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The AHA! Fallacy
What if I seldom or never act with hostility or aggression? What if I smile, say everything is “just fine,” and quietly go about my business? Are you then to assume that I am not angry? If you do, you may be wrong.
To reiterate what I said earlier in the book, most angry people do not “act out” their anger in any obvious hostile or aggressive way. On the contrary, the vast majority—90 percent according to Dr. Averill2—”act in” their angry feelings by dealing with the world around them in a passive, submissive manner. Ironically, it is this “silent majority” who harbor the most anger but receive the least attention.
Many years ago, Dr. Paul Kirwin and I conducted a study of the relationship between “social constriction,” or nonassertiveness, and the various aspects of the AHA! syndrome.3 We found that our subjects’ scores on the assertiveness scale correlated negatively with their tendencies toward both verbal aggressiveness (“When I get mad, I say nasty things”) and physical assault (“When I really lose my temper, I am capable of slapping someone”). The more assertive the subject was, the less likely he or she was to act aggressively. However, to our surprise, the subjects’ assertiveness scores were not at all related to their tendency to feel irritable or angry. We concluded that nonassertive people are just as likely to be angry in their day-to-day lives as assertive people, but they never let anyone know that they are angry. What is being “constricted” is their behavior, not their emotion!
Likewise, people who have an assertive interactive style are not as likely to suffer from toxic anger as nonassertive people. In fact, by behaving in an assertive manner, they deal more immediately and effectively with provocative situations and resolve the conflict before they become too angry. They also “let go” of their anger more easily because they express their opinions openly and honestly. Thus, assertive people are less likely to experience the toxic buildup of anger over time.
Holly was a “nice lady” who unfortunately was used to taking verbal abuse from her husband. They had been married for twelve years, and much of that time he had picked on her, criticized her, and found fault with everything she did. She always responded the same way, by apologizing for not being the perfect wife, vowing to do better, and then escaping into her inner world of tense silence, hopelessness, and depression.
“My father was an angry aggresstve man I knew by the time I was five years old that I didn’t want to be like him I didn’t want people to hate me to be afraid of me So I became the exact opposite-quiet passive, easygoing I never raised my voice never hit anyone, and for more than forty years rarely showed my anger You never met a nicer guy’. But then somewhere in midlife I found myself acting just like my father Angry all the time, and aggressive too You name it—I attacked it from one extreme to the other The scariest part of the experience was that I couldn’t control it. It took me quite a while to find the middle ground but thank God I eventually did.”
Holly did not like being angry. She avoided it at all costs. Such feelings made her uncomfortable! But for some reason, tonight was different. Her husband was his typical abusive self. He had picked on her relentlessly all evening at a party in front of friends and again all the way home in the car. She could feel anger building inside her, but she had managed to smile and act as if things were fine. As soon as she walked through the front door of the house, she exploded! She hurled her handbag as hard as she could across the hardwood floors down the hallway toward the bedrooms. It crashed against the wall sending broken beads in all directions. At the same time, she screamed as angrily as she could at her husband, “Damn it! Leave me alone!” Both she and her husband were stunned by the intensity of her outburst. Holly felt both exhilarated and scared. She had never in her life acted this way.
Reflection Exercise #2
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