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19 April 2021
Unpacking the mystery of anger
Words Duncan Morris
I have been working on managing my anger for almost 30 years. Today, I counsel men, women and children on how to accept their anger so it does not control them. It has taken me a long time to reach this point.
I grew up as an angry person, frequently getting into trouble due to the inevitable fights I had with family and extended family. As a teenager, anger resulted in losing my job. As a minister of religion in my 20s, I realised that anger challenged my vocation, often being angry with people who I experienced as an irritation.
I had grown up in a family where we were physically disciplined, and I assumed that was what I would do when I became a parent. When I smacked one of my girls because she would not do what I asked and saw my handprint on her thigh, things changed – because I realised I would be in serious trouble if someone saw that. As a consequence, I went and got some help and counselling.
I was 35 when I realised that I could not exorcise my anger like it was something evil. I needed to accept it, and befriend it because my anger was telling me something.
Having grown up in a Christian family, I believed that anger was a sin. Every time I got angry, it was like a game of Monopoly, except instead of going directly to jail, I thought I was going to hell. Now I realise that my anger was telling me I was in danger and did not feel safe. That was the start of changing my mindset around anger.
What I’ve learned since is that most anger, if not all, comes from forms of abuse – physical, sexual, spiritual or neglect. People of all ages experience anger and it’s not isolated. In my work, I see more men aged between 20 and 50 because I have men referred to me from domestic violence agencies. I have also worked with women, teenagers and children.
What we need to understand is that anger is a secondary emotion and can be triggered by many things. Research also tells us that people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder can experience anger in the form of uncontrollable rage.
Their body has been in a situation where they feared for their life and safety, so the anger that comes from their trauma can feel uncontrollable. They are triggered back to a distressing event and their body tells them they are not safe. Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the human ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, so they try to protect themselves. I have seen 25-year-old men triggered back to the abuse they experienced when they were 10 – now they are bigger so they are using their anger to protect the child-version of themselves in their unconscious.
You know anger is a problem if you can’t manage your own behaviour or you are impacting the safety of yourself and/or others. Each individual needs to come to a point where they recognise their need for help. A friend or family member cannot tell the person – they can try, but someone experiencing this anger is unlikely to listen!
Friends and family members can encourage the person to seek help, but individuals have to take responsibility for their own behaviour and own emotions. Once they do that, they are prepared to change.
Anger may be a part of who we are. However, we need to understand it, befriend it, and use it for good instead of destroying things. We cannot change the past, but we can change the impact the past continues to have on us.
Duncan Morris is a social worker and counsellor based in Geelong, Victoria.