Having over thirty years experience as a psychotherapist, I have seen anger expressed in many of its forms, by omission and commission. Usually we have a way of expressing anger that is our signature, that is a way of being angry that we resort to over and over again, when we are in conflict. Habits have power because usually, we are unaware and we react unconsciously or automatically. Think for instance of where you place your tooth-brush. Every morning you reach in the same direction, without conscious thought unless it has been moved. Moving it breaks the automatic habit, as you become aware and notice you have to reach in a different direction. Many of our daily routines are similar response, i.e. automatic.
Like feelings in general, anger in and of itself is not good or bad. Its just a feeling. Feelings well up in us, as urges to go to the bathroom well up, without conscious invitation. It’s what you do with the feelings that will make a difference in the quality of your life and how it affects those near and dear. Most of us do not know, how to express anger appropriately, we’ve never been taught. Anger is feared, denied, projected and denounced. Often people associate any expression of anger with the extreme end of the spectrum, that of violence. Often and especially in relationships, it is the inability to express anger properly, that can escalate into violence.
On an anger spectrum; at one end we see irritability, grumpiness, negativity, criticism, resentment and judgemental behavior. These are milder forms of anger, but anger nonetheless. Our society seems to be more tolerant of the lesser forms, and our family conditioning allows it. Maybe because it is so prevalent, it is not addressed for what it really is, inappropriate anger. In the middle, is anger that has less intensity and is more amenable to appropriate expression. As it moves towards the other side, we encounter greater intensity as rage, fury, indignation and wrath. These levels of anger indicate on some level, a loss of control, a level of destructiveness verging on madness and violence. Wrath often implies not only rage and moral indignation but also a desire to punish. So where are you on this spectrum? Generally every individual has a troublesome spot. I read a quote from a Master who lived in the mountains. He answered several of life’s hard questions for the inquirer without hesitation. When asked how to handle anger, he broke his walking stick in half and bellowed “Do you think I’d be living alone in this deserted place if I had the answer to that?” Sooner or later we all have to come down from the mountain, and deal with fellow humans in the market place. Someone is invariably going to step on our toe, …. it!!
As a clinician, except for violent people, who take an extreme position and I very seldom work with, it’s the “nice nice’ anger avoiders, or deniers that give me the most trouble. If you are not willing or able to become aware of how you act out or project your anger, its like pulling teeth. They deny their anger, or fear it and fear it in others. They are also more likely to project it onto others. Not me, but them. Often avoiders have since childhood pushed down any version of angry feelings and may not be able to identify how it reveals itself in their lives. Maybe in childhood they were afraid to express, or lived in a violent home where an individual expressing could lead to violence. Nobody helped them differentiate violence from normal levels of dissatisfaction.
Sometimes it’s a woman living the “Christian Way”, who has mistakenly misinterpreted assertiveness and personal power, as aggressive, and non Christian. This is a hard nut to crack. One woman with the above profile, had Bible quote answers for many things including “turning the other cheek”. She however loved to attend boxing matches, and football games. She was videoed by her son, yelling “kill him, kill him” when she got fired up at these public spectator sports. Monday morning she was back to her “other cheek” way. She was unable to connect the dots as to how she projected her denied rage onto others. Her three children felt unheard, and experienced having no permission to express anything that wasn’t sweetness and light in her presence. When they grew to young adulthood, they limited their contact with her. She asked over and over “why are you upset with me?” “I haven’t done anything” She couldn’t express her own anger, and caused her children and others about her to feel guilty when they had their feelings. This mother was in fact a crazy maker, and it was sane of the children to keep their distance. She controlled others and frustrated them with avoidance, forgetting, being self righteous, thwarting plans, being late, etc. This behavior is so nebulous, one can’t get it out of the vapors, and make sense of it. You feel the disconnect with reality, but its hard for the average person to put a finger on exactly what is going on. Even in treatment such people usually have to be in a life altering crisis, to surrender their mask or ego, long enough to see the cracks in their cosmic egg.
I’m much prefer to work with anger that is available. Sometimes it is not pretty, its down right toxic, however its more available for exploration and change, than the suppressed and the denied. Anger is passion which indicates there is energy available for work if a person is ready to change. It is a big “if” due to the fact some people are addicted to anger. In the moment of their explosion, they feel powerful and for others it is a “rush” a high, that makes them feel at least temporarily more alive. The habit of anger then feeds the addiction as they get a surge of adrenalin and other feel good hormones. At this point it becomes more than a bad habit, its emotional excitement. You know of people who create some drama when life evens out. For people who rely on their anger in this way, the intense feelings keep their life from being dull, because they haven’t learned other ways of experiencing personal power.
You and I know that daily we rub up against situations that can if we allow it will trigger our anger. As matter of fact if we reacted to every opportunity to become angry, we’d be constantly angry. How about people who carry a well of shame, a high level of sensitivity and low self esteem. The slightest criticism sets off all three of the above stated characteristics. It can become explosive and blaming as well as projected on to whomever gets in their way. Usually their buttons have been pushed and inside of the raging adult is a child possessed, feeling vulnerable and out of control. Road rage is such an example. “How dare you cut me off, as others cut me off in the past, and I am justified in my rage toward you and a wanting to hurt you.” Of course all of this isn’t thought out, it a reaction to what is smoldering in the persons unconscious. The evidence of what is in the unconscious is the menancing, excessive, out of proportion , out of control behavior.
Some people suffer from black and white thinking, failing to be flexible enough to include others who are different. This concrete way of looking at a the world is quite prevalent in children until the age of reason. Some people get stuck at this level of development, and have a simplistic view of the world. This group spews moralistic anger towards others, when those others have broken the rules. Its as if they have a patent on what is right in the world and in order to protect it, they make others wrong. The offenders are labeled by this self-righteous group as bad, evil, wicked, sinful and deserve to be punished. So if one is different from the tribe, or from the church group, one may be harshly judged. It is interesting at times to look at the lives of the judges of how others should be. The ridigity of the frame they put around how others should live, is often frightening. What is more frightening is that this kind of thinking and anger is very prevalent in out society, at every level, from the highest offices to the person in the street. Such people claim moral superiority.
Hate happens when a person doesn’t resolve anger and allows no window of compassion or forgiveness to enter. Its really a hardened anger when one person decides that another person in totally wrong or evil or both. Its usually the cause of ongoing rumination, in the hater, who despises the offender and won’t let go or soften towards him or her. Sometimes the hater experiences secondary gain by seeing themselves as innocent and a victim.
You may see yourself in one or more of the examples I have given. You may wonder if you are able to change a life long habit of this nature. The first step is to become aware of what you do and how you do it. If you have an intention and willingness to change the way you express anger, it is certainly doable. Next time I’ll start with tools to address different modes of anger and the problems it causes in your life.
By Laura B. Young, LMFT http://www.LifeResourceCenter.net
Anger Management Institute of Texas is a certified Anderson & Anderson ® provider.
Anger Management Classes and Anger Management – Executive Coaching available in Houston, Texas.
Gregory A. Kyles, M.A., LPC, CEAP, CAMF
Director, Anger Management Institute of Texas
Diplomate, President of Texas Chapter
American Association of Anger Management Providers