken away from you?
  • Wouldn't you be furious, if you were dismissed in spite of your many years of contribution, whereas your incompetent and lazy co-worker was promoted simply because he was related to the boss?

There are enough legitimate reasons to make people burn with righteous anger all the time: Abuse of power. Corruption. Hypocrisy. Poverty. Deprivation. Inequality. Injustice. Senseless war. Violence. Atrocities. Terrorism. Oppression. Humiliation. Betrayal. Discrimination. Mistreatments.

Of course, people can also get angry over trivial matters: A thoughtless remark. Being slighted. Failing to get proper respect. Misunderstanding. Petty jealousy. Sometimes even the slightest provocation can set off an outburst.

In short, we are a nation of angry people and we are becoming an increasingly angry society. We live in a world filled with enough anger and hate to blow it into pieces. Everyone seems to be angry with someone for some reason. Many have acted out their anger. Terrorist bombing is simply the extreme expression of anger.

How do you react in each of the above scenarios? How do you cope with angry feelings?

Anger-in and anger-out

These are the two natural ways of coping with anger: but both methods have their drawbacks. The insecure, mild-mannered Dave Buznik (Adam Sander) in Anger Management is the implosive "anger-in" type. His anger management guru Dr. Buddy Ruydaell (Jack Nicholson) is the explosive "anger-out" type. Both need anger management because they represent the extreme cases.

When anger is turned inward, it will be disguised as self-loathing, passive aggression, and sarcasm. In rare cases, implosion may result in suicide. When we ruminate over unhappy events and brood over past hurts, we become susceptible to depression. Another danger of bottling up is that our inner tumult may gradually build up until it eventually erupts like a volcano.

When we let our anger out and direct it to others, we may feel good temporarily. But releasing anger inappropriately may also get us into trouble. Frequent temper tantrums may result in getting fired, while fistfights and assaults may land us in jail. Office rage, road rage, vandalism, and random violence are examples of anger out of control.

Like any other emotions, anger is also accompanied with physiological changes, such as an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Therefore, frequent and intense anger may contribute to a variety of illnesses, such as, hypertension, heart attack, ulcer and cancer.

What do we do about the prevalent problem of anger, which threatens not only our personal health but also the quality of our community?

Anger management

Anger management appears to be the answer because it helps us do a better job in coping with anger. Often courts prescribe anger management as part of sentencing for thousands of abusive spouses, violent people, and aggressive teens.

Anger management workshops have become a cottage industry for counsellors, therapists and psychologists. Anger management therapists come from different theoretical orientations. However, most of them rely on cognitive-behavioural techniques.

However helpful, anger management cannot solve all our anger problems for three obvious reasons:

  1. You cannot mandate every angry person to attend an anger management workshop.
  2. There are not enough anger management therapists to go around, if all the angry people ask for help.
  3. Traditional anger management is simply not very effective in certain situations, such as systemic and persistent oppression.

Is anger controllable?

The basic idea behind anger management is that if you don't control anger, it will control you. Thus, the emphasis is on control - on our ability to manage anger and regulate its frequency, intensity and expression. From this perspective, problems of anger and aggression are regarded as anger-control problems.

But anger is a natural and normal reaction to negative situations that inflict pain or frustration. Therefore, angry feelings and reactions are difficult to control.

Experimental studies have shown that if you deliver an aversive stimulus to animals, they will respond aggressively. We also have the same instinct to fight back when others cause us pain. However, in a civilized society, we cannot lash out every time we feel frustrated and angry. Hence, the need for control.

There are four basic ways of anger-control:

  1. Avoid people and situations that are likely to trigger anger.
  2. Suppress you angry feelings.
  3. Express your anger in a measured and appropriate manner.
  4. Reduce and regulate the intensity of your anger by calming it.

Anger management techniques

Most of the anger management techniques are designed to achieve one or more of the above four types of control. Here are some of the commonly known anger-control techniques:

  • Relaxation - Breathing exercise, muscle relaxation, imagery, etc.
  • Cognitive reframing - Changing the way we think about the situation
  • Humor - Seeing the humorous side of a bad situation
  • Talking to someone - Talking about your problem and feelings
  • Redirecting your anger - Hitting a pillow or throwing darts
  • Changing your situation - Changing your job or moving to a different place
  • Assertive training - Learning to assert yourself and communicate your feelings
  • Problem-solving - Trying to resolve the problem that makes you angry

The British Association of Anger Management proposes that the formula to control anger is Recognition + Understanding. In other words, anger-control begins in our head; if we recognize the trigger and symptoms and understanding what is happening to us, we are then better able to cope with anger.

Limitations of anger management

There are limitations to anger management techniques, because they place too much burden on the individual. Often, anger requires an interpersonal or systemic solution.

When people are trapped in a dysfunctional family, it takes more than self-control to resolve the anger problem. In such systems, people may actually reinforce each other's angry feelings and aggressive behaviours. All members involved in anger-saturated relationships need to change.

When they live under a brutal and oppressive regime, life is an endless series of problems, frustration and pain, from which there is no escape. The ever-present system of injustice and abuse is enough to make many citizens angry. Anger-control techniques are helpful to a certain extent, but ultimately regime-change is needed to remove the source of anger.

In oppressive, dysfunctional systems, anger management can become a form of "social control" that teaches people to be better "prisoners" and willing "victims". Therefore, we need an alternative approach that can harness anger and empower people to use this powerful emotion for positive systemic change.

Anger transformation

From the perspective of anger transformation, anger is a powerful emotional energy that needs to be harnessed and channeled to positive goals. The focus is not on anger-control, but on the psychological processes of transforming anger into positive energies.

There are four basic processes of transformation:

1. Creative transformation - Angry feelings are transformed into something new, such as artistic works, scientific inventions, and the creation of new products. When imagination is fueled and powered by anger, anything could happen.

The creative process provides both an outlet and a goal for one's pent-up emotions. Some of the most memorable poems and music have been created out of the depth of suffering and anger. Some of the best ideas have been born in the crucible of despair and frustration.

Don't get angry, don't get even, but get ahead, because success is the best revenge. Anger can be beneficial, because it frees us from illusion, confronts us with the real enemy, and gives us a laser-sharp vision of what needs to be achieved.

Often, just a glimpse of the impossible dream is enough to lift one's spirit. To be able to capture the heavenly vision for posterity will fill one's heart with joy and hope.

2. Social transformation - Rage is transformed into social reform through activism and political struggles. Social interest and acts of altruism can indirectly reduce one's angry feelings.

Often, social transformation is a group effort, as oppressed individuals are galvanized and organized to fight for justice and freedom. When they no longer want to be model "prisoners", they band together to overthrow the oppressor and break down the "prison walls" of fear, doubts and apathy so that they can make a difference in this world.

Resignation, cynicism, and bitterness can fester and destroy a person. But smothering anger can also spark the spirit of reformation to fight against injustice, oppression and abuse.

3. Existential transformation - Bitter despair is transformed into wisdom, serenity and a higher purpose through enlightened acceptance, detachment and self-transcendence. Personal hurts often fade away when viewed against the backdrop of inevitability and immensity of human suffering. To affirm the goodness of life in the midst of misfortunes can also make pain more bearable.

Anger can awaken the defiant human spirit and propel one to heroic efforts in serving a cause greater than oneself. To be able to discover or recover a passion for living can set one free from the bondage of self-pity and self-destruction.

4. Spiritual transformation - Pain is transformed into transcendental experiences through spiritual exercises, such as prayer, meditation, forgiveness and reconciliation. We perceive that we are no longer alone in our efforts to control anger, because we can solicit divine help according to our beliefs and faith traditions.

When spirituality is an important part of our lives, and faith is one of our core values, we are more likely to succeed in transcending our plight and enter into a blessed realm in which anger gives way to praise. The development of spiritual maturity may lead to a state of total surrender to divine guidance. Different from other anger management techniques, spiritual transformation needs to take place in the person first, before it can be practiced effectively.

Two contrasting approaches to coping with anger

Do you see the differences between anger management and anger transformation? Try to work through the scenarios listed in the introduction and see which approach is more effective for which situation.

Imagine you are having a conversation with someone who has just completed a six-week long anger management workshop.

"Are you still angry?"
"You bet I am!"
"Don't you find anger management training helpful?"
"Not really. Some of the techniques are quite helpful in some situations, but overall, anger management has not been very useful to someone like me in my situation."
"Tell me something about yourself and your situation."
"Well, I am just a very intense person, and I feel very passionate about certain things. It never fails to incense me, when I see injustice or hypocrisy. Unfortunately, I happen to work in an organization where injustice and hypocrisy are its trademark."
"But why don't you quit and find another job?"
"I did try, but in my field, there are very few openings these days. I just have to learn to put up with a lot of crabs everyday and try not to blow up, because I have to support a large family. It has been very hard on me. I still feel like screaming or punching up some one."

What else can you say to help this poor fellow? Based on what have learned about anger transformation, what type of transformation would be most helpful?

One of my students Bill Angus incorporates existential-spiritual elements with cognitive-behavioural techniques in his Anger Management Workbook. His appeal to meaning and spirituality focuses on affirmation of what is good and pursuit of positive goals. Information on his Workbook is available at this website (

Another of my student Diane Currie has developed a Poetic Workshop, called "Becoming a Radical Poet: Transforming Anger into Freedom". This workshop explicitly addresses anger as a potentially energizing emotion that can be healed and transformed through creative poetry making.

Between two worlds

All of us live between two worlds - idealism versus realism, heaven versus earth, City of God versus City of Man, love principle versus power principle. No matter how we conceptualize this duality, we find ourselves caught between the pulls of two different worlds.

Anger management only addresses issues of life-in-the-world. It deals with the practical concerns of daily living. It is concerned with survival and adaptation to reality without any attempt to change it. Anger management can be achieved by mastering a set of cognitive-behavioral techniques.

Anger transformation addresses issues of the ideal life. It deals with what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. It is concerned with the quest for beauty, truth and goodness. Anger transformation can be achieved only through the dialectic and dynamic process of maintaining a precarious balance two worlds.

We need both anger management and anger transformation to live in the present world without losing hope for a better world. Ultimately, long-term success in anger management depends on anger transformation.

Good Friday and Easter Sunday

This morning at the Good Friday service, in a comfortable auditorium, along with a thousand others, I joined in singing songs of celebration, and looked at the crucified Jesus on a giant screen. There was a surreal feeling to the whole service and I was lost in thoughts.

Falsely accused, wrongly convicted, and barbarically executed, the crucified Christ represents all people who are persecuted, oppressed, and victimized. The cruel Cross symbolizes all that is wrong in this present world.

The forces that contributed to the horror of the Cross are still with us: the self-righteous religious leaders and their blind followers, the ambitious political leaders and their hatchet men, and the ruthless "power" games of deception, manipulation and control. No wonder the world is full of angry and hurting people.

But the glory of Easter Sunday transforms the Cross into a symbol of convergence of duality - Heaven and Earth, life and death, and righteousness and evil. The risen Jesus represents not only the overcoming of anger, hate and death, but also the returning of the hero to the world in order to transform it.

Thus, Good Friday and Easter Sunday symbolize two fundamental realities. Crucifixion without resurrection represents a closed system of suffering, death and anger. But resurrection turns it into a mystical open system, which is being renewed by the power of forgiveness, redemption, and love. Herein lies the secret of an ultimate cure for anger.

©1998-2007, International Network on Personal Meaning, Unless otherwise noted
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