Which freaks people out

psychology : Outbreak of a primal feeling

A family reunion. The Sunday roast tastes good, the mood is relaxed. Heinz Gruber (name changed) has already finished his plate. “Will you take a little more?” Asks the mother-in-law. “No, thank you,” says Gruber. The hostess, distracted by the children at the table, still draws on him. Gruber stares at his plate, the veins on his neck protrude, his head turns dark red. Suddenly he grabs the tablecloth with both hands and tears it off. Plates, glasses, bowls fall to the floor. Gruber jumps up, runs out of the room and slams the door shut.

Everyday life in many families. "About every fourth adult has a bad temper problem," says the psychologist Theodor Itten from St. Gallen. “It is a downright popular affliction.” Polite, reserved people like Heinz Gruber suddenly throw pens, shoes and computer screens. They tear off the tablecloth. Or they chase someone through the apartment with a kitchen knife. How is something like this possible?

"Hot anger has to do with the animal in us," says Itten. “It is a primal feeling, uncontrollable and destructive.” Such outbursts of anger emerged as threatening gestures, he suspects. "As an emergency reaction to escape the deadly bite as a prey animal." But what may have been helpful in the animal kingdom turns out to be a shot in the oven in everyday life: irascible parents in particular cause damage, says Itten. Children react disturbed to their outbursts of anger. They believe it is their fault that father or mother are suddenly mad. "The children are abused as emotional lightning rods and many later need therapeutic help."

Theodor Itten - 60 years old, wiry, tanned, clean-shaven - looks like a fitness trainer. He studied psychology and social sciences in England, completed additional training as a therapist and opened his practice in St. Gallen in 1981. Since then he has treated countless victims of choleric people. And also many who suffer from hot temper themselves. So many that he decided to write a book about this problem, which is largely neglected in psychology (“Irritation - Psychotherapeutic Answers to an Unpredictable Feeling”, Springer-Verlag / Vienna, 193 pages, 24.95 euros).

Every fourth person is prone to attacks of anger

In a study he asked 575 men and women about their experiences with anger. Every fourth interviewee came out as a choleric. And more than one in five said they had fallen victim to attacks of temperament. 64 percent of those who suffered from hot temper suffered from a choleric father, only 15 percent from angry attacks from their mother. But itten emphasizes that many women are also irascible. The outbursts of anger differ depending on the sexes, he says: Men scream more often and also become more violent, but rarely both at the same time. Women, on the other hand, often do things at the same time during such seizures. "They don't just yell, for example, they also throw cups and plates."

Theodor Itten's bright second home in Hamburg. On the little table next to the sofa are a cookbook by Jamie Oliver and the specialist magazine “Psychoanalysis and Body”. A mask with angry features hangs on one wall. He also knows Jähzorn from his own experience, the therapist explains in his broad Bernese German. As a 14-year-old, he smashed his violin in a fit of anger. "At the height of the hot temper, there is a gain in pleasure," he says. A sudden outburst of anger enables short-term mental relief. “But it does not lead to permanent release into relaxation.” Because as soon as the sudden anger has evaporated, the accompanying feeling of shame comes to the surface, mixed with the sadness of having frightened, intimidated and hurt other people.

The reasons for angry attacks are often banal: the squeaking sound of a knife on a porcelain plate or the repeated question of whether you are really not cold? "Irritated people react like little children," says Itten. "Often it is enough if you have the feeling that your needs are being ignored, and you freak out."

Interestingly, people who suffered from irascible caregivers as children often become choleric themselves later, Itten has found. He explains it like this: “Children who fall victim to sudden anger often find it very difficult to express anger and negative feelings. They try to keep their emotions under control out of fear. ”Some suppress their feelings so much that they can no longer feel them. "And very often it is quick anger in which the pent-up emotions are discharged later," says Itten.

Anger can destroy relationships, careers, and families. American psychologists have shown that irascible people are often prone to depression and that they use alcohol and drugs more often than people without this problem. “Most of the time, choleric people are people with poor self-esteem,” says Itten. "They are constantly looking for someone they can hold responsible for their situation." But ultimately this method does not work: "Putting the blame on someone does not solve life difficulties."

Tell your boss that you can get angry

Are there any drugs against hot temper? Itten smiles. A classic sedative like Valium could provide some relief in extreme cases. But he advises against it. One should face the challenge of hot temper. Even if that takes a long breath. He recommends that couples define a code word. "For example, some say 'Itten'," says the therapist. The code word means: "Stop, otherwise I'll freak out."

Itten advocates dealing aggressively with the topic in professional life as well. "Those affected should tell their boss that they are angry, but work to get the problem under control," he says. "Then superiors are also more willing to tolerate if the employee suddenly leaves the meeting room."

He lets his clients keep angry diaries. Itten opens a notebook and draws a vertical line in the middle of a page: tantrums and their triggers are noted on the right, he explains. On the left, events from the past that are “related to”. For example, offenses that clients were exposed to in early childhood.

Should the irascible be urged to get professional help? Itten hesitates. This question is difficult to answer in general, he says. The frequent threat: “Do therapy - or I'll leave you!” Is of little help. "Pressure can trigger defensive reflexes," says Itten. Many choleric people are even more inclined to deny their problem. Anyone who shows understanding as a partner that it is not easy to learn to deal with a quick-tempered temperament, but that it is still not allowed to continue with this freaking out, will often achieve more. So gentle pressure.

Itten says that it is important that those affected do something for themselves. “It doesn't necessarily have to be psychotherapy.” Music, spirituality, and sport are also beneficial. “Some people manage to run away from their anger,” he says. Often, however, sadness and disappointment lay hidden under the irascibility. Those who deal with these feelings could change their life. And: 61 percent of the irascible respondents said that they felt the trigger for their outbursts of anger. That too can be started. For example, he recommends the following point of view for football players when it comes to hidden fouls and insults: “If an opposing player provokes you, he'll compliment you. He fears your playing skills. "

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