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Mindful Anger Management
There’s a scene in a Fawlty Towers episode where two psychiatrists stay at the hotel. One psychiatrist asks Mr Fawlty: “How often do you and your wife manage it?” Mr Fawlty hears the word “it” and immediately translates (projects) the meaning into “sex”. The psychiatrist apparently was referring to “vacations”, but his use of the word “it”, apart from it’s obvious ambiguity, clearly touched on some inner conflict concerning Mr Fawlty’s sexuality. Anyway, so what happened?
My Falwty demonstrates initial anxiety by running into the kitchen, and then you can see how quickly his fear (presumably of being caught out in some aspect of his sexual life which he would prefer not to be known about) turns into anger. He complains to Mrs Fawlty who promptly corrects his error of misunderstanding the word “it” by opining “he was talking about holidays, Basil!” And then in classical Fawlty style, Mr Fawlty proceeds to make even more of a fool of himself by trying desperately to convince the psychiatrist of his “normality”...
This really funny sketch is not as uninformed as it may appear.
How many patients report troubles with anger that consistently arise from an idiosyncratic trigger, usually some word, but sometimes some ‘look’ or some ‘tone’ of voice that the other uses. And their efforts to correct the other person’s ‘mis-understanding result in what often becomes more anger, more defence, and less understanding.
None of this is hardly surprising when you consider that misunderstanding is the basis of most human discourse. The difference with anger management is that some of us will react as though misunderstandings were outrageous. But for the outside observer, how hard was it to immediately grasp the ripe likelihood of problems arising from the use of the word “it”, say.
So how does all this relate to anger management? Well, this isn't merely about poor impulse control.
Say someone cuts you off in traffic. Does the "it" in this case mean that the other driver wanted to offend you? Maybe. But maybe they just heard that their father was dying, and were rushing to hospital.
Simply put, the more patients can be helped to mindfully distance themselves from perceived psychical threats, the more possibilities arise for questioning their own understanding of their real or imagined threats. Then, say, they can ask their interlocutor: “what did you mean by it?” rather than convincingly believe their first impressions unquestioningly.
This obviously indicates the validity of mindfulness meditation for anger management programs. But, no one in a state of rage will be able to sit and calmly observe their mind. Still, the point of mindfulness is to train the mind more as a preventative, or preparatory practice for the next live event, the next misunderstanding. It is my thesis here that most anger problems arise from misunderstandings.
Some of us are more narcissistic and clearly more prone to reading almost every signal as a personal attack of some sort. But regardless, these reactions do present an opportunity for learning, growth and change.
One must of course assess potential dangers when working with angry clients. Looking for things like paranoia, psychosis etc. But in most cases I think mindfulness meditation can have very long term benefits on people requiring anger management, just as long as the practices are not used defensively.
© Copyright 2013 by Bayside Psychotherapy, therapist in Brighton, Victoria. All rights reserved.