The 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning author, Robin Givhan, wrote this passage for the Washington Post this week, but her best writing was yet to come. She went on to say,
“But we have long ceased to believe legislators will show signs of heroism. Finally, in the last weeks, they’ve come to the table to talk, …. But after more than 200 mass shootings so far this year, it’s too late for anyone on Capitol Hill to be a hero. But perhaps this time, there won’t be so many cowards.
In her article, Givhan summarized the feelings of anger that are sweeping across our nation right now. She ended with a bit of hope that our anger will be enough this time to bring about change.
Givhan was correct, Capitol Hill will not be producing any heroes. No, most likely, the only thing Capitol Hill will produce is the same number of cowards as usual.
Anger is everywhere. Will we divert that anger in a positive way, or will it lead to violence?
Will The Nation’s Anger Be Enough This Time?
What if we use our anger for good? If Capitol Hill will not act, will we as a nation get angry enough to bring about change -- safe schools for students and teachers?
Will anger help us stop the terror and psychological harm (as well as physical harm) that is threatening the very lives of our children? Listen to the anger, pain, and fear expressed by one child survivor from Uvalde:
Do you hear the anger? Yes, anger.
“Wait,” you may be saying, “I thought anger was bad.”
There are three types of anger: constructive (motivating into action), violent (aggressive, harmful to others), and passive (depressive or dangerous to self).
In this blog post, we will discuss the first two types of anger: constructive and violent. In Part 3, we will talk about passive or self-destructive anger.
When Givhan talks about anger, she is talking about anger as a way of motivating people to action, getting people to do something to stop mass murders in schools.
The anger of mass murderers that causes school shootings is very different. Therefore, anger can be used to bring about positive change or it can be very destructive, even violent.
How can anger be both good and bad?
Obviously, we need a deeper understanding of anger. Let’s see if we can get a better grasp of exactly what anger is and what causes anger to become dangerous.
What Is Anger?
Anger is an emotion; an emotion that can get out of control and be very dangerous, even deadly, but it is still an emotion. Emotions are reactions. Uncontrolled anger often leads to violence. A person with uncontrolled anger may hurt themselves or turn their anger on others in an act of violence. An organization called Mind, which states that one of its goals is to help people understand mental illness (what it is and what it is not), gives the following definition of anger.
“Feelings of anger arise due to how we interpret and react to certain situations. Everyone has their own triggers for what makes them angry, but some common ones include situations in which we feel threatened or attacked, frustrated or powerless, or treated unfairly.”
You might be saying, “well, I get angry, but I don’t go out and shoot someone.”
This is true. Each and every day (without fail), every single one of us gets angry about something. Maybe it's just your neighbor letting their dog use that darling little lawn decoration that you put out in your front yard as a fireplug.
Anger is an emotional reaction to what is happening in our world. Our emotional reactions are influenced by the way in which we “perceive” a situation or action. We all interpret situations differently. A situation that makes you happy, might make me angry. Or a situation that might merely be an annoyance for you, might make me furious. Just because our reactions are different doesn’t make one person right and the other wrong. It makes us individuals.
It also doesn’t make anger a mental illness.
What Is Mental Illness?
Let’s define our terms. Then, we will look at the root causes of anger.
First, mental illness is defined as a state of mind or the soundness of one’s personality. What are the most common mental disorders?
- Anxiety Disorders
- Bipolar Disorders
- Personality Disorders
- Substance Abuse
- Eating Disorders
- Mood Disorders
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
- Neurodevelopmental Disorders
The list might vary, depending on who you are talking with, but this is a standard description. Did you notice that anger is not on the list? That’s because anger is not a mental illness; it is an emotion.
Why Do We Say That Anger Is Not a Mental Illness?
According to the American Psychological Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), anger is not a diagnosable mental disorder. The DSM-5 (the manual used to diagnose mental disorders) does not contain a diagnosis for anger.
Why? Because we all experience anger. Being angry does not make you mentally ill. Also, anger can be both good and bad. If we become angry enough over nonexistent gun laws and the slaughter of young children, maybe we as a nation will finally do something. In that case, our nationwide anger would be driving us to do something good. You certainly wouldn’t call anger that motivates us to save the lives of innocent children a mental illness, would you?
As one writer stated, we like to call shooters “evil,” but the shooter is not the only one who is evil.
“Granted the massacre of innocent children reflects an evil heart, politicians and leaders set on giving evil hearts easy access to tools of mass death share some responsibility for that evil. These politicians and their supporters are part of the structural injustice that gives individual evil room to operate.”
So, if we say that mass murderers are mentally ill, are we also saying that organizations like the NRA and their supporters are mentally ill? Because it is their actions (refusing gun control laws) that are supporting evil mass murderers and allowing such massacres as Uvalde to take place. We cannot just throw out the term “mental illness” as a scapegoat. That will not solve anything.
As I have said before, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that one person is mentally ill because he pulled the trigger on a gun that you sold him and taunted him to use. Then say, that the person who sold the gun (knowing full well that the only reason for owning an assault weapon is to kill people) is not mentally ill for supporting and enabling mass murder.
Many who say that they are “pro-life” also say that they are against gun control. If you are actually pro-life, you must also be pro-life for the innocent children sitting in the classroom. You cannot chant and march in the streets for the “rights” of the unborn fetus and then dance at the NRA convention while murdered children are being mourned and buried.
So, What Should We Do?
We are, in essence, sending students each day into a war zone called the classroom.
How do we make the terror stop? How do we make the pain go away? How do we remove the fear that is saturating our schools?
The NRA and their supporters are blaming mental illness but as we have shown mental illness is actually not the problem.
Guns Kill, Not Mental Illness.
Newsweek offers five charts that demonstrate the dramatic and horrible increase in gun crime, especially in schools. The number of children and teens killed in schools has risen dramatically since 2018. I hope you’ll take a moment to look over these graphs.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a psychologist, I am always in support of increasing funding for mental health (and we need it), but that will not stop mass murder in the classroom. The killing will go on. We must do more.
For more on anger and violence, read: Is It Physically and Psychologically Harmful for Children to Go to School? Part 1
Can We Control Anger?
Controlling anger is not as easy as pushing a button or prescribing a new medication.
Anger is an emotion, a reaction. Emotions are how we react to situations or circumstances in our life. Emotions are triggered by stimuli. It could be something someone said, an action, or an event that takes place. Each of us have had an emotional reaction to the murders in Uvalde, but no two emotional reactions are the same—not even with identical twins.
As one source notes, emotions are individual; they are derived from your personality, your experiences, and your perception of the world around you:
“In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling …. [emotions are] associated with … temperament, personality, mood, and motivation.”
So, emotion is a response. It may be a physical response (some kind of action or reaction), it may be neurological (just thoughts in the brain), or it might be a cognitive response (through communication and interaction with others).
Happiness is also an emotion. Therefore, emotions can be both positive and negative. Even with anger, if our frustration and anger causes us to take positive action on gun control, then such anger is actually positive and good. If on the other hand, someone's anger causes them to go out and buy an assault rifle and murder 19 children and two teachers, then their anger is very, very bad.
But as we have established, just because someone does something horrible, does not necessarily mean that the person is mentally incompetent, insane, or even suffering from a mental disorder. Love and happiness are emotions, so are hate, anger, frustration, and self-centeredness.
Emotions influence every single decision that we make in our life. Emotions also influence our “perceptions” and the way we view the world, but emotions are not a mental disorder.
You’ll remember that we have talked about perception before. Perceptions are “what you think,” but your perceptions may not be totally based on reality. Just because I think something doesn’t make it true. Remember COVID? Yes, it still exists. We have had lots of false information, lies, and distorted “alternative facts” floating around throughout the pandemic—still do.
We have the same problem with anger. The misinformation machine is pumping out tons of distorted facts and lies in reference to anger and guns. Remember, perceptions are not necessarily true. Perceptions are what you think, your opinions. Your opinion may be based on facts and reality, or your opinion may be based on something you heard or read on social media.
Just because you think it doesn’t make it so, just because someone on social media says it doesn’t make it true, just because a conservative news station reports something does not make it honest and factual, just because the NRA says something does not mean you should believe it.
Perceptions are also easily influenced by false information or distorted persuasive tactics. Famous psychologist Albert Bandura devoted an entire chapter of Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves to the gun industry. Check your local library, it’s a book worth reading. Bandura said,
“Shifting the blame for mass killings solely to mental illness reframed the debate as a mental health problem rather than a gun problem. The focus on mental illness also diverted attention away from everyday gun violence.” (p. 191)
Bandura made this statement after the Sandy Hook massacre where 20 young children and 6 adults were killed. Again, with Uvalde, we see the NRA and their henchman crying mental illness. Bandura goes on to explain that such tactics are psychologically deliberate by the NRA and their supporters. The NRA uses such tactics to change your perceptions. They distort the facts in order to sell more guns and thereby kill more people.
How Does Anger Get Out-Of-Control?
Remember, our perceptions (our opinions) may or may not be based on facts or reality.
The problem arises with how we each “react” to our emotions or to anger.
Look at what is happening all across the nation right now. People are angry about the massacre in Uvalde—as they should be. Well, most people are. Some people went off partying and dancing at the NRA convention instead of getting angry that children had been murdered.
As a result of their anger, many people are finally talking about gun control. This is good. If our mutual “anger” causes us to take action, to make changes in gun laws that make it safer for children, teens, and teachers, then our anger has been constructive. Anger often prods those who are reluctant into action. As such, anger can be good.
But wait, didn’t anger kill 19 children and 2 teachers in Uvalde? So, yes, anger can encourage you to take constructive action, but sometimes anger causes the wrong actions.
Exactly when does anger stop being good and become bad? When anger is out-of-control and hurts someone, even just hurting someone’s feelings, then anger is bad.
Often our personal beliefs and judgments of self and others cause out-of-control anger. Anger is a natural response, but it is how you react or respond to angry emotions that cause the problems.
Fear, disappointment, or regret can cause a person to lose control. When a person feels uncertain, this drives their fear. Fear is deeply rooted in anger. Lack of control is often centered in fear.
No, someone who goes and murders children in a classroom is NOT brave. That’s why the shooter is using a gun; he’s out-of-control and afraid of his own feelings of inferiority; therefore, he strikes out at someone he can dominate.
Hostility is another level of out-of-control anger. Hostility is rooted in a negative attitude, usually directed toward others. Since anger is an emotional state, it is influenced by feelings. If you hurt my feelings or reject me, I become angry. These feelings of anger may grow and fester until they either manifest themselves in physical pain toward myself or violence toward you or someone who I can hurt. As with Uvalde, the children were innocent targets for the shooter’s anger.
Pent-up anger may even cause an angry person to attack innocent people—someone who had nothing to do with their frustration or anger.
This is what we see happening with mass shooters, particularly school shootings at elementary schools. Why? There’s no one specific answer. Remember each person is different, each person’s reactions to their anger is different. Some have hypothesized that the shooter was looking for an easy target, but that doesn’t explain all of the mass shootings. Others have hypothesized that the shooter is returning to a perceived site of his pain. This idea is much harder to prove but may provide insight into the deeper problem of adjustment.
We may never know, but there are warning signs, red flags.
According to Healthline, a few of the warning signs or red flags to watch for are:
- Someone engaging in self-harming behaviors.
- Someone who expresses anger to those considered weaker, innocent, or less powerful.
- Someone incapable of letting anger go or accepting a situation. The anger just continues to build and get worse.
- Someone who threatens others, even friends or family.
What Causes Anger To Become Out of Control?
The root causes of anger are feeling embarrassed, being humiliated (either deliberate or perceived), feeling shame from something you've done, frustration, suffering an injustice (real or perceived), feeling intimidated, rage, being hurt by another person, fear, betrayal, being called names, teasing, bullying, lies, being excluded, violation of your rights or expectations (even perceived), hatred, self-pity, a sense of helplessness (there’s no way out), feeling trapped by something you’ve said or done, an intentional verbal or physical attack, uncertainty, and a sense of failure—even academic failure.
Do you notice something about this list? They are all feelings, feelings that we react to emotionally. The list also mentions both real and perceived feelings of injustice. These feelings are also reactions to the words and actions of others.
Is Out-Of-Control Anger Always Violent Toward Others?
No, anger can take on different patterns. Healthline provides a general description. The following are examples of out-of-control anger. There is never anything constructive about out-of-control anger. For example, when marchers in the street become violent, their anger is no longer constructive. It has crossed over into out-of-control anger. If you want your anger to be constructive (bring about change), you must keep your anger under control.
- “Outward. This involves expressing your anger and aggression in an obvious way. This can include behavior such as shouting, cursing, throwing or breaking things, or being verbally or physically abusive toward others.
- Inward. This type of anger is directed at yourself. It involves negative self-talk, denying yourself things that make you happy or even basic needs, such as food. Self-harm and isolating yourself from people are other ways anger can be directed inward.
- Passive. This involves using subtle and indirect ways to express your anger. Examples of this passive aggressive behavior include giving someone the silent treatment, sulking, being sarcastic, and making snide remarks.”
Is It Possible to Cure or Correct Out-Of-Control Anger?
Yes, but it is not always easy, nor does every therapy technique work for everyone. There is no “one size fits all.” A lot of the advice that you read online doesn’t work which only makes an angry person angrier.
I believe anger control techniques only work as one-on-one therapy. Although I am a very strong believer in group therapy, I believe that you must get control of your anger in a one-on-one therapy setting before you are ready to try controlling your anger in a group. Groups can complicate anger. Therapy groups also give a person a chance to try controlling their anger in a controlled setting, but the individual must have control of their anger before they can learn from the group experience.
I prefer the term anger “retraining,” rather than “anger management.” Because if you are not “retraining” the person to control their anger, you will not be successful. We are not born with controlled emotional responses. Young children must be taught to control their emotions and anger. It is a learned skill. Some people never learn it, no matter how old they become.
Lectures never work, and neither do motivational talks. They are a total waste of time.
I think that cognitive restructuring works best with anger retraining. True cognitive restructuring can only be taught effectively by highly trained psychological professionals. This is not something that the schools can teach or even the school counselor. You need a trained professional. Restructuring doesn’t happen instantly; it takes time.
BetterHelp describers cognitive restructuring.
“Cognitive restructuring is something we can all benefit from…. Typically, restructuring involves acknowledging a thought that may be maladaptive and actively working to reframe or challenge it.
How you talk to yourself is every bit as important as how you talk to others, perhaps more so. When you tell yourself negative things like "Everything is ruined," you are perpetuating a negative emotion. When you change your thinking to tell yourself "This is upsetting, and it's understandable to be angry, but now, it's time to find solutions," you turn that negative energy into something that can help you move forward.”
This is why I say that the proposed mental health spending to stop mass murders will not work. Let me say again, I definitely agree that we need to increase mental health funding, especially for professionally trained mental health personnel in schools and for establishing actual mental health clinics in schools. Unfortunately, anger is an act of violence; therefore, just funding mental health will not stop mass shootings.
What Can We Do as a Society?
Stop bickering and control guns, especially assault weapons. Gun control does not mean that guns are going to be abolished, but availability has been proven to be at the center of the mass shooting sprees. Many of the mass school shooters purchased their guns less than a year before they massacred students and teachers. Remember, anger is an emotional reaction. If you control availability, you go a long way toward controlling the out-of-control anger.
Anger kills. Easy access makes it easier to kill, and when gun advertisements encourage young men to kill, then such advertisements simply encourage out-of-control anger and rage. Gun advertisements tempt angry young men and persuasively plant the seeds of murder. Yes, we need gun control in order to stop the anger, and we also need control over gun advertisements. These ads often target children:
“The week before the Texas shooting, Daniel Defense [a gun salesman] posted a photograph on Facebook and Twitter, showing a little boy sitting cross-legged, an assault rifle balanced across his lap. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” the caption reads, echoing a biblical proverb. “When he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The ad was posted online on May 16th, the shooter’s 18th birthday. The next day, the shooter bought his first gun.
Forget the NRA’s propaganda. Guns kill.
Be pro-life for the children sitting in the classroom. Let the children live so that they will have an opportunity to learn and grow up to enjoy life.
Children need help this summer to make up learning losses in reading, but we can’t teach children to read, if they are too terrified to sit in the classroom or go to school.
Tutoring has been described by the schools as the method most likely to help students overcome learning losses.
Read for more on tutoring methods: What Kind of Tutoring Programs Do We Need to Correct the Learning Losses Caused by COVID? Part 2
I’m emphasizing one-on-one and small group tutoring this summer. Contact me if you have questions or need help setting up a tutoring program.