“Article by Dick Rigby” © Copyright
Reprinted from “The Goodlife” Magazine March 1996.
“Busting” is a word used by alcoholics to describe “getting back on the grog”. It refers to returning to the pattern of addictive behaviour. Just as alcoholics are addicted to alcohol, some people are addicted to anger. For the anger addict, anger is just as addictive for them, as grog is for the alcoholic. Every time they go into their ritual pattern of anger, this is a “bust”.
Most of us know someone who is “short tempered” or has a “short fuse”. Such people are often difficult to live with and family members find themselves walking around on “tippy toes” to avoid a scene. Just like the alcoholic, the anger addict often doesn’t even realize that there is a problem.
For every anger addict, there is usually a co-dependent in the family. The co-dependent is the family member whose job it is to pick up the pieces and to “keep the peace”.
John and Ann
I have been treating a couple recently who I will call John and Ann. John is an anger addict. At work John is easy going and everybody likes him. But at home the story is quite different. As an example of what happens in John’s family; one day the children were playing happily together, and they were making some noise. The noise had been getting to John and without warning he started screaming at the kids to shut up. In his rage he abused and threatened them. This was his pattern. He doesn’t know how to talk to kids. When things got too much for him, he just started yelling.
Ann is the dutiful codependent. She took the kids aside and explained to them that they should not upset their father. She told them to go outside and play quietly and keep out of their father’s way. She knows that if John were to stay angry, she would cop it later that night.
The dysfunctional pattern of John’s behaviour is never dealt with. John never has to look at the consequences of his behaviour. If Ann were to try and talk about this incident at some time later, John would immediately become enraged. She has learned that there is no point in trying to talk about things later, it’s better just to keep the peace.
John doesn’t see himself as an addict. In fact, he doesn’t even see that there are problems in his family.
How John leaned to be angry
John grew up with an angry father. There was no justice for him when he was a child from either mum or dad. When John’s father “blew his stack”, there was no chance of reasoning with him. For John, it was a case of self preservation and try and duck for cover. In John’s family of origin, there was no model for conflict resolution. John learned to behave in the same way as his father.
Healthy and unhealthy anger
Anger is a normal human emotion. It is a very useful emotion when used appropriately. For example, in a confrontation with someone who is trying to take advantage of you, anger can be used to defend your rights. Most people seem to be able to express anger appropriately.
Anger is a secondary emotion, and often follows hurt or frustration. We have anger to use in protecting ourselves.
When anger becomes part of an addiction, it is unhealthy. Addictive anger is both ritualized and inappropriate. The anger addict has learned the easy way out. If they show enough anger, they won’t have to go through the difficult and uncomfortable process of negotiation and dealing with other emotions.
We all know that it is easier for the cigarette addict to smoke than it is to deal with the anxiety caused by not smoking. The same can be said of alcohol addiction, food addiction, workaholism etc.
Different types of anger addiction
Just like alcoholism, anger addiction takes many forms. An anger addict can be man or woman, young or old, rich or poor, parent or child. Some forms can be extreme and involve domestic violence. Most anger addicts that I have treated, have not been physically violent. Nevertheless, the tyranny that the outbursts of verbal abuse creates an atmosphere of fear.
John is noisy and uncontrolled with his anger. Not all anger addiction is of this type. Another client I was treating recently, Anne, is very controlled with her anger. She gets just as angry as John, but it is not obvious. She expresses her anger quietly in the form of biting sarcasm and unfair criticism. The effect of her anger is just as destructive as John’s anger.
Yet another case is that of June. She is an 18 year old living with her parents. June’s parents live in fear of her tantrums. When June doesn’t get her own way she becomes violent and knocks furniture over. Her parents avoided difficult subjects because of a fear of upsetting June. June’s moods rule the family.
Awareness, shame and guilt
John, Anne and June are largely unaware that their anger is out of control and creates problems for others. However, some anger addicts are very aware of the consequences of their behaviour. They recognize their anger is out of control, but feel powerless to stop it. When they clam down after an outburst of uncontrolled anger, they will give themselves a really hard time with feelings of guilt and shame. They often become overly apologetic for their anger outburst.
The guilt and shame doesn’t help reduce the anger outbursts, and in some case will make matters worse by further lowering the person’s self esteem. Therapy can help break the cycle of anger and guilt.
Treating the addiction
John, Anne and June all have low self esteem and they didn’t know how to stop being angry. Therapy has been useful for them. With people such as John, Anne and June, therapy is about creating a safe, non critical and trusting environment where they feel safe to look at their behaviour. Each of them were able to learn that they could chose alternatives to anger. Therapy also helped in building their self esteem.
When I was treating John, I asked his wife Ann to come in for several sessions with John so that she could learn how to play her part in breaking the pattern. She was able to learn to cope better. When John became angry, she would continue to protect herself, just as she had done in the past, but now she would make sure that the incident was brought up at a later date and discussed. Both John and Ann undertook to cooperate in this process of breaking the pattern of addiction.
It was hard at first for both of them not to fall into old patterns of behaviour, but with time and patience, they were able to learn more effective alternatives.
I worked with June’s parents and helped them to set clearer boundaries for June. Her parents were able to let June know when her behaviour was unacceptable, while at the same time they would let June know that she was loved.
Things were no longer swept under the carpet. When June had a tantrum, it was not ignored, but was brought up later and discussed. Recovery was a slow process, but with her parents help, June has been able to get better control over her temper outbursts.
Anger addiction causes major problems in families and social situations. It can be effectively treated, and if people are motivated to change, then, quite remarkable changes can be brought about. Like breaking all forms of addictive behaviour, the changes are not easy.
The first stage is recognition of the problem.