“I want you to play the woman my ex-husband had an affair with.” I’m on Zoom with 13 angry men and women. The statement is made by Sue, a single mother in her mid-forties, and is addressed to me. Sue believes her husband had an affair five years ago, but she never confronted either party to find out whether her suspicions were true. It consumes her to this day. I ready myself for a response, moulding my face into what I hope is the appropriate expression of someone about to be outed for a significant betrayal.
“I need the truth from you,” Sue says to me. “What you did makes me feel worthless, like I’m less of a person.” I want to give Sue what she needs but I want it to feel authentic too. “Thank you for putting this out in the open,” I say at last. “I hope we can move forward.” Afterwards we both admit our hearts are racing. “But there’s a sense of relief as well,” Sue says. By the end of the three-hour Zoom meeting she says she feels more peaceful than she has in a long time.
We are midway through a nine-week anger management course run by the British Association of Anger Management (Baam for short, as appropriate an acronym as there could be for a course designed to help those with short fuses). The programme, comprising 27 hours of online group work, costs £495. Sessions are run once a week in the evenings and facilitated by Mike Fisher, a charismatic anger management guru and therapist from South Africa who founded Baam in 1997. Most other British anger management courses are one on one with a counsellor, whereas Baam is known for its group focus. “Your anger is welcome here,” Fisher tells us in the first session. “Your shame is welcome here.”
There is a history of anger in my family that stretches back to our Texan roots. As a child I assumed immense bouts of rage were part and parcel of domestic life; that it was normal for small things — a dropped plate, a bad day at school or work — to transform the family home into screaming chaos. It was not until I reached my teens, and friends began to discuss their own home lives, that I realised my circumstances were not usual and that each family is dysfunctional in its own way.
For my brothers and father anger tends to present itself as a loud and fiery thing. As a kid I was the same. But from the age of 11 this outward expression of rage vanished and has remained tightly coiled ever since. Today, at the age of 26, I am an imploder rather than an exploder. I am scared of what could happen in the future if this anger finds its way out of me and becomes loud again. If I were to have a long-term partner or children one day, would that pattern of rage repeat itself between us?
“What does an angry person look like?” Fisher asks during our first session, leaving a pause. He opens his arms wide and says: “Well, here you all are. Take a look.” Though I know from my own familial experience that anger is just one of many guises a person wears, I couldn’t help but construct the stereotypical portrait of an angry person in my head before meeting them all. And, like my family, they both are and aren’t as I had imagined. We are three women and ten men: business owners, construction workers, fitness fanatics, former army officers, paediatric nurses and sound engineers.
Many people come to the course “after the event”. After their loved one has kicked them out, after their child has cut off ties with them, after they have been fired from work or arrested following an uncontrollable bout of rage. Fisher welcomes everyone, except domestic violence cases, since they require at least 35 weeks of sessions involving the whole family.
“I’m here because I think I might be about to lose the love of my life,” we are told by Sam, a man in his late fifties whose wife asked him to leave the family home at the start of the pandemic. Midway through lockdown Emily’s partner gave her an ultimatum. “We were at a pretty low point,” she tells me. She had lost control of her anger, finding herself screaming at her partner until the early hours. “He deserves so much better,” she says. Eventually he told her: “I can’t keep forgiving you for the things you say.” They were trying to bring up a young son and Emily, 28, was seven months pregnant with their second child.
Fisher’s own history of rage is a significant draw for clients — the aspirational leader whose trajectory we can hope to replicate. “Once upon time I was a monster,” he informs us. You get the sense he has said this exact line a hundred times, the glint in his eyes reminiscent of an ageing rock star performing to his most devoted fans. Members of the group read and reread his books with cultlike devotion, quoting his various mantras in sessions and affectionately referring to him as “the Guru”.
Fisher, who now lives in Spain, is in his early sixties, tanned, with long white hair and a goatee. He says he did not know he was angry until he reached his thirties. His rage lay beneath a heavy layer of depression.
Researchers often draw an equivalence between anger and depression. An article published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests anger is often a symptom of depression, stemming from “narcissistic vulnerability, a sensitivity to perceived or actual loss or rejection”. Fisher has a number of homemade aphorisms he likes to declare during sessions. One we hear a lot is: “Where there is anger, there is hope. Where there is depression, there is very little hope.” What I think he means is that if you are expressing your sadness through rage, you are still able to ask for help. When you are seriously depressed, you no longer have the energy even for that.
It was a friend’s betrayal that eventually caused Fisher’s rage to erupt. “I went completely ballistic,” he wrote in his first book, Beating Anger. “I was on the rampage for months.” “It was fun,” he tells me. “Shouting, screaming, swearing, threatening …” But afterwards he had to deal with the consequences. “People were scared of me. My wife was scared. I lost a lot of business.” He was working as a therapist at the time. But when he sought out anger management for himself, he discovered the services available in Britain, where he was then living, were “not up to scratch”. His entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and, after he had specialised training, Baam was born.
Anger, Fisher tells me, is a “portal” to his clients’ true problems. “At first they think it’s anger, but when they start the programme they realise how f***ed up they are.”
Fisher is adding more programmes than ever to accommodate demand during lockdowns. “People are scared of losing their jobs, scared of getting the virus, scared of the loneliness of self-isolation, scared of facing further issues in their marriage …”
The sessions have a recurring structure. We begin with a “check-in”, taking it in turns to state our feelings and anything significant that’s happened to us that week. At the close we “check out”, naming our feelings once more and something we’ve learnt from the session. The first few times feel laughably hard. Fisher says many of his clients lack basic emotional literacy. We’re happy to say we are stressed or tired, but these are not emotions — and so are banned from check-ins. “Fine”, which he tells us stands for “F***ed up, insecure, neurotic and emotional”, is also off limits. Instead we are given eight primary feelings to choose from, adapted from a psychology model called the “feeling wheel”: angry, happy, sad, hurt, shameful, fearful, powerful and peaceful.
The check-ins become important grounding rituals, as well as windows into the way the pandemic is altering our lives. We discover two members have been made redundant. Another admits to having fallen off the wagon. “Eventually I let loose at him,” another will say, describing how they swore at a colleague or how their anger came out sharply at their wife again. In his research on Alcoholics Anonymous, Adam Kaplin, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that “meetings are particularly useful for people who need to hear themselves confessing”. The group does not absolve you, but the intensity of one’s shame is lessened by being able to admit your shortcomings to a neutral party.
A few weeks in, the word “powerful” starts to come up more regularly in check-outs, as if the ability to express our feelings verbally is itself a form of power.
In the second part of the session Fisher talks us through the principal theories underlying anger. These theories are written up in our anger manual. My favourite page contains the descriptions of the “six anger styles” that Fisher came up with himself. For “the Intimidator”, he writes, “looks can kill, aggressive stance, shouting, eyeballing, body posturing,” alongside an image of a man in a suit, his fist held up to the camera. The “Poor me” style is described as “victim (the whiner), usually passive aggressive (anger expressed sideways)”, paired with a posed image of a woman looking mildly concerned.
The final part of the session is dedicated to experiential work. We are divided into breakout groups, coaching one another using various methodologies. This is where Fisher’s style differs from therapy. Anger management — considered a psycho-educational approach — offers practical tools and has a more explicit goal than the open-ended work of counselling.
I find it hard to sleep after sessions and start a routine of night walks. On these wanders I realise anger is not the only form of self-expression I have been suppressing. Past boyfriends have often told me I am distant, emotionally unavailable. Dr Brené Brown, an American professor and podcast host, suggests “you cannot selectively numb feelings”. If you try to turn off anger or sadness or fear, your capacity to experience great love or happiness is reduced as well.
Halfway though the programme Fisher asks out of the blue: “So, who has a problem with someone else in this group?” There is a stunned silence. “Oh, come on, a group of angry people who’ve spent over 15 hours together, one of you must have a problem with someone else!”
Steve, a bearded, middle-aged man, speaks up. He admits he has a problem with Ismail, who often disappears partway through sessions for business calls. Steve finds such behaviour disrespectful. “That’s great!” Fisher says encouragingly. “Steve, you’re going to do a clearing on Ismail.”
The “clearing process” involves confronting someone with whom you have an unresolved issue. The interaction has specific stages. First you ask the person you believe has wronged you to listen and not interrupt. Then you explain how they have hurt you, what you think of them, how their actions make you feel and what you want from them. Finally, and most significantly, you must own up to your own character flaws and the ways you may be projecting your own issues on to them. The other person is not allowed to defend themselves, but can give feedback. We question how feasible this process can be in real life: who has the self-restraint to allow another person to list their faults without being allowed to reply? While Fisher admits it can be hard, he says clearings are not really about the person you feel anger towards: it is about releasing one’s own anger in a clear, calm way.
For Ismail and Steve it is remarkably effective. Ismail thinks a while before giving feedback. “It makes me feel humbled to realise you noticed when I disappeared. I will try to do better.” Steve says Ismail’s reply makes him feel powerful. For perhaps the first time he had expressed an issue with someone and nothing terrible had happened.
In breakout groups we practise clearings. In imaginary scenarios we play each other’s siblings, children, colleagues, exes and deceased parents. This is the beauty of the support group: many of us won’t get the opportunity to have these conversations in real life, but by performing them over Zoom, we can start to ease the associated pain.
We start communicating regularly in our Whatsapp group, consoling those struggling and celebrating others’ victories. One day Simon, a self-professed hippy in his late sixties, messages to say his marriage is over. “But we managed to leave it on good terms, without rage and with every prospect of remaining friends,” he says. “Six weeks ago I couldn’t have envisaged that happening.”
Another week we lose a member of the group. “Joe was too heartbroken to come back,” we are told. His marriage had not been salvageable and he didn’t have the energy to delve into his anger any further for the time being. Those who leave before the programme’s end are invited back when they are ready. In the penultimate week I volunteer to demonstrate the “detour method” with Fisher. It is a technique used to explore the traumatic roots that lead to “regressive anger”, the kind of unrestrained, childlike anger most of us display when we are enraged. In the manual it is described as a somatic response: “Your hands will sweat, your heart will pound, your head might feel like it wants to explode.” He asks me to consider a time I displayed regressive anger recently. I choose an occasion a couple of Christmases ago when my father and I were shouting at each other across the table.
“How old did you feel in that moment?” he asks. I think back to my teenage-like loss of control. “Maybe 17 …” Then he asks me to think back to any traumatic experiences that did happen to me around that age. I recall another, more severe, festive blow-out in my late teens. I start to cry. Fisher explains to the group that part of me is still frozen in that moment. When I step into regressive anger I am returning to that stage of life.
After the process I find I’m shaking. I feel exposed. But then messages from the group flood in, saying that watching me had helped them access difficult memories from their own childhoods. Slowly the shame I feel is displaced by a sensation of calm that stays with me for the rest of the session.
As the course ends there is hope that Sam will move back in with his wife. Emily and her partner’s relationship is back on track. Steve has been able to diffuse several potential arguments with family and friends. Simon is preparing to move into his new home, on his own. And I, without expecting it, have met someone I really like. It’s every bit as scary and wonderful as those early stages of a relationship are supposed to be — but this time I also trust myself to look after my emotions and to listen to his. I vow not to duck out from experiencing big feelings, but to feel as much as I can.
None of us is under any illusions that our rage is banished for ever. My initial desire to relegate it to some attic of my brain was wrong. Instead we come away with a new understanding of our relationship with anger — we aren’t as afraid of it any more, we know it is possible to express anger kindly, lovingly — and a lifeline in the form of 12 other people ready to respond at a moment’s notice if we find ourselves slipping back into old patterns.