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My Angry Client Jake

My Angry Client, Jake

Tai Chi involves self-discipline, which builds impulse control skills, an integral part of anger management training.

By Irene Matiatos/

VICUS.COM (30 April 2000) -- Everybody who knows Jake agrees, he is the nicest guy in the world. Everybody, that is, except his fiancée. This brilliant, affable, successful, biomedical researcher sought couples therapy, because he was committed to making his impending marriage, his fifth, work. 

While Marjorie had the apparent problem, impulsively storming out of his apartment in tears with threats never to return, appearances can be deceiving. It turns out that Jake was subtly provoking Marjorie—and she responded! Whenever this couple felt emotionally close to each other, Jake, without realizing it, found reasons to push her away. Through criticism or sins of omission, he sent signals that increased his fiancée's feelings of insecurity. Magnanimous Jake however, “loved her enough” to enter into therapy with Marjorie. I was amused when he confided in me that he was attending therapy because he was determined to help me “fix” in his future bride! 

Although Marjorie clearly needed to stop reacting to his provocation, Jake had the greater problem. This wonderful, brilliant, driven "Type A" guy was a control freak who subtly, or not so subtly, took his anger out on his partner. He was prone to periodic blow-ups, which Marjorie found frightening. Once he even smashed her stereo. While he “didn’t really mean the awful things he said or did,” it is no wonder that four wives had divorced him! 

Managing anger

Jake and I got to work on anger management training. The goal was to improve his impulse control skills in order to give Jake time to examine the logic behind his angry thought before making a behavioral response. Anger management is generally a three-stage process.

bulletPreventing the angry response from occurring
bulletCooling off period
bulletCognitive processing of angry feelings

Jake learned to use the standard impulse control techniques such as walking away when angry and exercising to expend catecholamines. He also began to implement cognitive techniques such as “reframing” and “disputing” his underlying, angry thinking. But Jake's anger issues were so deeply ingrained and widespread through his personality that simple anger management training was not enough. Jake needed an overhaul of how he viewed the world. He needed a more benign philosophy of life to replace his current "they're out to get you" view.


Application of Tai Chi to anger management

I turned to Eastern philosophy for help. Tai Chi seemed appropriate because it combines elements of physical, mental and emotional self-control with movement. Jake enjoyed the Tai Chi classes, and I encouraged him to read about its philosophical basis, which we applied to the cognitive aspect of his anger management training. He embraced both therapies with enthusiasm and spent every waking moment applying the lessons.


As an example, he had a nasty habit of acting angrily when Marjorie was preoccupied with herself and unavailable to dote on him. This "she's selfish and only cares about herself" thinking, which elicited angry feelings, was replaced with "she is trying to solve internal difficulties that have nothing to do with me." Reframing his interpretation of events led to his wanting to comfort her, as opposed to wanting to punish her.


Six months later, Jake was a new man. Explosive incidents were history as he developed a newfound awareness of himself, including his anger and his fear. He developed the skills to calmly articulate his feelings to Marjorie. Most of the time, he could calmly articulate his anger or fearful feelings to her. Jake had begun to take control of his life. He experienced a sense of personal power. No longer was he subject to the whim of emotional impulse. Now, he was in a position to orchestrate his life using his head to make smarter choices.


Tai Chi as complementary therapy with anger management training

Tai Chi philosophy complements and augments several components of anger management training: impulse-control, self-awareness training and cognitive restructuring in a refractory case.

·        Tai Chi makes a positive contribution to anger management therapy presumably because it improves self-discipline. In the absence of impulse control, anger management training will fail.

·        Tai Chi augments refractory anger management cases by providing a benign philosophy of life. Philosophical change is often necessary in deep-seated cases.

·        Tai Chi helps increase self-awareness presumably as the shift in philosophy allows the individual to feel emotionally "safer." When one's philosophy is punitive, as it invariably is in anger problems, individuals must first get in touch with the very real things they find upsetting, they must be able to tolerate unpleasant feelings. A punitive philosophy prohibits obtaining the internal information that is available by "sitting with feelings" because the angry individual is typically judgmental and self-punitive. Negative emotions are experienced so intensely, some form of flight becomes the only apparently viable option.


In the words of those who are proponents of Tai Chi, "The art of t'ai chi ch'uan," according to Kurland (1997), "originates from Taoism. It encompasses the natural laws of our environment (and) emphasizes nurturing the breath to attain relaxation and hence longevity." Key points include relaxation, breathing and guarding against anger. As a martial art, Tai Chi teaches skills such as "yielding" and "investing in loss," which are essential to surviving in today's stressful environment.


Tai Chi discourages struggling or using excessive strength to overcome obstacles. Skills that are essential in order to cultivate a successful contemporary relationship. In fact, during two person exercises, Tai Chi players learn to flow with their partner (notice the use of the term "partner" rather than "opponent"), just as water flows around rocks in a stream. (Simon, 1999)


Dr. Matiatos is a licensed psychologist in New Jersey and New York, where she maintains a practice as a cognitive behaviorist. She combines cognitive behavioral techniques with 12-step and spiritual philosophies. Dr. Matiatos hosts and moderates, which targets anger addiction: verbally abusive people and the codependents who love them.



Kurland, Relax. ©June 1997 [cited 2000 April 27] [1 screen]. Available from URL:


Matiatos I. Taking Control of Your Life: Anger. ©1998/9 [cited 2000 April 27] 1 screen]. Available from URL:


Simon A. What is Tai Chi Chuan? © Cloudwater Tai Chi, 1999. [cited 2000 April 27] [1 screen]. Available from URL: