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The Angry Brain: How to Help Men With Uncontrollable Tempers

Men with anger management issues present unique problems. But there's a fascinating new route to helping them overcome their tempers.

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This man grew up in a tough part of Detroit, where survival was the name of the game. His parents separated and reconnected several times during his childhood. The family atmosphere was markedly hostile--full of negativity, accusations, and occasional violence. Devron said he hated his father because he was never there for him, not even when he became a star athlete on his high school's baseball team.

Devron sought therapy because Sheila had threatened to end their relationship unless he became much nicer to her kids. He added that he was also in trouble at work because "I gave the finger to my boss once too often."

Here's how Devron described his anger: "Man, I had a bad attitude in school. I beat people up if they looked at me wrong. But I gave that up. I don't hit nobody anymore. But Sheila says I still have a bad attitude. She says I look for problems with her kids. Then I blow because I have a really short fuse. And I have a hard time letting go of my anger, too. Once I get pissed at someone, they stay my enemy forever." Still, Devron does want to change. He loves Sheila and even grudgingly admits he likes her children. He doesn't want to lose them. However, he doubts whether I, or anybody else, can help him. A few years ago, he attended an anger-management program for about 10 weeks, but says, "I didn't get nothing useful from it."

Forging an Alliance

Like many angry clients, Devron came to counseling under duress--the "get help, or get out" final call. This isn't a formula for success, since such clients often arrive for counseling thinking that they'll more or less passively go through the motions to get the wife/boss/law off their backs, and then they'll be free to revert to previous behavior. By contrast, Devron was directly skeptical and dismissive--derisive, in fact. Instead of pretending to buy the package, he openly challenged me to prove I had something new to offer. It's uncomfortable to be sneered at by your client, but I've learned to recognize an open challenge as a positive indicator for success. Devron's disdain was a sign of energy that might be used in counseling, if I could develop an alliance with him.

"Actually, Devron, I do have something to offer you that you probably haven't run into before," I told him, "I can help you change your brain." I proceeded to explain with the enthusiasm and energy I usually feel when talking about the brain that he was actually capable of making fundamental, long-term changes in the way he thinks. "Devron, all it takes is commitment and persistence. I know you're capable of both of those things because you've told me how much you love Sheila and the kids--that's commitment--and how you've stuck it out with them when it would have been easier to walk away--that's persistence." I emphasized to him that he'd developed lifelong habits of anger that had become deeply rooted in his brain. But I assured him that he and he alone could make changes in those habits if he so desired. However, I cautioned him that real brain change doesn't come easy. I said he'd need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months, so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I briefly mentioned such concepts as neuroplasticity and myleinization, but only as a tactical move, to assure him that I did, in fact, know what I was talking about. I told him I didn't just  believe this brain stuff might work, I was absolutely convinced because I've seen many other angry people change their brains in just this way, and because I myself had changed my brain to become much more optimistic and generous.

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