Anger as an Addiction

By Jessica Glynn, LMSW

Recently, a number of the Cobb Therapists attended a training on addiction to anger through David D. Burns’ TEAM Therapy approach, which he developed base on the notion that it is not just our thoughts that influence our feelings, emotions, and actions — our motivation is an important influencer as well.

I found this training interesting because I see that many of us hold onto anger as a defense against feeling hurt. To feel the true hurt underneath the anger is too painful, so we use anger as a way to feel stronger and in control of the hurt. That is why it can be hard to find the motivation to let go of anger. However, the short term pleasure of releasing anger through yelling and screaming usually causes long term problems, especially in romantic relationships.  Similar to other addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, food, gambling etc., the act of engaging in the addictive behavior provides instant happiness or gratification.  But ultimately this is short lived, and the guilt creeps in and creates other pathological symptoms such an anxiety or depression.  For example, imagine a wife who holds onto small indiscretions that her husband may have engaged in before they were married, and uses it against him over and over again. Although feeling angry in the moment may feel good, holding unto this anger has caused a strain in their relationship and led to unhealthy behavioral releases of this anger in front of the children. The motivation to change may come from the intense guilt of having her children see her lose control.

Below are two important takeaways from the training that I would like to share in the hopes that it can help others to take a look at the relationship between their motivation and anger:

Cost Benefit Analysis to Address Motivation

David D. Burns, M.D. uses a Cost Benefit Analysis to address motivation to change by creating a list of advantages vs. disadvantages of one’s anger. If the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, then there is enough motivation for change. During the training we were asked to create a list with a colleague. Here were some advantages and disadvantages we came up with:

Advantages

  • venting
  • feelings of anger are easier to access then hurt
  • protection
  • catharsis
  • feeling powerful and courageous
  • being seen and heard

Disadvantages

  • false sense of power
  • being irrational
  • defensive reaction
  • dangerous to relationships
  • causes strife
  • seen as aggressive
  • leads to misunderstanding
  • displacement
  • lowers confidence
  • inhibits empathy
  • dangerous
  • isolating
  • avoidant behavior.

As you can see, the list of disadvantages was much longer.  By doing a cost benefit analysis we can see how our anger is and isn't serving us, and when the disadvantages of anger outweigh the advantages, it may be easier to find the motivation to change. 

"Should" Statements

There are many cognitive distortions, such as all or nothing thinking and magnification, that lead us to avoid certain positive behaviors that may benefit us. "Should" statements are another one of these cognitive distortions.  For example, you tell yourself that it has been a hard day and it would be okay to take it out on someone else, so you uncontrollably scream at the person who held the subway door and held up your commute. It may feel good in the moment, but when the guilt creeps in you may say to yourself, “I really shouldn’t have done that.” This will create more guilt and anger, and ultimately to contribute to a  lack of motivation to change due to a sense of failure. 

These should statement can lead to a lot of anger in relationships. However, these distortions can be turned into a positive distortion that trigger good habits. One way to try to change them and decrease the amount of anger is to take the "should" out of these statements and soften them a bit. So, if we are using our subway example, the statement may be, “no one should ever hold the subway doors.” To soften this statement perhaps we could change it to, “I would prefer if individuals didn’t hold the door, but I know they are only trying to make it home quickly as well.” This provides one with acknowledging their preference, but also creates a bit of empathy for the person holding the train door.

This tactic can be used with our significant others as well. Instead of thinking, “he should just know what I want or need,” perhaps it's worth empathizing and changing the thinking to, “I wish he just knew what I wanted and needed, but maybe it would be better if I clarified and told him more.” We often think that our partners should know us well enough to just know what it is we are thinking without telling them. However, we all know that it's impossible for us to know what our partners are thinking all the time.  Sometimes we have to give them a break and let them in on what those thoughts actually are. 

If you have been told that you are angry or just notice that you feel angry and frustrated often, perhaps it is worth talking to your therapist or taking a look at why this may be happening and your willingness to let go of this anger.

Jessica Glynn is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy.  If you are looking for support in addressing issues with anger or relationships, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to see how therapy can help.