David Haviland would like us all to simmer down. The Cold Spring–based psychotherapist runs a five-session anger management program that includes many court-mandated clients, as well as people who voluntarily come to get a handle on their hot-headed tendencies. Haviland designed the psychoeducational program himself to be brief, to the point, and effective, and he's seen it help many people for about eight years now. I connected with him recently to talk about his treatment approach as well as how it relates to current phenomena like angry politics and the rash of school shootings. You can learn more about Haviland at angermanagementamerica.com, and await his book-in-progress, Angry Like Me: 7 Ways To Beat Your Anger Habit, Not Your Neighbor.
Just about everyone has wrestled with anger at some time or another. Who comes to you for help?
David Haviland: I've had everybody from police officers to parents arguing in family court. To give you an idea of the range of people, I had a guy sent to me who had been in prison for armed robbery, and he was sitting there working with me when a police car came flying into the parking lot. He jumped up and said, "Who told the cops I'm here?" I said, "Relax, he's my 4 o'clock." I get people from all walks of life. Judges, attorneys, and social services organizations from both sides of the Hudson River send folks to me, and many non-mandated folks are also coming on their own. And I tell people, you know what, "there but for the grace of God," as my mother used to say, because many of us get to that point. The American Psychiatric Association calls anger a typical human emotion; it's part of being a human being, and it comes in many forms. I describe it like an invisible gas: Many of us have a trigger inside us somewhere, but if you're not mindful of the trigger and you don't have a plan to deal with it, you might end up with an explosion.
One of the interesting things about my particular program is that I have serious anger issues of my own, and I immediately share that fact with my participants. So when people come to me for the first time, whether it's singly or in a group of two or three, I typically start by saying, "I'm going to show you where I stand on the anger management scale." Because I want them to be able to bond with me. They can learn from the problems I have struggled with and realize they are not alone in all of this. The hope is that if they can see how I have handled my anger issues, maybe they can, too.
How can we begin to manage our anger?
First, it requires a commitment on the part of the participant to want to control his or her anger. Once that choice has been made, the first key is being mindful of what specifically triggers us to become angry and preparing ourselves mentally to avoid those minefields where we will likely suffer consequences—like losing a job, going through the breakup of a relationship, even going to jail. One thing I tell people is, "Don't put yourself in harm's way." So for example, if you know that road rage is an issue, and you know that when you drive up Route 9 people are going to cut you off, why put yourself in that situation? You can go up 9D to Poughkeepsie instead and hardly see any traffic. Don't go where you know you're going to be triggered—there might be ways to avoid it. So that's one of the things that we do.
We also put our anger on a scale from one to ten. It's okay to be angry within the one-to-nine range, but once we hit ten, that puts you on the brink of physical or verbal aggression, which will likely have consequences. I share with people that my own personal trigger is my impatience. Growing up as one of 11 children, I used to watch the meatloaf platter move slowly around the table, wondering if there'd be anything left by the time it got to me. Not a big patience builder! Waiting in line behind three or four siblings to use the bathroom didn't help build patience either. So I know the situations that are going to trigger me. When you know what your triggers are, that's a key part of it.
So much anger is impulsive, in the heat of the moment. How can we short-circuit that?
I have an important session in my program on cognitive restructuring, which is just a fancy way of saying "changing the way we look at things." For this, I use something called the ABCD model, which was created by the psychotherapist Albert Ellis. 'A' stands for activating event, 'B' for belief, 'C' for consequences, and 'D' for dispute. Back to the road rage example, maybe someone cutting you off is the activating event. Your belief might be, "Oh that son of a gun (or worse expletives), how dare he do that to me." Next, consequences: Our blood pressure goes up, we chase the person, and we may get into an altercation where we end up getting arrested. But before that happens, we can dispute the belief that might get us into trouble. Maybe the person who cut you off has a family member in an accident and is racing to the hospital, or it's a firefighter racing to a fire. So we say, "You know what, I'm going to give this person the benefit of the doubt." I call it turning the kaleidoscope: We look at the activating event from a different perspective, our belief changes, and instead of getting very angry, we perhaps get just mildly so. Maybe we hit a three or a four on that ten-point meter, and then we're able to get on with our day.
So many times we are judge, jury, and executioner. One man's activating event is when he comes home from work every day, his two sons, 8 and 10 years old, are fighting, and there's no food on the table. His wife is upstairs in bed watching an afternoon soap. His belief is that he's worked all day, and she isn't doing anything. He says, "What the hell are you doing lying in bed? The kids are fighting downstairs." The consequence is a big, blow-up fight. She's crying, the kids are crying, the whole night is ruined. Turning the kaleidoscope, it turned out in that particular case that his wife had trouble walking down the stairs because she had the beginning signs of multiple sclerosis. And he thought, holy crap. It wasn't what he thought.
Anger often comes from feeling powerless. How can we keep our power without losing our cool?
The last session I do helps with that—it's based on assertiveness. Oftentimes, people confuse assertiveness with aggression. But physical or verbal aggression is typically not going to get you where you want to go. Assertiveness is a tool; it's speaking up or standing up for yourself in a firm but respectful manner. I give the example of a carpenter who's just been given news that he's going to be cut $5 an hour. And he's got various options as to how he's going to react to that news. One option would be to say to the contractor, "I really don't want to leave. I can't take a $5 an hour cut, but would you be willing to look at other options, like getting part of our wood from Home Depot instead of from the supplier that we're currently using, and save the money there?" It's that sort of thinking, versus going down to his office, pulling out a hammer and pounding the desk, saying, "Now do I have your attention?"
Is it my imagination, or do people seem angrier these days?
I think so, yes. Why? Because there is permission for all of us to be angry, and to act on it toward one another every day. That permission comes from the highest office in the land. And it doesn't matter what side of the political aisle you're on—the fact is that you have a dually elected Chief Executive who ridicules the disabled, objectifies and sexualizes women, sides with foreign dictators against his own government, separates children from their parents, and divides blacks, whites, and Hispanics. Then you don't have to worry about the consequences of hatred and the anger that fuels it. So you see the surge in the Nazi behavior, the desecration of grave sites, attacks on immigrants. That scene [during the Republican presidential primaries] of Trump telling a disabled reporter to stop shaking and maybe he'll answer his question—that sort of thing gives permission to people who have anger inside them to express it. I think it gives a voice to those who feel, "You know what, I've stifled my anger my whole life. It's okay to let it out now."
Where does anger come from, at the root?
With so many people, the issue is primarily childhood trauma. And when I say trauma, I'm not talking specifically about sexual abuse. I'm talking about children growing up in homes where parents tell them to shut up, don't encourage them, blame them, make them feel bad. Alice Miller, who has written many books on childhood trauma, talks about the different situations where children grow up so fearful of losing their parents' love, let alone voicing their anger against their parents. They stifle it, and it stays deep inside their soul. And then when they grow older, when they see things that remind them of the fact that they were disrespected, or that somebody didn't do something positive for them, or when somebody criticizes them, they lash out. And this is, I think, what is happening with whole generations.
I see many people with anger issues who often fail to relate their problem back to childhood issues. I was looking at the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. When I looked into his past—and this is not an excuse, but an explanation—they talked about how kids used to call him Noodle McVeigh; they used to hold him upside down over a toilet and torture him. Today we have school shootings. In these events where a child is bullied, or feels isolated and alone and sees no help coming, these are the kinds of tragedies that ultimately come down the pipe.
So it seems to me that anger management has to start at an even younger age. It has to start in the schools, and most importantly in the home. Rather than suppressing anger, which can have health consequences, we need to talk about our issues, either in therapy or with someone we're close to, a spouse, friend, or family member. I also teach people the power of meditation, which helps to quiet the mind, increase insight, and build awareness to help solve and relieve inner pain. In the end, I'm a great believer in love, and the positive approach of giving love and support to other people.