Battling Relapse by Letting Go of Anger

By Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith, W. Doyle Gentry

People who go through anger management generally manage to reduce their anger problems a great deal. They go through days and weeks without losing their temper. They feel great about the progress they’ve made. And then something odd happens. They don’t feel that they’re being true to themselves. Somehow they actually seem to miss their anger but don’t know why.

There’s a reason for this seemingly perplexing reaction. Mostly, people start missing their anger because of certain fears such as the following:

  • Fear that letting go of anger will mean they forgive the person who made them angry.

    For example, a young man could have been abused by his father for years. When he learns to control his anger successfully, something doesn’t feel right. Upon reflection, he realizes that he’s not tormented as much by the abuse. But part of him thinks that he should continue to be angry at his father, given the horrific nature of the abuse. This realization helps him understand that, difficult as it may be, dropping that ancient rage is in his best interest.

  • Fear that they’ll lose their reputation.

    Think about a woman who works with difficult supervisors. She used to rant at the office with disturbing frequency, but anger management taught her to use assertiveness instead. She feels good about the change but fears others will now see her as groveling and weak. However, as she continues with assertiveness, she sees that her supervisors actually listen to her more than in the past, and her coworkers start to see her as a leader.

  • Fear of other emotions (for example, sadness) that underlie their anger.

    Imagine a mother who has lost her daughter to a drunk driver. She rages for years and complains about the horrible unfairness of life. Eventually, she realizes the need for anger management and learns to quell her anger. However, strong emotions of grief and sadness take hold, which feel even worse than the anger. Nevertheless, she comes to the conclusion that she really needs to deal with that grief to fulfill her promise to honor her daughter’s short life by working to change the state’s drunk-driving laws.

In other words, one important part of relapse prevention is examining any hesitation to let go of anger. You don’t have to fear being seen as weak, and you don’t have to conclude that the person who wronged you was in the right. Although forgiveness can be useful, that’s not the same thing as forgetting, nor does letting go mean you’re weak — just the opposite, in fact.