A few years ago I was invited by a new colleague to an anger management therapy workshop at her therapy practice in NYC. We had connected as therapist colleagues and had some conversations about the practice of therapy in NYC and the conversation drifted to my (cynical) views on the state of anger management therapy in NYC and beyond. In particular, I shared that I felt that those looking for anger management counseling often got something other than therapy. My concern is that anger is related to in therapy is a sort of special case. Unlike the emotions associated with therapy for depression or anxiety, anger therapy comes with a sort of moral overlay that contributes to blame.
She felt she had an anger management therapist on staff who had something fresh to say, who didn’t participate in the shaming of anger. I agreed to attend the workshop and did so with a sincere desire to experience something new.
What follows are my notes, edited only for readability. I in no way mean to make light of the participants in the workshop or those seeking genuine help for the struggles with anger they have had or the struggles of those around them. At the same time, I don’t deny the presence of an editorial voice in these notes. We can and must offer something better. I am biased but not unserious.
Notes on an anger management therapy experience in NYC:
1) Anger is bad. Really bad. And it’s not just you, it’s everywhere. Lists locations where anger occurs. All of them. ALL of them. Participants nod, “she is *so* right.”
2) This is what anger can do to your relationships…
3) Here’s how you know when you’re angry.
4) Break for a breathing exercise with a mumbled story about how “listening to your body” is important “anger, umm… garble… breathe… ahhH!”
5) Anger isn’t *really* so bad.
6) Here’s all of the ways that anger is terribly bad.
7) Anger can be useful. (No examples given.)
8) But not really.
9) Smile, breathe, smile.
10) Participant discusses her father’s anger, seemingly has no anger of her own and no other reason for being at the workshop than to tell that story.
11) Patronizing nod from workshop leader, “Yeah. Yeah… It’s hard… Yeah.”
12) Quickly moving on to prevent other, eager participant from offering her spin on first participant’s father’s anger. (Probably a graduate student in psychology at a local university.)
13) “It’s really important that we honor our feelings.”
14) Anger is bad.
15) Invitation to other workshops
16) 7 minutes of participants glowing about how helpful the workshop was, with the last one cut off awkwardly by the facilitator.
17) Overheard while participants are leaving:
a) The participant who wanted to offer her thoughts to the woman who talked about her father’s anger attempts to share with said woman who is uninterested so instead shares with a participant who had been silent who smiles and says, “Yeah, that would be good…”
b) Workshop leader handing participant her card, “Yes, I can really help you with that. Yeah. Yeah… Yeah. It’s hard. It’s really hard. Yeah.”
c) Psychology student waits patiently, smiling condescendingly at exiting participants, to talk to facilitator. Introduces herself, mentioning The University. Facilitator smiles a smile that acknowledges that this participant isn’t a *real* participant. Student mentions obscure psychologist facilitator has never heard of, but she pretends to anyway, nodding with a pinched face, agreeing that, yes, “this work” really is very, VERY important.
Okay, so now what?
Anger is real and everyone struggles with it in one way or another–the anger of those around them, their own anger, an inability to express it or a tendency to express it poorly. It’s a serious issue for which people need serious help. It’s also filled with shame.
We need real conversations, not soundbites and thinly-veiled shaming and blaming. We can do better.