by W. Robert Nay
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. on Jan 1st 2013
After eight years, a second edition of W. Robert Nay's Taking Charge of Anger arrives in our bookstores--and not a moment too soon! With the spiraling pace of competitive life in late capitalist-industrialized societies and the ever-mounting proliferation of the alienating, isolating forces identified with this mode of human dwelling and the economic inequalities and social hardships it produces for vast numbers among its populations, it is hardly surprising that anger is a fact of modern life. We witness daily evidence in the news, in our workplaces and in our personal relations that many people's tempers stand trigger-ready to leap out of control at the slightest provocation. People are already stretched to their existential limits--dosing up at alarming rates on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications--just to keep up with the decline in their living standards, the disappearance of their jobs, and the rise of their debts and taxes. In this climate, frustration, despair, and occasional rage are as natural and predictable as the ceaseless flow of wealth from the bottom to the top of the system.
What more conducive climate for a dedicated program that provides the necessary tools for dealing with the anger epidemic? Nay's comprehensive, rigorously ordered, step-by-step management program for identifying, understanding and defusing anger will surely continue to find a broad and welcoming audience across modern societies. One of the features that sets apart Nay's approach from other anger management programs is his refusal of the usual reductive definition of the problem (i.e. anger viewed as problematic only when it reaches the stage of aggressive expressions) in favor of a uniquely broad definition of anger as having a spectrum of "faces." His program rests upon a long trial and research period (over 25 years and hundreds of treated cases), and has evolved through the decade that Nay has been using his model to train professional therapists across the country, working in the fields of mental health, medicine, social work, substance abuse, and school counseling.
Nay launches his study with the bold declaration that "anger and sometimes aggression are part of the lives of all of us" (p. 3). The claim to the universality of anger and its linking to aggression establish from the outset the urgency of an effective program for managing anger. Next, a broad approach in identifying the anatomy of anger helps us to appreciate that anger takes many forms or has "faces" and an extended life cycle that includes many warning signals and phases. This greater appreciation of anger's numerous faces opens possibilities for identifying anger in its earliest phases and interrupting its blistering flow before its faces turn ugly and rage out of control in intense outward-directed expressions of aggression, such as fits of temper, bitter argument, shouting, or physical aggression. Nay's much more subtle understanding of anger's physiognomy as a continuum of "faces" leaves us better equipped to recognize the problem early on in subtle and indirect expressions, such as cold anger, passive-aggression, withholding communication or affection, sarcasm, denigration by innuendo, hostile joking, and the adoption of caustic tone.
Nay notes that the subtler faces of anger are often overlooked and treatment is focused only on those faces that are already beyond control and have veered into aggressive expression. However, his position is that indirect expressions of anger compose essential aspects of the problem, providing the triggers for the dynamic dance whose finale is aggression. As couples counselors with more enlightened approaches to treating intimate violence have increasingly appreciated: a couple together create over time, and engage in, an increasingly destructive and spiraling choreography that progressively colonizes their way of relating. Since the dance of anger developed by baby-steps over a long period of time, an effective program for un-learning the destructive patterns of relating must itself be gradual, incremental, and rigorously ordered--baby-steps in a healthier dance. Nay's rehabilitation program for angry people provides the new dance steps that lead individuals to recognize their individual unhealthy mis-steps, appreciate their spiraling anatomy of anger, as it first kindles in the body, recognize the old anger patterns of thinking and behaving and replace them with healthier forms of coping and relating.
The objective of the program, mapped out in tiny sequences of information, is to help people fully understand every component part that composes the episodes of their anger, so they can address each in turn with an effective counterstrategy. Baby-steps for a giant problem. The first step is to identify anger's roots in unrealistic expectations of self and others, many of which have their origins in childhood experiences. Secondly, anger's physiognomy is studied so the individual can learn to identify anger as it arises in its earliest stages (tightening shoulders, facial heating, shallow breathing), so that she may exert control before the dam breaks and spills over into unstoppable forms. Now that the reader has learned to know intimately the anatomy of her own anger, she is ready to identify the unhelpful and destructive mental imagery and self-talk that cultivate depression and anxiety and drive her anger into explosive forms. This third stage relies upon cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to alter the unhealthy thinking that structures undesirable behaviors. Fourth, the individual shifts to positive mode by developing new, more helpful and more effective ways of communicating her thoughts and feelings--skills of "assertive problem-solving"--that avoid the common pitfalls that create misunderstandings; this helps defuse conflict and unseat the anger tactics that habit has rendered the most natural response to feeling misunderstood. Understanding one's own anger triggers can also help individuals to better understand others and then to defuse their anger tactics.
Nay's program for anger management is one of personal transformation that begins as a philosophical exercise following the Delphic oracle's counsel to the ancients--Know Thyself! Grounded in deep and focused self-awareness, the program sets out to replace habitual unskilled responses to the frustrations of human life and the difficulties of human relations with skillful, healthy, effective modes of negotiating and communicating one's needs. The wisdom of Nay's approach to anger is that it rests on a view of the problem--and its resolution in emotional tranquility--as an inner condition. My anger is my anger, not something that someone or something else does to me. This means that my anger is something over which I can reclaim control for the sake of regaining happiness, whereas seeing anger as externally-caused leaves people feeling like powerless victims of difficult others and impossible life circumstances. Empowered, people can take back control over their own well-being and work to develop the inner resources and the relational and communicative skills that function in favor of the tranquil life.
Nay's approach to anger management is fundamentally compassionate, as developing self-awareness and inner resources is not only an act of self-love, but benefits others outside the self as well. Nay sees that angry, out-of-control people are not bad people, but people who are hurting and lack the skills to get themselves back on a healthier track of relating with others. Angry and even dangerous people have learned their destructive habits, often in agonizing circumstances, by trial and error and by following negative examples, such as cruel parents, harsh teachers, and other poor leaders. They are "good and caring individuals who are reading from a lousy script" (p. 10). Angry people are not unkind because they enjoy being mean-spirited but because they are desperately unhappy and have developed ineffective ways of coping with the difficult circumstances of their lives. Nay provides these unfortunate individuals with a new script, a new choreography that lets them re-engage in the dance of life in positive, empowering ways.
Taking Control of Anger is a worthwhile read for everyone. It provides the basics for any community, school or family program for rethinking ways of relating. A highly detailed step-by-step program for restructuring one's life, this book has positive messages and useful strategies that can benefit every individual and every community!
© 2013 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.