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A Man with an Angry Brain

Devron Johnson is a 40-year-old male who's been divorced for 10 years, partly because of his anger problems. An intelligent but not highly educated man, he works as a heating and cooling technician. He has two adolescent sons, with whom he barely converses and seldom visits. He's now in a new relationship with Sheila, a 36-year-old mother of three younger children who live with them. Although Devron has never been physically violent with the children, he often frightens them with his angry outbursts.

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.

As I spoke, I watched Devron's "show me" expression change to hope and wonder. "You mean I can really change the way I think?" he asked. It turned out that Devron's oppositionality obscured a deep sense of pessimism and hopelessness. He'd believed that change was impossible, in effect dooming him to a lifelong anger career. But now, maybe because of my own sense of conviction, he began to see possibilities. We talked a little more before the hour ended, and I asked him to think about how much he wanted to change his brain and in which ways. I also asked him what positive goals he wanted to pursue--for example, what other emotions he might be willing to experience if his brain wasn't dominated by anger. A positive goal is important with all clients, of course, but especially with angry clients, who often mistakenly set only the negative goal of being less angry. I explained to Devron that only setting a negative goal like quitting being angry was like deciding that a car that currently could only go in reverse would be just fine if you could get it to stay in neutral. The idea is to move forward in life, to get that car moving ahead. Of course this same idea applies to only quitting drinking (instead of leading a sober lifestyle) or stopping being critical (instead of giving praise).

Finally, I cautioned Devron again that real brain change doesn't come easy. I told him 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 then sent him home with two pages of examples of possible brain change plans he could implement. One example was converting criticism and pessimism to praise and optimism. Another was to convert resentment into forgiveness. A third was to look for the good in people (and himself) instead of the bad.

When Devron returned a week later, he said he'd thought a lot about changing his brain and his life. He'd discussed it with Sheila, who'd told him she'd stick around for a while if she saw him really working to change his behavior. Now he was eager to make a six-month commitment to brain change. I then gave him some handouts I've created to help him name his brain-change plan. A person with a good brain plan has given it a name that means something at an emotional level, includes specific initial behaviors to maximize the opportunity for immediate success, and at least speculates about longer-term improvements and additions, and how achieving these changes might affect him or her. I also gave Devron the chapter on neuroplastic change from my book to reinforce the idea that changing his brain was realistic, if and only if he'd make a strong commitment to it.

Devron's Brain-Change Plan.

Devron returned the next week in a quandary. He told me that he and Sheila had had a big disagreement about what his brain-change plan should include. She wanted him to be nicer to her children. Devron told me that he wanted to be nicer to them, but that his first concern was quitting thinking so pessimistically about the world. "If I can't quit thinking that everyone is out to screw me over, I don't think my changes will last," he said. I thought Devron had hit upon a clear understanding of how he needed to change at an existential level. Brain-change plans aren't simple behavioral alterations: they really change your brain, and in doing so, ultimately affect your connections with yourself, those you love, and the universe. So I affirmed Devron's insight. However, I did point out that his goal and Sheila's weren't contradictory. Being nicer to the kids could well become one way that he altered his mindset of hostility and suspiciousness. After all, deeply held beliefs don't change completely on their own. Devron needed to try out new behavior and receive positive rewards for doing so in order to give his brain the opportunity to be transformed.

I'd like to offer a side comment here. We often expect our angry clients to act as if they were living in a safe world, a world in which people are pleasant, trustworthy, loving, and consistent. This false belief on our part sets clients up to fail. Devron's siblings, for instance, regularly engaged in felonious behaviors, such as drug dealing and robbery, and expected him to join them as he often had in the past. He told me during therapy that he'd begun declining these invitations. When I asked him if he'd practiced being assertive with them, he laughed. "I guess if telling my brother to go to hell when he attacked me for not going along with some scam he was into, then yes, I was very assertive." The result of his new "good" behavior was that his family ostracized him for several months. Fortunately though, Sheila and her children were dependably in his corner, so that Devron could practice new, prosocial behavior around them without being criticized or ridiculed.

Devron named his plan "Learning to Trust." I was tempted to add "and take in love," but Devron would have labeled that phrase unmanly. When I asked him how he planned to begin this plan, he suggested he could go to his father to see if he could learn to trust the man he most distrusted in the world. Needless to say, this was a palpably rotten idea: in all likelihood, his father would once again have demonstrated his complete untrustworthiness, potentially undermining everything Devron was trying to do. I talked him out of it with some difficulty by pointing out that he was betting his whole stake on one roll of the dice. "Besides, it's a bad bet," I said. "You'd be better off investing in a smaller stake, like letting yourself trust Sheila more." That reminded him of his real priorities.

He decided to open up emotionally a little more to both his family and a few trusted coworkers. For example, he told some of his history to two of his coworkers, the ones he felt most comfortable with, and they responded positively with their own self-disclosures. Then he took a bigger chance by admitting to Sheila that he had cheated on his first wife. Much to his shock, she told him she'd known about it for a long time--his ex-wife had thoughtfully given Sheila that information when she'd begun dating Devron--but she'd chosen not to mention it and trust that he'd be faithful to her.

Shiela's disclosure and assertion of trust brought him to tears. At that very moment, his brain-change plan spontaneously expanded to include being trustworthy to others. Since Devron had a long history of lying by omission ("Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you that") this expansion was quite significant. It had proved harder for him than the initial goal because he'd had to retrain himself not to leave out some of the truth "so nobody could pin me down." He kept expanding from his core commitment to develop trust. He realized along the way that he'd been mean to Sheila's children because he didn't want to get close to them and then lose them. But Sheila came through by rewarding his obvious changes with reassurance that she'd stay with him.

I regularly review a client's brain-change plan with him or her, rather than just assume it's working fine. It's important to challenge clients quickly if they're letting their plan drift.

The final addition to Devron's plan was learning how to be more empathetic. Devron acknowledged that empathy was strange territory for him: "Frankly, I never gave a damn what anybody else felt." But now that he felt safer, he could do what safe people do: care about and take a real interest in others. Like many angry people, he has some difficulty being empathic. Empathy partly depends on automatic attunement processes usually learned in infancy through parent--infant synchronic movement. He experienced few such experiences as a child. We talked together about this deficit, a deficit he was determined to challenge. He immediately made a real effort to put himself in the shoes of others. It's just that he had trouble first taking off his own shoes. For instance, he told his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, who was being teased by classmates, that he knew exactly how she felt, even though he'd been the bully, not the victim, when he'd been in school. But here again, the principles of neuroplasticity apply. Devron realized he'd misunderstood the situation when his daughter got mad at his reply. He then consciously took the time to listen better. Gradually, this behavior was becoming faster, smoother, and more automatic.

Devron's plan, then, began with developing some basic trust in the world, which led to being trustworthy himself, which morphed into increased empathy and actually caring about others. He quit working with me after approximately nine months. Our last session included Sheila, who affirmed that Devron had become much less angry, more caring, and far more present in their lives. She'd previously doubted his changes would endure, "But he's only becoming nicer," she admitted. "I don't doubt him any longer." Devron added that he now felt deep inside his soul that he could trust Sheila. He felt safe in a relationship for the first time in his life. "So now I have no reason to be mad all the time." Of course, he and Sheila still argue from time to time, as do almost all couples. But Devron controls his initial burst of anger far better than before, calms down quicker, and lets go of his anger sooner.

Case Commentary

By Steven Stosny

Anyone who works with angry men understands Ron Potter-Efron's history of frustration in dealing with clients who are, as he puts it, "antimotivated." Problem anger comes with an attribution of blame, so, of course, such clients see themselves as merely reacting to an unfair and threatening world.

I can especially sympathize with Potter-Efron's enthusiasm for "brain change" as a way to motivate clients so resistant to help. I'd favor just about anything that gets these guys to buy into a program that stops their destructive behavior. Most angry men in my experience are more eager to learn about the brain than delve into childhood issues or engage in other kinds of therapy talk. Many of my clients request copies of the PET scans I show in treatment. Long before neuroplasticity became a clinical buzzword, many angry men asked me for hypnosis, electric shock, or anything that would "change their brains."

Potter-Efron's work with Devron goes well beyond simply helping him manage his anger. He helped Devron replace the need for anger as a defense by increasing his capacity for empathy and emotional connection. While it could be argued that, at 40, Devron is more open to an approach based on better connections than an angry 24-year-old, the work was nonetheless admirably effective with this client.

Angry people of any age get caught in the trap of substituting power for value. They feel devalued by something occurring in the environment (or in their heads) and try to do something that temporarily makes them feel more powerful, when they need to do something that will make them feel more valuable. An angry man who feels devalued by the behavior of his stepchildren will want to control them through dominance or coercion. But if he's focused on what will make him feel more valuable, instead of temporarily more powerful, he'll want to help them behave in ways that are more successful. The shift in focus from power to value is likelier to increase empathy and prosocial behavior than a focus on empathy for its own sake. In any case, education about the "angry brain" should include the fact that the "anger problem" is usually activated by sudden vulnerability to feeling devalued.

A few caveats: professionals must take care not to present plausible assumptions as scientific fact. No studies actually show that practice of anger management techniques changes the brain, although it is plausible to assume so. Neuroplasticity means that the brain is changeable; it doesn't at this point tell us that our techniques change it more meaningfully than, say, habitually taking the steps at work rather than the elevator. Therapists may know what we mean by terms like angry brain, but are we sure our clients know? Does Devron make a distinction between "I'm angry" and "My brain is angry?" Will he wonder whether changing his brain changes his personality or his spirit?

None of these remarks is meant to diminish Potter-Efron's fine work with Devron or detract from motivating difficult clients with information about probable brain function.

Ronald Potter-Efron, Ph.D., a clinical psychotherapist, is co-owner of First Things First Counseling and Consulting and director of its Anger Management Center. He's the author of Shame, Guilt, and Alcoholism, Angry All the Time, and Healing the Angry Brain. Contact:

Steven Stosny, Ph.D. is the director of Compassion Power. His books include You Don't Have to Take It Anymore: How to Turn a Resentful, Angry or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One and How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. Contact:

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