I took anger management classes. Here’s what they get wrong about the world | Life and style

There are six rules of anger management, says my anger workbook. The first rule: “STOP, think, take a look at the BIG picture.” Then, because why use lower-case when you’ve got capitals: “ANGER MANAGEMENT IS A THINKING PERSON’S GAME!”

But thinking, it turns out soon into the course, is discouraged. “I’m not here to psychoanalyze you,” says our group leader, a self-styled anger management guru. “I’m just here to help you follow the program. If you follow the program, you’ll see results.” Later, after one question too many, he tells me: “The problem with you, Olivia, is that you like to complicate things.”

Maybe so, but I ended up in anger management for a simple reason: I’ve always been hot-headed. Sometimes my anger has been explosive, leaving disaster in its wake, and sometimes it’s pointed inwards, manifesting in depression. It was there throughout a childhood with stressed parents who loved me but occasionally snapped under the grinding pressures of work and child-rearing, and there during an adolescence characterized largely by alcohol-fueled outbursts.

Later, for many years, I was an aid worker, caught in events that were worth being angry about: the civil war in Syria, the 2014 Gaza war, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. In those contexts, it was weird if you weren’t furious, or an alcoholic, or maybe both. While some minimal counseling was offered by one of my employers, I followed the approach generally favored by my colleagues: relying instead on the close friendships forged in those circumstances to deal with what I was witnessing.

And then, just before the world went into lockdown, I had a baby. The fatigue and stress revealed itself as – that’s right – anger.

In January of this year, those stressors were largely gone. The pandemic was receding into the background, the baby was becoming an easy child, and I was no longer traveling to war zones as part of my work. And yet somehow the anger stuck around. I’d get angry about things that didn’t matter, things that were so small in the grand scheme of things as to be completely meaningless. I’d feel it coming and then be swept up in its wake. The lightbulb moment came when I found myself raging at my laid-back partner after he accidentally broke a plastic ice tray worth all of one dollar. It had been a long time coming – those kinds of things had happened before – but in the days afterwards I finally realized, with abject shame, that something had to change.

Soon afterwards, I enrolled in group anger management classes – three hours every Wednesday evening, for 10 weeks – in the hope of sparing us both further days arguing over whatever it was that had triggered this behavior.

I’m not the only one turning to courses like this. Part of the “stress management industry”, which was worth a reported $2bn in 2022, anger management courses have proliferated since the mid-1970s, when the psychologist Raymond Novaco began to publish widely on the origins and forms of anger and to promote relaxation skills and techniques that might prevent aggressive outbursts.

Novaco’s work built on a therapy called “stress inoculation” – as if one can immunize oneself against external pressures – to develop the concept of anger management. Now, such courses are frequently ordered by courts as a condition for probation or by employers faced with unruly employees, or sought out by those struggling in their relationships.

There can be little doubt that, as a society, we haven’t yet got to grips with our anger problem. Celebrity outbursts shock and titillate us – from Christian Bale’s infamous 2009 rant on the set of Terminator Salvation to Will Smith’s slap at last year’s Oscars – while at the same time provoking widespread condemnation. The idea that aggressive expressions of anger make for a bad citizen have been around since Seneca, but our ways of dealing with such a ubiquitous emotion have been, historically, remarkably poor. The traditionally popular but perhaps not entirely effective technique for dealing with anger – repression – is a Victorian hangover, enforced in particular for women and permitted among men only when channeled into suitably masculine activities. Like boxing, maybe, or war.

Celebrity outbursts shock and titillate us while at the same time provoking widespread condemnation. Photograph: Warner Bros/Sportsphoto/Allstar

But while the end of the era of repression might be welcomed, “management” is a curious replacement. Anger management courses focus on a participant’s triggers, offering a standardized set of guidelines for coping with situations in which they feel the rage rising. Such an approach glosses over the sources of anger – particularly those that might spring from unfair or imbalanced social dynamics – and places responsibility for anger squarely on the shoulders of the angry individual, seeking to treat the symptoms rather than addressing the disease.

As essential as such techniques may be, in particular for those prone to physical aggression, I can’t help but wonder, during the 10 weeks of the course, who else might be benefiting from the “management” of all this anger.

Without exception, everyone on the course is dealing with huge stressors – that is to say, they are angry for a reason. Marriages are collapsing, jobs are on the line, money is short. As we rattle through the introductions, it strikes me that it is stress – specifically the almost unbearable demands placed on us all – rather than anger that unites us. At check-in, we are encouraged to share how we are feeling, as long as we stick to one of the eight workbook-approved emotions on the “feeling compass”. I feel anxious, or I feel sad, come the most frequent responses (apart from, naturally, our leader, a living testament to the program’s success: “I feel peaceful.”).

“I feel anxious,” I recite dutifully at the start of each session, wondering whether “anxious” truly encapsulates the heady mix of shame, hope, dread, and fear that taking such a course produces in me. Shame because enrolling in an anger management course isn’t a high point in anyone’s life, and hope because I thought, in retrospect naively, that taking such a step really could be the beginning of something life-changing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the boom in anger management courses dovetails neatly with the historical moment in the early 1980s in which a new economic model began to restructure lives at work and in the home. That model of neoliberalism – favored first by the west and today’s dominant global ideology – gave rise to a new social sphere in which government support shrank and inequality grew, and competition became the key tenet of the social order. Since then, wages have stagnated, the cost of living has soared, and the workplace has become king. And nowhere is maintaining control over anger more crucial than in the workplace.

As early as the 1940s, child-rearing manuals in the US explained why an “anger-free personality” is so important at work. As anyone who has witnessed workplace bullying will testify, an explosively angry colleague can do a lot of harm. But what about anger that might be legitimate? What about wages that are too low, or hours that are too long? By the 1980s, efficiency experts were recommending anger management to combat unionization, and to keep the workers calm. Calm workers, so the thinking goes, are good workers. They are productive and keep the business ticking over. Angry workers disrupt things and lower productivity. They unionize and demand higher wages.

In this context, anger management begins to look like something that doesn’t have the good of the individual at heart, but instead plays an important supporting role in molding acquiescent employees and submissive citizens. This focus on individual behavioral change, to the exclusion of a more socially focused understanding of an individual’s problem, is a key concern in Bessel van der Kolk’s pioneering book The Body Keeps the Score, in which Van der Kolk repeatedly laments the use of therapeutic techniques and medication aimed at controlling a person’s behavior, rather than addressing the “undeniable social causation of much psychological suffering”.

My classmates demonstrate again and again triggers that reflect their own experiences of marginalization in a polarized society. “You’re targeting me,” says one Muslim classmate to our group’s white leader, who responds by calling him “paranoid”.

The majority of the women in the class profess that they almost solely go into rages with their partners, and sometimes their children. “I don’t want my kids to grow up hating me,” one woman says.

But in a society where to be Muslim or Black is to be disproportionately targeted by police, and where to be a woman entering motherhood is still to shoulder the majority of the housework and childcare, and to be left abandoned at a time when social connections and support are most vital, is it really any wonder that people are angry? And why does such an essential feeling – and one that has far-reaching ramifications in all areas of life – need to be managed rather than, say, addressed?

Listening to the impossible pressures faced by everyone in the group is a wake-up call. We are from all walks of life, and yet we are all on the brink. Every week is a bad week. Jobs are invariably exhausting. Family time is not so much quality time as a race to get things done, provoking arguments between exhausted partners. Support systems are absent. If our competitive economic and social model is pushing us all to breaking point, it has at the same time removed the critical structures that might have helped counter these symptoms – social support, time outside of work spent within our community. People are lonelier than ever before. Work more, work harder, get paid less, the motto seems to go. And if you’re angry about that, deal with it.

people shout and hold signs
Starbucks union organizers and supporters rally in New York in December. Photograph: Laura Brett/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

But anger does not take place in a void. It is largely a moral emotion, most frequently triggered by perceived injustice, and profoundly important for social change.

Like the problem, the answer may lie not with the individual, but with the collective. Workers are organizing for better pay and working conditions more than they have in the past four decades. Climate activists are mobilizing in greater and greater numbers in the face of ecological collapse. If we have any hope of overcoming these problems – and of addressing the widespread and apparently growing anger that is fuelling demand for anger management courses – it will only be by working together. Perhaps it is not management that we need, but solidarity.

Unfortunately, solidarity can be upsetting for some. Things look promising at first. The basic techniques taught on the course are helpful: identify your triggers, try not to place blame. The group begins to create its own support system, offering one another sympathy and compassion via WhatsApp when someone loses their temper. We start to become friends, “anger buddies”.

Until, that is, somebody mentions the controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Then things take a surreal turn.

“Watch some of his material,” says our leader.

“Is it really wise to recommend such a divisive figure to this group?” I ask. A few others chime in to express their doubts about Peterson. “He seems prejudiced and a little off,” someone says.

“Wow, lots of shadows being projected,” our leader replies.

Suddenly, people are voicing opinions. Angry opinions. What about Peterson’s transphobic and misogynistic views? Is it valid to be angry about them? When does anger become a legitimate response to injustice?

“Guys,” says the leader in a voice note to the group. “Just back off. He’s doing his thing. That’s all he’s doing. He’s doing his thing.”

But the awkward questions continue, spilling out of our WhatsApp group and into the next Zoom call. What about rhetoric that causes real harm?

Our leader clings to the anger management script with the grip of a drowning man. In a world where critique of others is only ever evidence of someone projecting their own issues, there can be no complaint about figures in positions of authority, including him. Critical thinking is merely evidence of our own loathsome shadows at play.

I can’t resist. “Have you ever considered your own shadow?” I ask.

He looms into the webcam, his anger management techniques cast to the wind. “I look at my shadow every day, Olivia!” he shrieks. “EVERY. DAY.” Then it is his assistant’s turn to shout at me, my classmates looking on in stunned silence. A few days later, the leader sends me a long text message full of garbled accusations.

In the one-dimensional world of anger management, it turns out, there is no big picture, and there is no room for broader questions about the society we all live in – or, to put it another way, “reality”. Not feeling peaceful about that? Sit down, shut up. The problem, my friend, is you.

This article was amended on 11 May 2023. An earlier version said that Christian Bale’s rant had been on the set of Batman, instead of Terminator Salvation. An image of him in Batman has also been replaced.

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