Recently, I’ve been working regularly with clients and their experience with unhealthy anger. It’s not an uncommon presentation in therapy of course, and sadly can be a destructive life force for individuals and families. Before we jump down too many rabbit holes, It’s a good moment to quickly recap on the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger. Healthy anger is a primary emotion and supports us to set boundaries and act with appropriate assertiveness. Unhealthy anger is a secondary emotion. A maladaptive response, often presenting as a brew of unbridled tension and/or an eruption of words and energy. For the angry client, this typically provides a release of pressure or exerts some control and power in their lives. Perhaps unsurprising, it is more often men who are seeking this support. Regretfully, many men can act out their anger through addiction, violence, or abuse. This can be devastating for loved ones.
Whether as a byproduct of trauma, or social norms around vulnerability, unhealthy anger is often the result of a build-up of unexpressed emotions (like fear or sadness), or from persistent negative emotional states (too stressed or overwhelmed). These themes are not mutually exclusive IE often, feeling overwhelmed can be a symptom of not being aware of, or able to, express vulnerable emotions. And usually, there is a strong internal negative critic, or feeling of shame, running the whole show.
One useful metaphor for considering and working with anger is the Traffic Light system. It has a universal meaning and conveys a simple concept:
Green light = Go, Orange Light = Caution/Slow down and Red = Stop.
Understanding and utilising the Traffic Light System provides a linear, visual framework for supporting men and women in their anger management.
The Traffic Light System: let’s Take a Look
Green Light – Go With The Feelings
What To Notice: This is a place where we can feel happy and in control. A Green Light is usually a state of connection and regulation. These are positive emotions for social interactions and we are feeling calm and relaxed in our bodies.
What To Do: In the immediate sense, tune in from time to time with your body, feelings, and thinking to check where you are at, and to monitor your green light experience. Avoid or minimise situations or interactions which you know can activate more complex emotional experiences. Over time, ensure you have established well-being practices that work for you (e.g exercise, meditation, support networks, etc). This can really help keep the green light greener, and set to go!
Orange light – Proceed with Caution
What to Notice: The Orange light is where we may notice tension, pressure, and a heightened sense of alarm. Although we still have control of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is a time to take notice and take charge.
What to Do: There might be something quite simple you can do to manage a well-known stressor or interaction, so look out for taking simple, positive action. Catching a breath is paramount. Some slow, belly breathing will be a valuable resource in keeping your lid down. You gotta ‘name it too tame it’ and speaking up about what’s going on, even if just offering a glimpse of your experience, can help those around you understand and empathise. If alone, you can try writing, exercising, or being in nature. Where you can, change your thinking to more positive affirmations and be prepared to walk away and take time out if things aren’t improving.
Red Light – Stop!
Around the world, the red traffic light signal means stop, and reaching this stage means things are critical. Here we can experience, rage, terror, explosive behaviour and we are out of control. There is usually only one solution: walking away, regaining composure, and working backward to an orange/green light.
What to Notice: This experience is probably pretty familiar to anyone who expresses unhealthy anger. It is an adrenal fuelled, fists-curled, jaw-clenching madness. It’s reactive, powerful, and shaming. You will probably feel it from your toes to your head.
What to Do: Get out of there! The simplest and easiest strategy is to walk away and have some time out. If you can, punch a bag, scream underwater, or pound the pavement for a while. Talk yourself down, and always come back to your breath. Anything that helps move the energy through is useful and often supports down-regulating. Remember if you are needing to step away or have time out from a relationship, committing to come back within 24 hours is so important to repair, protect and resolve.
It’s Up To You…
Finding the right fit, form, and actions for the right coloured light is an important part of using this tool. If this metaphor speaks to you, I encourage you to think about and feel around for what you may need at each step. For instance, where some need time-out others may need more time-in. Work with a friend, partner, or professional to get help along the way. Whatever you need, the bottom line is to remember: Unhealthy anger destroys relationships and drives disconnection AND YOU are a miracle that can create kindness and love in every moment.
Sean Tonnet is a highly sort after relationship therapist, international educator and Clinical Director for Thrive Clinic Mullumbimby. You can contact Sean through this website contact page or directly at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org