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Review of "Taking Charge of Anger"

By W. Robert Nay
Guilford Press, 2003
Review by David M. Wolf, M.A. on Oct 4th 2005
Taking Charge of Anger

This is a thorough but concise guide to anger management written for people who want to control and, ultimately, resolve their own anger. It's so nicely organized and well-written it won't make readers more angry trying to find appropriate solutions. There are a few things it omits, perhaps, but these are relatively minor; so this is a comprehensive guide that is, nonetheless, usefully brief.

The first two chapters ask readers to slow down--and even take a self-assessment test--to determine just what kind of anger problems or pain the reader might have. This approach implies (or assumes) that readers are serious about the issues of anger, and the balance of the book builds on this premise. People will first find out how anger is a problem for them personally as they begin to work the program contained in this guide. The pay-off is worth the effort.

Robert Nay, who is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and an associate professor at Georgetown U. School of Medicine, has organized his approach within what he calls "Six Steps" of anger management. As each "Step" involves at least two chapters and considerable detail, it might be more descriptive here to recognize that each of these Steps is itself an important and wide-ranging topic: understanding and recognizing (your) anger, what triggers anger, dampening your anger arousal, changing the thinking behind anger, the use of specific techniques for breath work and mental suggestion, and finally, staying the course of anger management.

Each of these topics is a complex subject in its own right, but Robert Nay's approach keeps things simple enough to permit the reader to master what's needed. At every stage the focus is on instrumental approaches that can be easily and quickly applied. For instance, when speaking of anger triggers, Nay is focused on the "expectations" that govern anger. It's a matter of making expectations match reality, he shows, because any gap between expectation/reality causes much (most?) anger. Expectations of self and others are at the heart of the problems and the design of this book. People fail to live up to their own expectations and those of others. Major domains like intimacy, relations, jobs, families are involved.

Nay helps readers "pinpoint" their anger and its causes. This is a notable strength of this work--it's not vague where it needs to be specific. People need to find their anger intensifiers and the author guides them in doing that.

Dampening aroused anger also requires specific techniques, particularly in muscle relaxation, breath work--that is, learning the methods for using breath consciously to eliminate anger arousal and anger intensifiers--and in the uses of language and, also, how one thinks. These four approaches, when combined, provide a powerful system for anger management. Better yet, Nay shows how to use the system fast in actual anger situations.

Chapter 8 moves on to what the author says is the most important management skill of all--how to do assertive problem-solving while steering clear of anger and aggression. This kind of problem-solving is about communicating effectively and non-threateningly, so there are clear and specific rules for what to communicate and how to do it well. The idea is to make anger productive by removing the faces of hostility and aggression completely. Nay provides a list of "roadblocks" to communication: such as, labeling ("You're a moron!"), mind reading ("You love to argue, don't you."), or "exasperating" (rolling the eyes or "Get to the point!") and others. He also teaches how to listen to others effectively and, thereby, reduce conflict. It's a terrific chapter and a stand-alone guide.

Chapter 9, "When Anger is Aimed at You," turns the corner to the social aspects of anger management. Obviously, mastering ones own anger is only half of the equation in life--other people pose the challenge of potential conflicts. The approach should remind us of the old saw about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you: dampen your own anger before attempting to deal with someone else who's angry. The key Nay relies on is that people should deny an angry person a "pay-off" for an angry face, that is, any expression of hostility or aggression. Keep in mind these faces can be passive or active. Don't touch an angry person, clarify, remain calm, refocus: these are some of the approaches.

The book wraps up with study ideas about staying on track toward a less angry life, including what to do when one back-tracks into anger and hostility. Basically, analyze what went wrong and get back to working the program.

What might be missing in this otherwise comprehensive guide to anger management is a chapter dealing with humor--what to avoid and what is included in things funny. Nay doesn't even have an index listing for fun or funny, and this could be a revealing omission. A little-known fact about humor is that it is usually underlain by anger; comedy is even regarded as a socially-acceptable way in which humor is vented (if not, as Nay would say, dampened). There is a short reference to "sarcasm" and joking (p. 36) but this is all. The subject calls for research and in-depth understanding. Being funny can express anger and even cause increased hostility, so it needs to be understood and managed (sometimes banned too). However, the opposite can be true too: funny insights can dampen individual and social anger and can lead to good humor all around. Sorting out these phenomena is important in itself and belongs in a study like this one, Taking Charge of Anger. Some would argue that many angry people just have no sense of humor about themselves--and this insight is perhaps the seed of a full inquiry. In general, learning to lower expectations, dampen anger's arousal, identify the faces of anger, understand what triggers anger, breathing slower and doing muscle relaxation--all these things--are implicit in a good belly laugh. So, we should all learn to make the conscious connection. Some guidance on the relationship between humor and anger management is needed.


2005 David Wolf


David M. Wolf is the author of Philosophy That Works, a book about the practice of philosophy. His book page for orders (hardback & paperback) is ; readers can also see the first chapter there.

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