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Adam Blatner, M.D.

(RePosted February 19, 2005)

Anger is a natural emotion and signals a need for a change in the environment. However, it is possible and usually desirable to express anger in modulated forms, and learning to do this is the hallmark of maturity.

Role playing is an excellent way to learn this skill, because each level of anger involves a different complex of not only behavior, but also expectations. It is useful, then, to consider the range of roles that go with different levels of experiencing anger.

Seven Types of Anger

The first type–give it the number zero ("0")–involves feeling anger, consciously or subconsciously–but not expressing it at all. Sometimes the person knows they are irritated, or perhaps even very angry, but they can't admit it, not even to a friend, and often not even to herself. Even more often there are people who have learned at an early age to repress anger, so they don't even know they're feeling it. They need to re-learn to become sensitive to their own bodily cues and subtle feelings.

When anger isn't expressed verbally at all, it tends to find other ways of coming out, usually in the form of psychosomatic symptoms, unconsciously acting-out in a passive-aggressive fashion, displacement on others, etc.

Now, admittedly, there are many times when direct expression of anger is politically unwise. But at least the individual can clearly notice the feelings and think about how they can be dealt with, or talk about them with a trusted friend. This does count as a form of healthy expression.

The second type, with the number one-half ("0.5"), represents a different role. Here the person does express the anger, but in a remarkably ineffective, half-hearted, or indirect fashion. The expectation in this role is that other people will–or "should"–pick up on these subtle cues and back off, or somehow get the message.

Now, in fact, in some sub-cultures, these more subtle messages are learned by everyone and people seem to be able to make their interpersonal adjustments without ever having to be explicit. Part of the goal is not to embarrass the other person. The trouble is that in this era of inter-cultural mixing, one is likely to encounter others who haven't learned to be sensitive to these more subtle messages. Also, there are people with temperaments that are, shall we say, just a bit more dense, and they have real trouble picking up on indirect expressions. There's no point in blaming such people–there's little they can do to correct the problem--; what's needed is to learn to communicate more clearly, directly, but without reproach–the next level up.

The third type of anger is called "Level one" ("1")  because it's a clear message. It's a role that many people haven't learned: Just say what you want in a non-blaming fashion. I call it a role because it requires a bit of acting skill. Most folks tend to add an edge of anger, a scowl, or, in the other direction, a scowl of embarrassment. That is, they tend to flip into a 3 or a level 0.5.

The important point to recognize is that most decent civilized people will respond to a level one statement, and, if perhaps they weren't paying attention, were otherwise distracted, or caught up in their own agenda, simply repeating the level one statement suffices.

Getting more angry when the other person means well but just didn't realize you were uncomfortable only hurts them, for it communicates an expectation that you think they are less than decent and well-meaning. This is a very important point!

The Middle Levels

Level two ("2"): Okay, say that the other person didn't respond to a straight message, even if it is repeated. So you intensify your voice a bit, your face hardens from a gentle smile into a slightly more stern expression–but, interestingly, still not a scowl. You repeat your statement–usually one that is phrased as a clear request or command.

Again, most folks who have failed to register your irritation at level 1 will respond to level 2, and you should expect this of them. People generally want to be cooperative, and they do care about your feelings, if only they get the message clearly enough that you are bothered.

Learning to master this role is the most important skill: The point here is to avoid excessive reproach. You don't want to imply that you have been storing up anger, that it's too late to "mend the fences," that the other person has offended you and you will never forgive him or respect him again. Rather, the role of a 2 is to communicate that if the other person would just stop doing what is bothersome, or in other ways change some behavior, all would be just fine. There's still an undercurrent of suggesting that you think the other person is just fine, caring, but perhaps didn't get the previous message that this is important to you.

Part of doing level 2 well is knowing that you can comfortably de-escalate to a level 1 or into soothing behavior on one hand, and that you can also escalate to the next level if it is necessary.

Level three ("3") is another important role: Now you're angry! You're not very angry (4), nor are you out of control (5), but you're clearly irritated. A new dimension has entered the situation: You're not only bothered by the behavior, but that irritation is compounded by an edge of hurt and indignation that the other person doesn't seem to care that you're bothered!  So the problem of the relationship is called into question.

This role would appropriately include a scowl, a hard-edged voice that is to some degree raised in loudness and intensity, and a statement like: "Now I'm angry." It also begins to suggest the level of threat, the simple communication that if you don't change the environment, I will take some kind of step as a response. A great deal of maturity and judgment is needed in practicing this role, because each response must be measured to fit the nature of the relationship, the status and consciousness of the offending party, the context, etc.

Level four ("4") (the sixth level mentioned) involves the next step of escalation. This is done mainly with children who are "testing limits." They want to see what you're going to do as a parent or teacher to enforce your anger. Kids don't know what a parent getting angry means, and they need to find out without getting really traumatized in the process.

At 4 your voice is even louder, you get into the kid's face a bit, your facial expression is fierce–beyond stern–and, well, you yell. With younger kids, you physically pick them up–don't shake them–and place them firmly onto a couch or some soft surface. The point is to let them feel your forcefulness. They should have a rush of anxiety. However, there is no actual physical pain imposed, nor are there any really demeaning or insulting or hurtful words spoken.

(Children need to develop the capacity for a mild amount–say, around 8%–of fear, guilt, and shame. Not 20% or more–that edges into trauma. But a small measure. It civilizes them. It builds their healthy conscience. If children entertain less than 5% discomfort when faced with others' anger, they tend to be spoiled, entitled, a little sociopathic. So kids need to experience the consequences of their natural testing of social limits–they need to feel appalled by what they've done and how it turned out.)

Some children need to go through this process of gradual escalation–not too gradual, just one step with each warning– perhaps several times a year. Children with more sensitive temperaments may need less intensity of a reaction and they'll test less often, while more wilful kids will take you all the way to a 4.

It's important for parents to know that it's all right to get to 3 and 4–it doesn't make them mean or too horrible to their children. If they've been either pampered or dealt with too ferociously, they'll have trouble knowing about these middle levels, and learning how to do anger is an important role training component of their therapy.

As for dealing with adults, well, the 4 level move is most probably walking away, leaving the situation, cooling off. Working at level 2 to 3 then follows, in a negotiating fashion. You inquire, "Wait, I need to know, do you care at all about my feelings in this matter?" You address the problem of relationship directly–apart from whatever the behavior was that started it all.

Losing Your Temper

The seventh level is Level five, ("5"), and involves the role of rage. For civilized behavior, in families, in any situation in which you hope to be able to continue having any kind of a relationship with the other person, level 5 is not acceptable. To flip into rage is to "lose your temper," and there is a sense of letting go of self-modulating control. Rage involves physically hitting, throwing things, threatening people with violence, and using verbal violence–saying truly hurtful things. It is ethically bad. I say this because there are some people who still have islands of self-justification about the concept of anger–that "if you make me mad, I get really mad." These "anger-holics" are self-indulgent and immature.

(Interestingly, there is a place for "pulling out all the stops," and that is when a person has been physically attacked. There are classes offered for women that help them cultivate a capacity for responding with full force, pulling out all the stops, counter-attacking those attempting an assault with maximum violence. It includes screaming at the top of one's lungs! This is a type of role training also offered to military troops in engaging in hand-to-hand combat.)  

However, a major point of this whole exercise is to help people stop losing their tempers, to never go to 5 in civilized settings. If you know you can play the middle roles of anger, and you develop confidence that they work to re-adjust situations as needed, you don't have to lose control.

Perhaps they themselves never learned about middle level anger. There are lots of folks who have been raised in situations in which anger was either 0 or 5–nothing in between. And there's little good modeling on television. Anger there is expressed as intimidating and threatening behavior, gross violence, and when verbal, in the form of sarcasm, the ugly put-down, the snappy comeback. But you never hear anyone say, "Well, this is bothering me, but I want to look at it also from your point of view."

The other group are those who lose their temper and feel terrible about it–these are the folks who haven't learned to go beyond 0 or 0.5 and feel comfortable. Anything more direct seems "too much," and so they tend to bottle it up until it erupts into behavior that really is too much, which then only proves to themselves that any kind of anger is overwhelming. But in truth they don't know about the middle levels.

It's important to help people feel not okay about losing temper. I often draw the analogy to losing control of bowels–it's what little kids do. Growing up involves learning self-control, of anger as much as of poop. But I hasten to note that it's important to move the bowels, it's essential to health and life, even!  But it's where it's put and how it's put there that makes all the difference. The emphasis is on the idea that the alternative is not just repressing anger, but rather the fact that there are satisfying and effective ways to express it–the middle levels.  (Lots of folks, sad to say, never knew there were middle levels, or that it was okay to go to those middle levels.)

Moving Gradually

 It's important not to skip levels, to move from an 0.5 to a 3, or even from a 1 to a 3, much less from a 2 to a 4. The point here is that you want to communicate always that you are expecting the best from the other person, that if they only clearly recognized that you were bothered, you expect that they'd be eager to accommodate you–because in fact this is usually the case.

 On the other hand, you don't want to be a wimp and just repeat how you're bothered and what you want different again and again. If the other person doesn't respond, go to the next level, or at least the next half-level. But keep escalating or you'll be betraying your own needs. This approach to anger is a calculated strategy for dealing with your discomfort so that you don't end up either repressing your irritation or blowing up.

 With practice and maturity, you'll find it's helpful sometimes to even learn behaviors that are half-way between the middle levels. It's part of the learning of more refined social skills. It's also good to learn a set of problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills, role reversal for empathy, the art of apology, learning to back off and give the other person some space, etc. Each of those items could be another whole chapter.

 It's worth repeating, though, that at 3 or 4, you want to gauge your responses to fit the realities of the situation. There's no guaranteed specific formula for how to behave, for how to be angry, but the knowledge of the various levels and some experiential practice in working with them are good tools to have in your role repertoire.


 You can learn to use anger constructively in your life by practicing a version of role training, and thinking of the different levels of anger as different kinds of roles that you combine and work with in order to achieve a desired resolution to a bothersome situation.

(This is a re-write of a chapter in a 1985 monograph I wrote with the title, "Creating Your Living." I'm presently working on a revision and expansion of the book.)

 For more information on other techniques related to role playing and the method from which it derives (i.e., psychodrama), see other pages on this website.

For responses, email me at adam@blatner.com
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