A rising number of British women are showing signs of anger that’s out of control. When Kelly Costakidis* pushed a door so hard it ruined the plaster on the wall, she knew it was time to get help
‘I am one angry motherf***ker’ isn’t exactly a statement to put people at ease on the first day of a weekend workshop. It’s the line our group leader, Mike Fisher, a stocky man in his late 50s with shoulder-length white hair, khaki trousers and white shirt chooses by way of introduction. But instead of embarrassment or discomfort, it elicits an almost palpable Mexican Wave of relief among the participants sat before him in a semi-circle. You see, while we’re in a group therapy scenario typical of your average TV rehab or prison drama – beige carpet, white walls peppered with not-very-good watercolours and uncomfortable wooden chairs – we’re not in prison or rehab, we’re in anger management.
I knew I had a problem when I pushed a door so hard, not once, but three times, chipping a hole the size of a 50p coin into the hallway wall; a permanent reminder of just how out of control I had been during a blazing row with my father. Until then, I had never really thought of myself as an angry person and my friends would describe me as pretty contained and controlled; a listener with a genuine interest in other people. In a crisis I will have a small panic and then default straight into fixer mode. But the seething rage that had risen from the pit of my stomach the night of the door incident had, if I am honest, been slowly coming to the surface in other ways.
I’m not alone, British women are getting angrier. While women are outnumbered by men in my workshop, Fisher, a therapist and founder of the British Association of Anger Management (BAAM) says that during 2014 women made up 60 per cent of the participants in his courses, making this the first year that more women than men sought help for anger. Research in 2012 by PruHealth found nearly half of us admit to snapping at colleagues, 28 per cent to shouting at people at work and a staggering one in four admit to slamming down phones, banging fists on desks and even throwing things across the office floor. Ouch. And while most of us know about poor Naomi Campbell and her issues, the recent news actress Emma Roberts was arrested in Vancouver for domestic violence against her boyfriend, American Horror Story star Evan Peters seemed to come out of nowhere, not to mention Kelly Brook’s own admission in September last year that she hit not one, but two of her ex-es Danny Cipriani and Jason Statham.
I had expected the room to look like a scene from Shameless. Instead, there are Hugo Boss boots and Burberry jackets, and the details of people’s stories paint a picture of financially comfortable, successful lifestyles.
Looking around at the five men and one other woman ranging in age from late 20s to mid-40s, I admit I had expected the room to look like a scene from Shameless. Instead, there are Hugo Boss boots and Burberry jackets, and the details of people’s stories paint a picture of financially comfortable, successful lifestyles. One guy in his late 20s, Martin*, has been sent by his uber-wealthy family to deal with his office rage before he’s allowed to inherit the family retail business from his father. Another, Maria, 35, is a radio producer from a leafy London suburb with a new baby who has been sent here by her marriage counsellor.
The weekend-long course opens with what Mike calls ‘Checking in’, in which we all explain to the group why we’re there. He asks questions about our past and after one person revealed how he’d not spoken to his brother – from whom he was once inseperable – in over five years after they had a huge fight – he cried those quiet, wrenching tears that are like a stab in the heart to watch. We’re less than an hour in and by the time my turn comes around I feel sick. Terrified. I’m a huge advocate of self-help as long as it complies with two rules: no childhood shit. No past shit. Just strategies. Suddenly, something tells me unravelling my anger issues isn’t going to be that simple.
Impatient and irritated had become my default mode to such a degree that if someone jumped the queue in the bank or (my pet peeve) hesitated too long at the Tube turnstile, my face twitched and quiet fury seeped through my veins for hours after.
Two weeks previously I had thrown a book at my partner during a row that began over Come Dine With Me (more specifically his telling me that my taste in telly: ‘Kissed the big one’) and ended with my sitting on the kitchen floor crying and screaming in turns about the fact we haven’t had a holiday this year. Increasingly, my fuse had become shorter with people and I could hear myself cutting them off mid-sentence. Impatient and irritated had become my default mode to such a degree that if someone jumped the queue in the bank or (my pet peeve) hesitated too long at the Tube turnstile, my face twitched and quiet fury seeped through my veins for hours after. Moreover, if a client pissed me off on the phone, rather than tell them, I ‘wore’ my anger, going over the injustice in my head so my whole day became shadowed by my bad mood. We were renovating our kitchen and bathroom at the time, I had been juggling my usual mega-load of deadlines and running on about five hours sleep a night since August the previous year when I’d launched a women’s health website. I didn’t connect the dots then and thought I was coping fine but in hindsight, all that pressure must have flipped a switch in me somehow.
‘In those moments I can see what I am doing but it’s like I am outside myself and watching someone else behave that way. I know exactly what I am doing but I don’t care.’
Indeed, 40 per cent of domestic abuse victims in the UK are men and while I have never hit my partner, each of the rages I have been experiencing in the last six months have seemed progressively worse than the last and featured varying degrees of throwing things, beating doors and stamping my feet. Frankly, I wouldn’t put the possibility past myself. Recounting a rage she found herself in during her early 30s, Maria, the other woman on our course, admitted to hurling a toaster out of a first floor window which could – but thankfully didn’t – have landed squarely on the head of a passer-by landing her in jail (she had already been arrested for hitting another woman in a club). ‘In those moments I can see what I am doing but it’s like I am outside myself and watching someone else behave that way,’ she said. ‘I know exactly what I am doing but I don’t care.’
But why suddenly, are British women angrier than ever? One word: stress. It fuels anger by putting us into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode, a primal reaction that evolved in us to help our cavemen ancestors deal with occasional, though real threats like hungry beasts. Today, our threats are bosses, deadlines and needy spouses and they never go away so we constantly hover at this stress point, always ready to attack. ‘Stress floods the body with fighting hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol, which prime it for attack,’ says Fisher. ‘When you’re under constant stress, your default mechanism is to fight, which is how stress becomes the fuel for anger.’ But why is anger such a problem now? ‘Life has become so much faster than it was say even a few years ago,’ says Dr Saima Latif, a consultant psychologist specialising in anger. ‘A lot of that is to do with technology and the demands being placed on every minute of our days to react, to like, to tweet, to post, to comment and of course, to be available 24/7,’ she explains. In the past, if we had an hour free we would turn inward and read a magazine or watch some television but today, even our free time comes with demands to check our emails and Instagram feeds and social our every move. ‘The result is more pressure on women and more demands to juggle home and family while presenting a perfect life to the world both on and off line. That, added to our already stressful jobs creates more pressure, which turns into frustration which goes on to feeling angry.’ I can relate. In the last year I have launched a women’s health website, run an online video production company, worked full time as a journalist and renovated my house. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I would fall asleep standing up.
According to Mike, there are two types of angry. Exploders who, like Maria, feel the anger and immediately show it through screaming, shouting etc. Then there are imploders who will hold in their anger (or express it in passive aggressive ways such as ‘poor me’ behaviour, silent treatments, self sacrifice and obsessive behaviour) only to find they might ‘go ape-shit’ days, months or even years later as the anger eventually surfaces – perhaps at some unsuspecting bank teller or woman who can’t find her Oyster card at the Tube turnstiles.
‘Anger is a rogue feeling,’ says Fisher, who himself went from being an imploder, to being an exploder before finding a middle ground. ‘It’s one of those feelings you cannot repress. You either have to find a way to express it without hurting yourself or others or you’ll end up numbing it by overeating, drinking, smoking or taking drugs,’ says Fisher, because anger won’t just go away. I use kickboxing in the gym but according to Fisher, while exercise can let off steam, it won’t make real anger go away.
I am a classic imploder and – especially at work – pride myself on being ‘a yes girl’ who never says no to a client, whatever their request. Trouble is, imploders turn their anger inward, Fisher says, which turns into depression or anxiety, both of which I’m not unfamiliar with. I suffered a serious bout of depression after my parents broke up when I was 18 and have had two bouts since and anxiety on and off for the last two decades. The object of the weekend is to teach imploders to shorten the time that they say something after they feel angry (Mike teaches us it’s okay to say to people, in a calm voice: ‘I feel angry’ which terrifies the living daylights out of me). Likewise, exploders need to learn to lengthen their fuse before expressing their anger and use a healthy assertiveness to convey it. Both types need to breathe through that first angry moment and see the bigger picture and then find the right time to express their anger constructively (see box).
Ask yourself: ‘Is it going to matter in five minutes?’ If not, let it go.
Indeed, holding in anger is associated with not only anxiety and depression but chronic headaches, skin disorders and stomach upsets. But conversely, letting rip is associated with er, going to prison or losing your job and we certainly can’t go around saying: ‘I feel angry’ at every person that gets our goat up during the course of a day. The answer is choosing your battles, says Fisher. ‘Ask yourself: ‘Is it going to matter in five minutes?’ If not, let it go.’
That said, classic imploders carry a lot of what Mike calls ‘toxic shame’ about their pasts and express their anger in ways such as being defensive when criticised. Check-o-rama. As the course progresses, one of the men on the course, Todd, a well-dressed stockbroker in his mid-30s realises that his anger issues began when his mother came out as a lesbian when he was just 13. ‘I was so ashamed of her as at the time in the school playground, being gay was the worst insult. I didn’t tell a soul. I was so angry with her for taking my dad away from me.’ Fast-forward two decades and – according to Mike – Todd’s drunken, jealous rages at his former girlfriend are partly that 13-year-old acting out the unresolved anger and shame he felt towards his mum. When a child experiences shame, blame or trauma, a part of them freezes in time and that can turn into anger that haunts us as adults, Mike explains.
I realise the roots of my huge row with my dad. For years, he blamed me for my parent’s separation and had said many times that, at 18, I was old enough to convince my mum to stay with him. At this point Mike asked us to do what he calls a ‘Detour Method’, which is a way of shifting the old built-up trauma at the root of our anger (he likened it to squeezing a big emotional boil). He asked me to think of a recent rage I felt. I thought of the fight with my dad.
‘What age did you feel when you were angriest that night?’ Mike asked. ‘18’, I replied. Then he put in front of me an empty chair, asked me to picture my dad and then ‘let rip’. Well, I did, yelling about the fact that he had barely spoken a word to me for the 20 years after his divorce from my mum and that at 18 ‘It wasn’t my fault’ that his marriage had broken down and he needed to ‘deal with it yourself’. God, did I scream, before bursting into embarrassed, salty tears through which I could barely breathe. It was the kind of role-playing, therapising BS I avoided at all costs and yet, once I finally stopped crying, though knackered, I felt strangely light and Martin commented on how young and glowing I looked, despite mascara running down my face.
After the course, that sense of lightness continues the following week and I feel like I’ve lost five pounds (emotional weight it turns out, is heavy)
After the course, that sense of lightness continues the following week and I feel like I’ve lost five pounds (emotional weight it turns out, is heavy). I also feel an odd sense of new, mild confidence, like I have kind of grown up, somehow. The very first time I said to someone – my partner, Kevin – that I felt angry with them, in a quiet calm tone, I thought the roof would fall in. But it didn’t. I used the guidelines I had learned (see box) to do a Clearing Process, which sounds like something from The Exorcist but is simply a way of constructively expressing anger. Instead of the usual shouting match, Kevin simply said ‘I’m sorry, and I appreciate you taking responsibility for your part in it.’ Of course, Mike did warn that not all clearing processes would go smoothly, but the point was to express your anger before it turned into aggression towards someone else or yourself. So, when one of my clients behaved in a way that made me feel angry by not letting me finish my sentences and giving me an order which I felt was unfair, I bristled on the phone. Then I took a breath. Then another breath. I let her finish and hung up. Then I emailed her my thoughts, calmly without blame or shame. I still haven’t heard back. But that’s not the point. The anger is out of me and I no longer wear it like a piece of dead skin – I guess that means hesitators at my local Tube station are safe for travel again.
5 STEPS TO EXPRESSING YOUR ANGER WITHOUT A FIGHT
Mike Fisher, founder of the British Association of Anger Management (BAAM) has created a Clearing Process, a method for expressing anger with someone in a measured, controlled way. Start by asking the other person if they have five or ten minutes (or however long you think it will take) to talk about something with you.
- State the facts
For example, ‘We agreed that we’d meet and you didn’t turn up.’ Or ‘You committed to taking out the garbage every night and that hasn’t been done this week.’ Stick to the facts.
- Now express your opinion, but stay calm.
For example, ‘I think you are in my opinion unthinking and unthoughtful.’ Remember to stay calm. Don’t use blame, make sure it’s clear this is what you think.
- Say how you feel
Identify what you felt in the moment and now. For example, ‘I feel angry with you about this,’ or ‘You shouting at me in the workplace makes me feel belittled and that affects my productivity.’
- Tell them what you need
State clearly what you would like from them in the future; how you would like their behaviour to change – bearing in mind you might not get it. For example: ‘What I would like is if you keep to the commitments you make,’ or ‘What I would like is if you didn’t use foul language with me in the workplace.’
- Admit your part in it
Sometimes the things that make us angry are ‘projections’ – that’s when what we hate about our own behaviour gets our goat up in others. Admit this. For example, ‘I admit that I also arrive late for appointments too,’ or ‘I admit that I don’t always let you finish your sentences either.’
Remember, this is more about you than the other person, says Fisher. ‘Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t, the important thing for your wellbeing is that the other person knows how you feel and what you think’.
10 STEPS TO DIFFUSING ANGER
- Listen to the person and be open to learning from them.
- Acknowledge that it’s okay to have a different opinion
- Accept the other person’s position and take responsibility for what you’ve done. Don’t blame or shame them for their behaviour. Avoid calling behaviour ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and language like ‘You should have…, you never…, why didn’t you…?’
- Adapt to the situation – look at the bigger picture, breathe slowly and bring all your awareness to the situation.
- Empathise – try to experience what the other person is saying. Put yourself in their shoes.
- Clarify – ask questions to make sure you understand what they’re saying and what they need.
- Allow time – let the person say what they need to, without interrupting or trying to fix them. Give them time to calm down.
- Agree to disagree – acknowledge there is no right or wrong, just different opinions.
- Go for win/win – find an agreeable solution for all parties concerned.
- Own up – own up to your own behaviour and the part you played
A version of this story first appeared in Marie Claire magazine.
For courses in anger management log on to the British Association of Anger Management’s website angermanage.co.uk.
*names have been changed
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