What Your Anger May Be Hiding
Reflections on the most seductive—and addictive—of human emotions.
Posted July 11, 2008 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Anger often enables, protects against, or is symptomatic of something else.
- Paradoxical as it may seem, anger can soothe an individual because it invalidates whatever (or whoever) led them to feel invalidated.
- Anger can help ensure one's sense of safety in close relationships by regulating distance.
If anger helps you feel in control, no wonder you can't control your anger!
The statement above (which, half-seriously, I've contemplated submitting to various quotation dictionaries) aptly sums up my professional experience working with this so very problematic emotion. In the past 20+ years, I've taught well over a hundred classes and workshops on anger management and delivered many professional presentations on the subject.
When I first became interested in exploring this typically destructive emotion, the clinical literature devoted to it was curiously scant. But times have changed dramatically since then. With the increasing occurrence of such phenomena as road rage, drive-by shootings, high school and post office killing sprees—in short, with the prevalence of violence in America today—the attention given to acting-out, out-of-control anger may never have been greater. Probably no fewer than 50 books on anger geared toward the layperson have emerged in the past 15 years or so. And in 1995 a much overdue professionally-oriented book, entitled Anger Disorders: Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment (ed. Howard Kassinove), finally proposed a comprehensive set of diagnostic categories to deal with anger as itself a clinical syndrome—rather than an emotion linked to other mental disorders.
As a psychologist, however, what I've learned about anger has come as much from my efforts as a therapist to better understand its dynamics in my clients as from examining the various writings focused on it. In what follows, I'll try to highlight some of the insights I've gained from trying to make coherent sense of the self-defeating behaviors I've seen in scores of challenging cases.
Anger as Freud's Forgotten Defense
If to Freud all defense mechanisms exist to protect the personality from an intolerable attack of anxiety when the ego is under siege, it's strange that he never considered anger as serving this pivotal psychological function. But to regard an essential human emotion as mainly designed to safeguard an individual from another, much more distressful emotion, is hardly a line of reasoning Freud might have been expected to follow. Still, in my own clinical experience, anger is almost never a primary emotion in that even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there's always some other feeling that gave rise to it. And this particular feeling is precisely what the anger has contrived to camouflage or control.
The simplest example of my admittedly unorthodox relegation of anger to secondary, "reactive" status might relate to the universally frustrating situation of being cut off while driving. Virtually everyone I've ever asked has responded emphatically that their immediate reaction to such an event is anger. But when I further inquire as to what being "cut off" typically involves—namely, the very real threat of an accident—they realize that in the fraction of a second before acting successfully to avert a collision, their emotion must certainly have been one of apprehension or fear. Cycling from the heightened arousal level of fear to equally intense anger happens with such breathtaking speed that almost no one can recollect that flash of trepidation preceding the anger—or even rage. (And rage itself seems mostly a more potent, or desperate, form of anger created to fend off an even more serious threat to one's ego or sense of personal safety—whether that threat is mental, emotional, or physical.)
The internal dynamic depicted in this illustration is the same with a whole host of emotions that, as soon as they begin to surface, can be effectively masked, squelched, or preempted through the emergence of secondary anger. And just as other defenses hinder healthy psychological coping (by hiding the underlying reality of anxiety that needs to be dealt with), so does anger belie the fragility of the ego that must depend on it for shielding and support.
Anger as a Neurochemical Way of Self-Soothing
With very few exceptions, the angry people I've worked with have suffered from significant self-image deficits. Many have been quite successful in their careers but far less so in their relationships, where anger triggers abound. Regardless of their professional achievements, however, almost all of them have been afflicted by an "I'm not good enough" program (and some with an additional "I'm a fraud" script as well).
In Steven Stosny's excellent book Treating Attachment Abuse (1995), which delineates a comprehensive model for therapeutically dealing with both physical and emotional violence in close relationships, the author offers a chemical explanation of how anger—in the moment at least—can act as a sort of "psychological salve." One of the hormones the brain secretes during anger arousal is norepinephrine, experienced by the organism as an analgesic.
In effect, whether individuals are confronted with physical or psychological pain (or the threat of such pain), the internal activation of the anger response will precipitate the release of a chemical expressly designed to numb it. This is why I've long viewed anger as a double-edged sword: terribly detrimental to relationships but nonetheless crucial in enabling many vulnerable people to emotionally survive in them.
As Stosny describes it, symptomatic anger covers up the pain of our "core hurts." These key distressful emotions include feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable—or even unfit for human contact (cf. John Bradshaw's "shame-based identity"). It is, therefore, only reasonable that if the self-elicitation of anger can successfully fend off such hurtful or unbearable feelings, one might eventually become dependent on the emotion to the point of addiction. The psychological concept of self-soothing is unquestionably relevant here. For we all need to find ways of comforting or reassuring ourselves when our self-esteem is endangered—whether through criticism, dismissal, or any other outside stimuli that feels invalidating and so revives old self-doubts. If we're healthy psychologically, then we have the internal resources to self-validate: to admit to ourselves possible inadequacies without experiencing intolerable guilt or shame. But if deep down, we still feel bad about who we are, our deficient sense of self simply won't be able to withstand such external threats.
The remedy in this case? Paradoxical as it may seem, anger—even though it destroys any true peace of mind or sense of well-being—can help us to soothe ourselves. For our anger potently serves to invalidate whoever or whatever led us to feel invalidated. In adamantly disconfirming the legitimacy of the menacing external force, we self-righteously proclaim the superiority of our own viewpoint. Thus is our critical need for emotional/mental security restored.
Although we're hardly left in a state of inner harmony—and may actually be experiencing substantial turmoil—our defensive anger still permits us to achieve a certain comfort. After all, we're not wrong, or bad, or selfish, or inconsiderate; it's our spouse, our child, our neighbor, our coworker. Granted, this desperate reaction may be self-soothing of the last resort, but it's a kind of self-soothing nonetheless. In short, if we can't comfort ourselves through self-validation, we'll need to do so through invalidating others. And people who suffer from chronic depression typically have not learned how to avail themselves of this potent, though ultimately self-defeating, defense.
Anger as the Low Road to Self-Empowerment
If anger can help us self-medicate against all sorts of psychological pain, it is equally effective in helping ward off exasperating feelings of powerlessness. And here again, Stosny's hormonal account of anger arousal is suggestive. Not only does our brain secrete the analgesic-like norepinephrine when we're provoked, but it also produces the amphetamine-like hormone epinephrine, which enables us to experience a surge of energy throughout our body—the adrenaline rush that many of my clients have reported feeling during a sudden attack of anger.
How ironically "adaptive"—and seductive as well. A person or situation somehow makes us feel defeated or powerless, and reactively transforming these helpless feelings into anger instantly provides us with a heightened sense of control. As the title of this article suggests, if anger can make us feel powerful, if it's the "magic elixir" that seemingly is able to address our deepest doubts about ourselves, no wonder it can end up controlling us. In a sense, it's every bit as much a drug as alcohol or cocaine. And it's my strong belief that many, many millions of people worldwide are addicted to anger because of its illusorily empowering aspects.
Although almost nobody appreciates their proclivities toward anger as coping strategies calculated to disarm, denigrate, or intimidate "the enemy," I'm convinced that anger is employed universally to bolster a diminished sense of personal power. Contrary to feeling weak or out of control, the experience of anger can foster a sense of invulnerability—even invincibility. The movie Raging Bull, dramatizing the life of prizefighter Jake LaMotta, is possibly one of the most compelling examples of how anger can physically fortify an individual, powerfully compensating for various personal deficits (particularly in the realm of relationships).
Anger as a "Safe" Way to Attach in Intimate (Read, Vulnerable) Relationships
To conclude this piece, I'd like briefly to explore—also paradoxically—anger's function in ensuring safety in close relationships by regulating distance. It's only logical that if a child's caretakers proved distressingly unresponsive, unreliable, or untrustworthy, the "adult child" is likely to be gun-shy, or defensively cultivate a certain emotional detachment, in intimate relationships. While such individuals may desperately yearn for the secure attachment bond that eluded them in childhood, they will be wary of openly expressing such needs and desires. Doing so to a partner who might respond negatively to them could reopen ancient wounds.
The primal fear of these individuals is that if they let their guard down and made themselves truly vulnerable—freely revealing what their heart still aches for—a disapproving or rejecting response from their mate might lead them, almost literally, to bleed to death. And so (however ultimately self-defeating) the protective role of anger in non-disclosure and distancing can feel not simply necessary but absolutely essential.
Repeatedly, I've heard spouses complain that when their relationship seemed to be going better than usual, their partner—apparently beginning to experience some trepidation about "getting too close for comfort"—would, with little or no provocation, pick a fight. Psychologically wounded from parental insensitivity, disregard, or worse, their profound distrust of intimate connections would compel them to disengage through self-protective anger.
Contrariwise, anger also has the effect of pushing the other person away, of getting them to withdraw. In my anger classes, I've many times suggested that if you want a lot of space in your life, just be a very angry person . . . and you'll get all the space you could ever desire. After all, if there's really been no precedent in our life for relational intimacy, getting really close to another—or having another get really close to us—can begin to feel hazardous to our emotional equilibrium, thereby setting off a self-insulating reaction of anger.
Yet feeling too detached from our partner can also revivify old attachment wounds and fears, so at times the dance changes and the distancer becomes the pursuer. The main point here is that anger, however, unconsciously, can be employed in a variety of ways to regulate vulnerability in committed relationships. Not only can it be used to disengage from the other when the sought-after closeness starts to create anxiety, but it can also, ironically, be a tactic for engaging the other—but at a safe distance. To corrupt Descartes, the assumption here might be: "We fight, therefore we exist [as a couple]."
If our attachment bond with our original caretakers was tenuous or insecure, it's only reasonable that one of the least perilous ways to "attach" to another would be through distance-moderating anger that helped control our sense of risk about such ties. Uncomfortable about getting too close, yet apprehensive about a total break in our attachment, our being easily provoked by our partner may become the only viable solution to our dilemma—however dysfunctional and unsatisfying this solution might be.
To conclude, in devising an appropriate treatment for a client's anger problems, what I've learned to ask myself is not simply, "What anger control skills does this person need to learn?" but rather, "What is this person's anger enabling, protecting against, or symptomatic of?" For if there is such a thing as a tip-of-the-iceberg emotion, surely it is anger—the feeling that can conceal so very much below it—that best fits the bill.
A few of my many articles on anger that closely complement this one include: