In part one I looked at a model of anger, and how it can help understand anger better. It suggests that people get angry because of the meaning they make of events. The efffect of these events can build up until the person explodes into a crisis, or they can happen with a single event, if there is enough going on in the background. After an explosion the person gradually calms, and can explode again if something else happens, until eventually they begin cooling off. There is often a dip during cooling off when the person can feel tired, tearful and remorseful. In the rest of this article, I am going to look at using this model in more detail using a real example of anger, and look at how you could use this with yourself to look at your own anger.
Breakwell's model suggests that the best way to manage anger is by adopting a low-arousal approach. That is to say, by working with how we react to events at the beginning of the cycle will be the most successful in helping us to manage anger, because these are the points at which we have most control. The 3 main reasons why people get angry are,
Although I have separated these three out, they will commonly overlap, and my example has all three in a single episode of anger. Matt* is a keen cyclist, and one area he wants to look at is his 'road rage' incidents he has with drivers. One incident stands out.
Matt is about to turn into a road when he hears a car horn behind him. Matt looks round to see a car following him around the corner. The car follows just behind him continuing to sound his horn. Matt pulls over and angrily waves the driver on, thinking that the driver is impatient and wants to pass. The driver passes and pulls in a little way down the road, winds down the window and beckons Matt over. Matt decides to stop to find out what is up with "this idiot" The driver angrily tells Matt that he is a danger to himself and shouldn't be riding in the middle of the road. The driver and Matt begin swearing at each other, and Matt then cycles off. The driver passes Matt a short while later, and shouts something out of the window, and Matt swears back. Matt arrives home, feeling a bit shaky at how close he came. He keeps thinking back to the incident, and how the driver was an "idiot" and didn't know what he was talking about. A while later Matt starts to feel "stupid" that he let the driver get to him, and feels responsible he helped to create a situation where there was an angry driver who may be a danger to other cyclists. Matt decides to stop confronting drivers. Putting this description into our model above, it looks like the following,
Notice how Matt's initial decision focuses on the point where he was most angry, and his strategy was one of avoidance. However for Matt, the reality of cycling on the road, is that on occasion drivers will sound their horns, and sometimes shout things out of the window. Matt also reacts angrily when cars get too close for comfort when they overtake. He can only really avoid these situations by giving up cycling, and Matt may also forget his resolve when he becomes angry.
What can Matt do differently?
To help Matt cope better with anger, he needs to look at the points when he has most control - how he reacts to events 1 and 2, rather than event 3. There are two things Matt looks at,
Trying it yourself
Road rage is a very common area in which people can become angry. Matt's example illustrates how you can work through these kinds of angry feelings. Because he was willing to look at how he understood the actions of drivers, he starts to empathise with others, which helps him feel less angry. By understanding what his anger is trying to achieve, Matt is able to think through ways that can help him achieve his need for safety, and because he feels more in control he is much less likely to get angry when he is cycling.
You can use this model for yourself, however it is important to realise that the depth in the example above comes from spending time exploring a single incident in detail with another person. It's harder to separate out the event from the meaning you made of the event and to build empathy on your own, because thinking back to the event can re-awaken feelings of anger which makes it more difficult to be objective about what happened. Some of the useful things you can do is to draw your own pattern of anger. In my experience the length of the plateau can vary quite a bit between people. Some people calm quickly, while others can hold onto their anger for a long time. Another thing you can do is to draw your feelings of anger over the day, and then put in the events that happened just prior to your anger rising and falling. This will help you identify where your flashpoints are, and also the things that help you to become calmer. You might notice a rising pattern, or times when there is a sudden shift up or down. These kinds of insights can help you manage your anger better.
It's also important to realise that you do not need to understand or find this model helpful to work through your anger in a counselling session. My experience is that many people find it a helpful way to understand anger, but not everybody does. And there is no need to fill it all in, as in the example for it to be useful; often people will explore just one bit, or look at the similarities and differences between several angry incidents. I personally find it helpful when talking to people about anger, because it fits within my humanistic Gestalt training, however the person I am talking to can be making sense of their anger in their own way, and this works just as well.
One of the other key elements in coping with anger is having a good self-awareness. For some people, however, their awareness of anger can be diminished, and so their experience of anger can look and feel very different to the Breakwell model. I will be looking specifically at this in Coping with Anger (Part 3).
(1) Breakwell G M (1997) Coping with Aggressive Behaviour Leicester: British Psychological Service.
A shortened downloadable PDF of this article is available here
Matt* is not his real name, and some details have been changed for illustrative purposes. Matt has seen and agreed to the content of this article.