A radio conversation on anger, how Emotion-Focused Therapy views and addresses anger management issues
What kind of useful information can anger tell us? How can we help someone with anger management issues? Join our principal psychologist, Neo Eng Chuan, in an insightful conversation with Joel Chua on 93.8FM Journeys Within to shed light on anger, its role and how Emotion-Focused Therapy views anger and helps someone with anger management issues.
Below is the summary of a radio interview with time indication so you can tune to the part you’re most interested in.
What is anger? [2:38]
Anger is an emotion that can provide useful information. Sometimes counsellor may not be aware of this. Often time we think of anger as too much. Rarely do we think of not enough anger. In Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT), we emphasize on accessing and expressing anger in a healthy manner. Anger can be a primary and secondary emotion.
How is anger information and why is it useful?[4:15]
The premise is that all emotions provide useful information (see blogpost on “Emotions” here). In the context of anger, it indicates to us that something or some part of us is violated and we need to do something about it.
Is this something justifiably, not right? Is it subjective?[5:45]
It’s very subjective in several ways. In the useful form, anger is a primary emotion and provides useful information. When we follow the signals, the action that follow becomes helpful.
However, sometimes we can respond angrily, it becomes secondary emotion. As the term suggests, it happens after a primary emotion. For example, someone feels sad, experiences rejection or abandonment, and cannot express that vulnerability and instead, expresses anger. In that case, anger is a secondary emotion.
When does anger become a problem?[7:25]
If the intensity goes beyond a certain level, e.g. damaging relationship, it becomes unhelpful.
What is this type of anger specially reserved for a specific person?[9:55]
With the people I work with, they have a particular reaction towards a close, intimate partner. It can be aggression or anger. This person has been hurt repeatedly or his/her need cannot be met despite different ways to communicate to their partner. In couple in distress, one of them can be angry. The angry or forceful reaction towards the other partner is not characteristic of this person in other situations.
Why is anger the go-to emotion in these situations?[11:35]
Often time anger is within reach. It’s uncomfortable to express our vulnerability in our relationship. It’s easier to turn to anger as it helps us feel stronger. It’s more protective.
In healthy relationship, the partners express their vulnerabilities with one another. In contrast, in distress relationship, the partners resort to aggressive behaviours after trying very hard.
Who is more susceptive to anger management issue? [13:50]
Someone who grew up in a harsh environment, who has been rejected or abandoned, unable to show their vulnerable parts, uses anger to protect themselves. The other situation is where the person is exposed to seeing anger as the only form of emotional expression. The person’s repertoire of emotional expression is much rigid and inflexible. Anger can come out when he/she feels sad.
Anger as a secondary emotion – Wearing the mask of anger[16:00]
Other than seeing it as a mask, it can be pre-emptive. I don’t want you to see my vulnerability, so I take on this persona. We wear this mask of a forceful and aggressive person. Deep inside, I may feel I’m not good enough. We use anger as a secondary emotion.
In relationship, when someone feels they’re unlovable, they can come across as rejecting or pushing people away. Rather than letting the other person rejects them, they choose to be aggressive to push people away.
What is Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT)? [20:50]
EFT is a therapy approach that privileges emotion and helps clients to access and express them in an appropriate manner. By privileging emotion, the therapists pay close attention to the client’s emotional experiences.
What is accessing emotion? [23:05]
Some emotions are harder to get in touch with. It’s like a cabinet of emotions. For some of us, certain cabinets we don’t have the keys to. We lost the keys to that doors of emotions.
How to approach anger management through EFT?[24:30]
When someone expresses anger in a maladaptive way, EFT postulates that it is a secondary emotion. there is a more primary emotion. Usually this is something more vulnerable emotions e.g. sadness, shame, etc.
Why is it important to access primary emotion?[25:50]
If clients express anger in a destructive way, we help them to access what’s beneath. For example, someone constantly been rejected and walks around with a notion that “I’m unlovable. There’s something about me that no one likes me. If my parents reject me, all these people will not like me.” They express their emotions in unhelpful way by rejecting people first.
When someone behaves in this way because of a past hurt, the have very restricted emotional expression. We help them access the other part.
How to access that primary emotion and express that emotion in a helpful manner?[29:55]
In EFT, what we provide is a very validating and safe environment. Technically, it’s building therapeutic alliance. Client feels safe to talk about things that they don’t usually talk to other people about.
The second part is about expressing emotion. We use empty chair where we put significant others in empty chair to express anger to. After expressing anger, we help clients access and differentiate emotions: something else emerges after unpacking the initial emotion.
For example, someone grew up and felt rejected by her parents. We put the parents in the empty chair, the child feels rejected, sad growing up. We help clients access that painful, traumatic experience and express their emotion in the counselling room.
Coping skills in real world, outside of the counselling room.[33:40]
We should become friends with your emotions by learning to be more aware of the experiences in the body.
If someone is getting into rage, what can they do? [34:55]
Before getting into rage, I suggest they pay attention to little nuances in their body e.g. tightened muscles. If they have gone into rage, it’s better to remove from the environment, cool down and process the experiences like reviewing a video. Over time, they can be more aware and attuned to their bodily changes.
How to have someone who has an outburst of emotion?[36:30]
Most of us will tell them not to feel their experiences. What I want to tell is to do the opposite by validating their experiences. E.g. Tell a child who feels angry, “I can see why you’re so mad.” allow the child to be more settled.
It takes a while for the person to be more regulated. After that, it’s helpful to process that experiences to understand the meaning of the interaction and make sense of what that was about. It’s better to do with someone rather than doing it on your own. Two is better than one.