When Anger Destroys: Anger Management vs. Character Development

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People with aggressive personality styles are frequently already operating in an aggressive mode long before they ever become angry. For them, brandishing anger is more of an intimidation tactic than a genuine expression of emotion — and that’s why many don’t respond particularly well to traditional anger management interventions.

Anger is a most misunderstood emotion. Often maligned as an evil in itself, it’s one of our most basic emotions. The limbic system in our brain is designed in such a way that we can experience both fear and anger in response to an external event. Our innate survival mechanisms predispose us to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from a perceived threat, and there are some very specific physiological processes that both precede and accompany these primal responses. Anger is nature’s way of mobilizing us into action to remove a genuine threat to our welfare. But just as it can be problematic when our lives are characterized by too frequent or intense bouts of fear or anxiety, chronic, excessive, or mishandled anger can also be quite destructive.

Many are familiar with the Adam Sandler movie Anger Management. The lead character in the movie, Dave, has a problem: he represses his emotions, especially his anger, which causes him a great deal of difficulty in his interpersonal relationships. He is inordinately deferential to his abusive boss, and overly inhibited with his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to him, his girlfriend secretly arranges for an avant-garde therapist to bring him into an unconventional “anger management” program. The therapist, Buddy (played by Jack Nicholson), makes Dave face increasingly provocative and outrageous situations to the point that Dave finally releases his pent-up anger, though explosively, and then begins the long, arduous task of learning to better ‘own’ and then gain control over it. And while the movie is a slapstick comedy, it contains some elements of truth about how destructive to relationships inappropriately managed anger can be.

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Most genuine anger management programs operate on some well-established principles of cognitive-behavioral psychology. The leading perspective is that anger is most often the precipitant of aggressive behavior. Further, how we perceive events and think about things heavily influences not only how we feel but also how we respond; therefore most anger management therapies encourage folks who have problems with anger to challenge and change the ways they typically interpret various events in their lives. For example, if I hold the perspective that someone did something to insult me, I’m likely to respond in a much different manner than I would if I believed the person did something without malice but to which, for some reason, I took offense. How we think about and interpret events makes a big difference in how we handle our conflicts.

Having worked for years with many individuals for whom uncontrolled anger and maladaptive aggression presented big problems in their interpersonal relationships, I came to realize that there is another side to the well-established notion that anger precipitates aggression. This other side must also be managed effectively if destructive interpersonal behavior is to be avoided. I was among the first to point out in my book In Sheep’s Clothing that individuals with aggressive personality styles (i.e., folks who fight tenaciously and unscrupulously for the things they want, as opposed to assertive individuals), are frequently already in the aggressive mode long before they ever become angry (see: “Understanding the Aggressive Personalities” and “Understanding the Aggressive Personalities, Part 2” and the series on the aggressive personality sub-types).

Generally speaking, when such folks become angry, it’s because they’ve encountered some resistance to or have been denied something they’ve been fighting for. And, as I point out in my book Character Disturbance, sometimes, when these personalities brandish anger, they’re doing so as more of a tactic to intimidate others into giving them what they want that genuinely expressing an emotion. That’s why many of these individuals don’t respond all that well to typical anger management interventions. It’s not their anger they really need to learn to manage most. Rather, it’s their overly aggressive interpersonal style that needs attention and modification. And although programs generally referred to as “aggression replacement training” were initially tailored to the adolescent population, the basic principles of such programs are more suited to dealing with the dysfunctional style of aggressive personalities.

Chronic and poorly managed anger not only leads to destructive behavior patterns but also can significantly and negatively impact a person’s health (e.g., exacerbate hypertension, coronary disease, ulcers, etc.). But it’s important to first determine if someone is having more of a problem with anger management per se or has a basic personality disturbance that engenders frequent problems with anger expression. Only then can it become evident whether they need more specialized character development interventions as opposed to more traditional “anger management.”

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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