Monday, April 9, 2007

Anger Management Down Under

By Will Storr

My girlfriend says I frighten her. When she told me this, about six months ago, I was horrified. We seldom argue and when we do I'm never threatening. I've never been violent. But, she says, when I'm in a mood, she's often terrified. What seems like a mere sulk to me is to her a rage so powerful it becomes almost a living thing. It swamps the flat, pushes the air from the rooms and bends out the walls.

I was so confused when she made this claim that

I discounted it. It just made no sense. So I forgot about it. Until - for some reason - now. I'm about five minutes into a three-day intensive anger management course, which I'm attending for purely journalistic reasons, to see if schemes such as these have substance or are merely get-out-of-jail cards for toxic celebrities, road-ragers and parole-hungry psychotics.

"It's a beautiful morning," teacher Mike Fisher is saying, "and I am in a joyful place." I snort inwardly, but transcribe the information carefully. "Life is not a rehearsal," I write. Then, "Listen with LOVE."

"The skills I'm going to be teaching you over the next three days," says Fisher, "are bloody powerful. I've heard stories of gang leaders in prisons being taught anger management and using the techniques to manipulate people. As a therapist, even I could use them for bad. What do you get if you write the word 'therapist' down?" He approaches a flipchart and writes "The Rapist". "That's the danger, that

I will use my power to rape. Not physically, but psychically. I might go home and rape my wife,

I might rape my kids And the concept of danger," he continues, "is absolutely key here. Put a 'D' on anger and what do you get? Danger."

My right foot starts tapping up and down. Silly Californian therapising nonsense. Annoying, chirpy gurus with goatee beards, acronyms, flip-charts, worthiness, three days in an airless, peach-walled room with a gang of problem-ragers. I want to ram my Biro up my nose just to relieve the blinding aggravation of it. But I won't. I'll just sit here, inside my sparking thunderhead of fury, and seethe.

I won't lose it with anyone, though. As I said, I am completely in control; a Zen master of the mind. I'm nothing like the four-stripe crazies who inspired this piece. Omar Sharif, for instance, who was ordered to attend anger management classes in February after hitting a parking attendant who wouldn't hunt down his lost car. Or model Naomi Campbell, who assaulted her maid with a mobile phone when she couldn't find the trousers she'd wanted to wear on Oprah. Or Russell Crowe, whose hotel lobby phone-throwing incident in 2005 probably inspired her. But you don't have to be a defective celebrity to have a problem. Out there, on the streets, the anger's palpable.

In Australia, more than 300 serious cases of road rage are reported each year. Academic journal UrbanStudies asked more than 1620 adult Australians in 2005 whether they'd suffered an incivility in the past month. About a third said they'd been cut off, bumped, endured lewd or dirty looks, bad language or some other rudeness from a stranger. And in Brisbane, psychologist Owen Pershouse of Men Exploring New Directional Strategy, which runs courses helping men overcome anger and other issues, says 1133 men have graduated from the program since 1993. "Mostly from the south-east of the state," he says. "Everyone from politicians to the blue singlet brigade."

"I'm sure people are getting angrier," psychologist Oliver James told me when I called him up before starting Fisher's course. James is the author of Affluenza - the term he's coined to describe the problem of the middle classes putting too high a value on money, possessions, physical and social appearances and fame. "The affluenza virus creates a state of mind in which you don't meet your profound psychological needs," he says. "You're charging around like a headless chicken trying to pay off the mortgage or a better car, always wanting what you haven't got. You're feeling fundamentally frustrated because you're not getting your needs met and that frustration is the cause of anger."

I also asked Richard Layard, economist and the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Although he says happiness trends are static, he points out that the things that make people feel pleasant are mainly to do with human relationships: "Family, colleagues, community," he says, "and things have not been improving there. We are basically social animals and most of our enjoyment of life comes from contact with other people. I think if there was one thing that would define whether a person is happy or not, it would be, 'Do you feel other people are on your side or do you perceive them as a threat?' Things have got worse there.

In the '60s, 60 per cent of people said yes to the question, 'Do you think most other people can be trusted?' That's now down to 35 per cent."

SO, AS MY TURN TO "CHECK IN" AND EXPLAIN MY "problem" to the group comes closer, I start to worry about it even more. What am I going to say? Well, the truth, I suppose. Which is that I'm no different from anyone else. In fact, if anything, I'm better than many, because I rarely lash out. I hear what Layard and James are saying - we are all desperate for social significance and our trust levels are in concrete boots. I believe it. But my "problem" doesn't come from within. It's not my fault - it's not my value systems or status anxiety or fractured familial relationships that's the cause of all this. For me, it's something much more fundamental: it's the economy, stupid.

So I tell them a wonky theory, a furious hypothesis that coagulates in my head seconds before it leaves my mouth. At some point in the past decade or so, I say, we've stumbled into some looking-glass through which the economy doesn't serve us anymore. We've become slaves to businesses. They treat us with contempt when we clock in at work and after we've clocked out, too, in the heartless wastes of the free market. This is why we've become so angry, why our fury is so unspoken. Because there's no-one to blame but us. What are these corporations but teams of decent individuals just trying to excel at their jobs, because they want security, hope and happiness for their families? We are at war with ourselves.

So who do we take it out on? Who do we shout at? We're not allowed to "do" anger at work, at the station, in the restaurant, down the phone to the call-centre operative (it's not their fault), and heaven forbid you rage at your partner or children. There's nowhere for the fury to go. So we carry it around with us, dangerously, everywhere we go.

I can feel my rage. It collects in the centre of my throat. It's like I've swallowed a cannonball and it makes me want to scream. I am brimful of anger, and when it sloshes out, it does so in the only direction it's allowed to - at inanimate objects. I shout at keys I can't find, at carrots I drop on the kitchen floor, at doors I stub my toe on. Last week I called a spilled glass of elderflower cordial a c..t.

So, okay, I reason - maybe I am angry. The other attendees, however Well, I'm honour-bound not to write about their experiences on the course. But I can tell you that they include a lady who recently drove to her husband's house and stabbed his tyres ("Nobody told me they'd explode"), another who has been informed by his fianccée that if he doesn't get help she's calling off their wedding, and another who's a former football hooligan turned HR manager on police bail after he caught his wife doing unwifely things - and the bruises that were left following the resulting argument were not solely of the emotional kind. These are people who have been hurled into the very troughs of despair by their explosive rage.

Fisher's course is part theory, part a process of unpacking his pupils; taking their rage to pieces and seeing what its motors look like. If there's one single goal of his course, it appears to be to teach us how to understand and then accept ourselves in all our fallible glory. We need to learn how to decode the language of our emotions, to be wise about hunting down their causes and bold about stating them. If we know what we're feeling and why we're feeling it and are unafraid to tell the rest of the world, we'll suddenly find we're in command of ourselves. It takes away some of the terror of being human.

We spend most of the first day on this unpacking process, chiefly in the form of these emotional "check-ins", following which Fisher throws a series of questions and assertions in our direction that act like devastatingly effective sob-grenades. Following my splurge, Fisher asks about my childhood.

"Not this again," I think, as I begin to trot out all the things I've been telling strangers regularly for the past 12 years. In short, the truth is this. Up until relatively recently, I've spent my life hiding in bedrooms. During my childhood and teen years I'd be up there, as far away as I could get from the fury that awaited me downstairs. After I left home, you'd find me cowering under the covers still; shaking off the dreads of another alcohol or amphetamine comedown. I'd watch the walls change colour with the light of the day and I'd lie there, frantic with shame, my brain continuously presenting me with new and noteworthy illustrations of why I'm so appalling; why all the menacing prophecies of my parents had turned out true. The only piece of father-son advice my dad ever gave me was, "Take it from me, the pursuit of happiness is utterly futile". And, to give him credit, that's exactly how I've found life to be, from the day I learned to walk until now.

But I'm less miserable than I used to be. I'm sober and have a stable home life. I even have a genial relationship with my parents. In the grand rainbow of human misery, I barely register in the violet. I've done my decade of therapy, dealt with the doom, despatched the dependencies and I'm all right now.

So I know exactly where Fisher is going with this, and I'm bored with it. And it's got nothing to do with my anger, I'm sure. I'm older, now. Past all that. It's the mere act of living in 2007 that makes you mad.

FISHER USED TO BE AN "EXTREMELY ANGRY MAN" himself, he tells me over dinner. A classic passive-aggressive "imploder", he realised years ago that the source of his rage was his grandfather. "He shamed me terribly as a child," he says. "He was very devious. He would mock me and describe me as stupid and useless and not good enough. It was very embarrassing, very shameful. And I picked up those messages and believed they were true."

So Fisher, like me, spent years in therapy. But there's a twist. The "talking cure" had a dangerous consequence for Mike. By the time he'd reached his early forties, he'd learnt that he didn't need to concern himself with other people's opinions of him, and that he was allowed to show his anger. And he went a bit crazy. "I started to explode," he tells me. "My anger started spilling out in a very extreme form. I was very verbally aggressive. Very threatening. I sent out a lot of poisonous emails. I'd fly off the handle."

"And when did you realise there was a problem?" I ask. "When people started to disappear out of my life," he says. "When people started to stop taking me seriously, when people started spreading rumours about me. People were actually saying, you know, 'You're unsafe'." This realisation led to a period of study and training on the theories of anger that led to his founding the British Association of Anger Management eight years ago. Since then he has worked with more than 10,000 people.

And it's on day two that we begin to get the benefit of Fisher's hard-won wisdom. First, we learn that we become angry when our primary needs are not met. We need to feel valued, safe, significant, successful, cared for, held and encouraged. We also have to have justice, trust, joy and so on. It's when someone gets in the way of one of these vital requirements that the fury comes.

Next, we learn about the Jungian concept of shadow selves. Have you ever had the sensation of a stranger walking into a room and feeling suddenly gripped by absurd levels of hatred? This, says Fisher, is what happens when we encounter a person who is exhibiting one of our shadows, those qualities we possess but that we repress or deny in ourselves. Do you hate arrogant people?

Greedy people? Or is your baciête-noire the obnoxious, ungrateful or slutty? Well, welcome to yourself.

We're also told there are two types of angry people - explosive and implosive. Implosive people rage on the inside. They tut, sneer, shake their heads, doodle violent sketches. So, just because

I rarely shout, I learn, it doesn't follow I don't have a problem. I'm an imploder, Fisher tells me. And they can be just as scary. A sentiment my girlfriend, I realise, understands.

As day three begins, I'm not sure what to think. I've realised I am angry, albeit implosively. But it's

a noxious combination of an unfair world and an unpleasant me that's to blame. And how does Fisher think he's going to solve that? By telling me to live a life that's "authentic"?

"Anger is the symptom," he says. "And shame is the cause. Everyone here suffers from what I call 'toxic shame'. Shamers feel like they have been somehow cursed, that they're not like other people. They think, 'I am flawed and defective as a human being', and, 'If you really knew me, you wouldn't like me'." I don't make notes for this bit. I don't need to. Plus, I'm concentrating all my efforts on trying not to cry.

"We avoid facing our own shame," Fisher continues, "by using such behaviours as " He turns and writes on the board: perfectionism; control; resentment; criticism and blame; moralising; self-contempt and contempt for others; patronising; envy; indifference. "Each of these behaviours focuses on another person and takes the heat off us. You need to practise what I call 'radical authenticity'. You need to accept that the authentic self is often not very nice. But by accepting your shadow-self, you're accepting your humanity.

"We start out life being absolutely who we are and loving who we are. But what happens is that people project all this shit onto us. And we start to learn we're either too much or too little; too big or too small; too clever or too stupid; and we learn very quickly that these behaviours are inappropriate. And then we learn how not to become ourselves."

The final exercise is called the Detour Method. When we find ourselves overreacting to an ordinary situation, this is supposedly a sort of pain-response to a buried trauma. The theory is that if we can identify what's hurting when we spin into a fury, then we can start to "heal". As the class breaks up into pairs, I am freshly dubious. We've been asked to relive a recent angry occasion, decide how old we "feel" and then summon up an incident that occurred at that age. This, apparently, will reveal the sore that's still weeping, causing us to go defensively mental when it's touched. "But aren't we trusting that the subconscious will present us with a relevant memory?" I ask. "How do we know it's not just throwing up a random negative recollection simply because I'm requesting it to?" Fisher smiles dreamily. "You've got to trust the process," he says.

So I try. I remember the last time I became angry. It was three days ago. My girlfriend and I are remortgaging our flat and it involves a lot of tedious form-filling. Ordinarily, all matters of import are left to me to deal with. On this occasion, though, I asked her to complete the application. First she didn't bother. Then, after three nags, she just filled in the bits she could do off the top of her head. When I'd completed the rest of it and posted it, she got a call from a property valuation company to organise a visit. Her response? She gave them my name and mobile number. "It made me feel totally unsupported," I say. "Totally alone."

"How old do you feel?" asks my partner, following the precise Detour Method script. "Um, 14?" I say, making it up as I go along. "What happened when you were 14?"

A still from an incident I haven't considered for years flashes up. It's nothing, really. I don't even know why I still remember it. "We were in the car, on holiday, looking for a bike rental shop," I say. "My dad was angry because we couldn't find it. He was saying, 'Somebody help me'. I saw a road we hadn't been up, a narrow one on a steep hill. He tried it and scratched the paintwork on the door. Then he started shouting - saying it was my fault. My mum told me to apologise, which I did. Then, later that day, she called me downstairs from where I'd been hiding in my room. I thought she was going to say sorry to me, because it obviously wasn't my mistake. But she scolded me some more and made me go out to Dad and apologise again. I just felt totally unsupported. Totally alone."

In that moment, I see the link. And, undeniably, it's powerful. That feeling of having no-one on my side. It's exactly what it was like when my girlfriend let me down. Over the past three days I feel as if I've been on a reverse journey to the inside of myself. I've gone from bitterly blaming the world for making me unhappy, via my current relationship, back to a half-forgotten memory from 18 years ago. Three outwardly unrelated experiences, all of which appear to be connected by the same fear. Abandonment.

IN THE SIX WEEKS FOLLOWING THE COURSE, THE furious homunculus who's been driving my brain is noticeably more serene. Before, I'd spend my hour-long cycle to work gnawing obsessively at some problem, having fantasy arguments in my head. Now I recognise this is just anger "coming out sideways". So I take the time to fathom what's really making me angry, isolate the fear beneath it, then allow myself to be authentically scared for a while, to "sit in the discomfort of my hurt", as Fisher would have it. And - to my amazement - it seems to work.

The biggest test of all, though, came eight days ago, when I was informed my job was going to be made redundant. As I type this, I'm petrified. I feel like I want to run away from everything. But things at home have clung on admirably. Previously, I would have withdrawn so far into myself I'd have virtually lost the power to speak. The sulk inside our small flat would have been gigantic. But I've tried to talk to my partner about how I've been feeling and - bar an "explosive" incident last night when I stormed out and later found myself sitting in a car park - we're getting through this well. And, best of all, my girlfriend tells me she's not been scared at all.

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