My girlfriend gets angry. When is her anger inappropriate?
Anonymous is certainly brief and to the point, which I like. That being said, a bit more information would have been useful for this question, such as how often she gets angry, what she does when she gets angry, what are the triggers for her anger and so forth. Since we don’t have much to go on here, let’s discuss inappropriate anger in general. I think we all can agree that, for example, drop-kicking a poodle across the street because you lost $5 when your college football team didn’t cover the spread would be “inappropriate,” so let’s consider a more subtle example:
Dr. Steve drives a very expensive car. A Lexus or BMW I think. He parks it across two spaces so that it doesn’t get scratched by other cars, despite the fact that parking is somewhat limited at the office suite. I myself have many times needed to park across the street at a fish market, traverse on foot across a four-lane highway that is packed with fast cars and, coincidentally, angry drivers, only to see Dr. Steve’s vanity license plate “P$ych” staring at me. Smugly.
One day Dave, a long-term client of mine, and I arrived at the office simultaneously. We each needed to park at the fish market and run across the street together. This could be an awkward situation for some therapists (read: Dr. Pete), but I’ve gotten comfortable over the years with making idle chit-chat with clients outside of the therapy room. When we reached Dr. Steve’s car, he said “Who’s the asshole who keeps parking across two spots?”
“It’s someone in my office.”
“I thought as much with the license plate and all.”
As we began the session, it was obvious Dave was having trouble concentrating on our usual work. “You know,” he said, “that’s just wrong.”
“Dr. Dickhead parking his car like that. Who the hell does he think he is?”
He thinks he’s someone better than you or me because he’s rich. “This really bothers you, huh?”
“Yeah, it really does. It’s like…like…he doesn’t care about other people.” Normally a very calm man – too calm in fact, as most of our work was on assertiveness training – Dave started to get red in the face. “Why do people do that? Common courtesy says not to do that!”
“It does, but not everyone is courteous. That’s just an unfortunate fact of life.”
“I’m just…man…people suck. Why can’t they just…man, this is gonna screw up my whole day!”
I was really taken aback by this anger. “It’s interesting you say that, and I agree with you that his actions are not very pro-social. But I’m curious as to why his rudeness and sense of entitlement would dictate your mood for an entire day.”
“Because he’s wrong!”
“Yes, of course he’s wrong. But it’s as almost as if you’re saying that people must never be wrong, that if people are inconsiderate or rude or even flat-out evil then you can’t enjoy life. That seems like a hard way to live.”
“You know what? I’m going to key that fucker.”
“You’re going to key Dr. Steve?” As much as I dislike Dr. Steve, I wouldn’t want him permanently scarred or anything. A massive kick to the testicles wouldn’t be so bad, but not the dude’s face.
“No, I’m going to key his car.”
Therapist Rule: when a client is an imminent danger to himself or someone else, authorities must be notified. When a car is in danger, however…well, I don’t know who to tell, if anyone.
Dave and I went back and forth for awhile on this whole keying concept, ultimately with him agreeing to suspend his new parking rules for at least one week. That gave me enough time to speak with Dr. Steve. I found him between clients, caressing a stack of patient invoices the way a James Bond villain would stroke his evil cat.
“Steve, I think you should move your car starting next week.”
“I just think you should. Trust me on this.”
“That’s ridiculous. It’s my car and I do with it what I please.”
“Steve, you’re not getting it. Someone complained about you taking up two spaces.”
“Complained? Well I hope that you explained to this philistine that a vehicle of such magnitude needs to be taken extra special care of.”
“Are you insane? I’m not going to defend you on that. I agree with the guy. It’s annoying to see your car like that, and my car smells like halibut all the time now.”
“Well you and this person are going to have to adjust then, aren’t you?”
“Steve! Someone is going to key your car if you do that again!” I shouted.
“My…good Lord. Really?”
“Yes, so please start parking like everyone else from now on if you don’t want to have to get a new paint job.”
Sure enough, the next day the Steve Mobile was in a single spot and has remained that way to this day.
Dave was of course pleased.
“You said something to him, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I felt like Dr. Steve needed a chance to make amends.”
“That’s good. I don’t think I would have done it anyway. What you said makes sense and the truth is that if I had gone through with it, I wouldn’t be any better than he is. Maybe worse in some ways.”
“That’s good insight, Dave.”
“If you keep up good work like this, maybe you’ll be successful someday like your buddy Steve!” he laughed.
The lesson here is that anger has a purpose. Anger is a potential signal to assert yourself and protect your rights. If we didn’t experience anger we might simply get stepped on by anyone who wanted to take advantage of us. That being said, most mental health professionals would say that anger becomes “inappropriate” when it impairs your quality of life and/or leads you to engage in extreme behaviors that are damaging to yourself or others (or others’ cars). I couldn’t have cared less if someone had keyed Dr. Steve’s car, but I didn’t want it to be Dave doing it. Dr. Steve would probably just raise his fees to pay for the new paint job, because I’m sure the cost wasn’t coming out of his own pocket. And if anyone has tips for getting the smell of fish out of your car, I’d like to hear those.