How can psychological therapy address anger and aggression?

When people tell me in therapy that they have a problem with anger, when we look more deeply at the problem, quite often the issue at hand is actually aggressive behaviour. Anger, like any other emotion, is simply part of what we experience throughout our life. We respond to its signals with action or we do not. Anger is an emotion that signals to us that our wishes are being thwarted. Some theorise that in our evolution, this prompted our ancestors to fight any animal or fellow being getting in the way of our survival and competition for limited resources.

In our present day context, anger can prompt us to behave assertively. This generally involves conveying our frustration with a quiet dignity. Assertive behaviour trainers also emphasise the importance of communicating a respectful stance to another person's counter-point. If these two elements are combined when communicating with loved-ones or in our workplace, it may be possible to successfully balance out our needs for belonging and self-respect.

The feeling of anger, on some occasions, may prompt people to act passively by ignoring our own needs in order to win the approval of others or to move through a situation unharmed by the aggression of another person.

Sometimes anger prompts passive-aggressive reactions, where pettiness and indirect confrontation may help people to feel that they can control others, but may over time erode self-respect and relationship harmony.

For those who tell me that their anger is no longer working, it is typically about aggressive action that has damaged their life: losing respect, or love, or income, or even a capacity to effectively solve problems because the aggressive response has become ingrained. So why can aggression persist even after it has done damage?

One suggestion from Leigh McCullough and her colleagues is that when people engage in aggressive outbursts, while they may create a series of problems, they also solve two problems. Firstly, the catharsis of the aggressive outburst helps people to modify the feeling of discomforting internal sensations involved in sitting with anger. Secondly, aggressive outbursts have a sneaky effect of addressing some greater issue going on for that person.

If you’ve tried to curtail your aggression in the past without success, this may be why.

For example the act of shouting aggressively at a fellow human may not only release some frustration (to feel “better” in the short term), but it may also for some people provide that with one of the following outcomes:

  • For those who continue to feel downtrodden by others in their life, it provides them with a delusional sense that they are not as much of a doormat as they fear they may be. They may start to feel better about themselves: that they are no longer stuck in victim role. These individuals may benefit from learning skills in how to respond with dignity and self respect to those who put them down.

  • Aggression may provide a way to control the behaviour of others and have others metaphorically walking on eggshells around them. Often people in this pattern may have learnt across their life span ways of getting their needs met by engaging in misdirection, confusion or inducing fear in others.

  • For people who are not feeling downtrodden by others, but whose esteem is insecurely reliant on power over others, it helps maintain the fuel they use for their sense of esteem. These individuals may benefit from developing a more self secure way to balance power with empathy for the self and others. They may also benefit from untangling experiences they may have had growing up, perhaps where power was modelled as a way to overcompensate for some other loss in life.

Psychologists call this effect secondary gain - where people engage in a problematic pattern of behaviour for themselves and/or others, but have difficulty breaking free of that pattern because it helps to satisfy a larger need for that person. In aiming to assist breaking problematic patterns of behaviour, psychologists may often help to identify the secondary gain, and devise a less problematic way to have those same needs met.

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