The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?
The appearance of anger and its deeper reality are worlds apart.
Posted June 29, 2011 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
When you get mad, your throat is roused and your voice gets louder. Inside, you feel a certain indescribable strength.
Literally (or, I should say, biochemically), the emotion does in fact "empower" you. For when some opposing force feels threatening—whether it's a contentious spouse or an unnervingly long red light—and, additionally, you feel comfortable confronting this perceived danger. Your body automatically secretes adrenaline, which is the hormone that unquestioningly follows the mind's directive and, reacting to the most primitive of dictates, prepares you to do battle.
But such chemically manufactured strength is mostly illusory. What needs to be kept in mind is that anger exists primarily to help ward off threats to whatever you unconsciously link to your welfare.
And the very fact that something outside yourself feels endangering doesn't suggest inner strength at all. Rather, it hints at an underlying vulnerability—or lack of conviction about your resources to maintain mental and emotional equilibrium in the face of perceived adversity.
In most cases, the outward provocation isn't related to imminent physical harm. It's simply tied to your ego's feeling under attack. And having this subjective experience of being aggressed against typically suggests a fragile ego far more than it does a strong, resilient one. Conversely, the stronger and more secure your sense of self, the less likely you are to react to a person or situation as menacing.
So, for example, if you get angry with someone for criticizing you, you do so because you feel compelled to invalidate the "authority" of their negative appraisal. Or, to put it a little differently, what got you angry in the first place is that, however unconsciously, you couldn't help conceding to them the authority to judge you. Then—self-protectively—you needed to nullify this authority by criticizing them in turn (and anger almost always employs the language of criticism).
In such cases, getting mad can be seen as at once a result of being made to feel weak or powerless and an immediate "antidote" for such an unpleasant reaction. In fact, anger really can't be fully understood without also understanding the emotions lying just beneath it.
At bottom, these emotions regularly involve some sort of felt vulnerability—which your anger may momentarily cover up but can't really eradicate either. By the same token, your "display" of strength through anger actually suggests you lack the strength (or fortitude) to stay open, vulnerable, and responsive to provocative situations because, deep down, you've yet to develop sufficient confidence or self-acceptance.
In the absence of such inner security, it may be that anger is how you learned to comfort yourself when, emotionally, things started to feel precarious. When you're feeling frustrated, fearful, or helpless, using anger—paradoxically—to soothe yourself can be pretty much irresistible. And if you're particularly susceptible to getting irked or incited by outward circumstances, such a knee jerk reaction may come to feel absolutely essential.
Still, anger hardly deserves to be seen as a strength. Without the boldness (or backbone) to let your vulnerability be known, you're driven to utilize anger to prevent others from discovering the "soft underbelly" hiding just beneath your bluster. In a strange sense, anger is the ultimate bluff. And countless people, self-doubting at their very core, routinely "administer" anger to bluff their way through life.
Think of it this way: Telling someone, for example, that their reservations about your position make you question it yourself would be to openly admit to them your insecurity. Compare this to lambasting that person for their contrary viewpoint—and so never having to deal with gnawing doubts you may harbor about your own.
Virtually all angry sentiments reflect the viewpoint that what someone else said or did was wrong, unjust, or in some way abusive. Of all the emotions, anger is undoubtedly the most judgmental. It's also the most moralistic, self-righteous, and repudiating. So, however aware you may be of it, resorting to anger enables you to comfortably disconfirm the validity, or legitimacy, of another's perspective.
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But, more than anything else, anger is a defense. It's expressly designed to safeguard you from distressful emotions, such as feeling anxious, weak, inferior, guilty, rejected, or—alas—unlovable. And it can immediately restore in you some semblance of power when (just a moment ago) you felt powerless.
Yet—and this is what makes the whole subject so consummately ironic—anger rarely looks like a defense. Its outward appearance clearly projects a hostile, assaultive stance—hardly a meek, self-protective one.
Such an aggressive bearing, however, is still a reaction to that which, inwardly, felt threatening. In such a psychologically convoluted scenario, it's helpful to remember the adage: "The best defense is a good offense." This is why when someone suddenly becomes angry with you, it can feel so disconcerting, even perilous. Whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, their anger is experienced as an attack, as an imminent threat to your safety. So, to ward off such uneasiness, you might not be able to resist the temptation to retaliate, or counter-attack.
That laypeople routinely associate anger with strength (vs. weakness) is supported by research showing that people with angry facial expressions (i.e., people perceived as angry) are also assumed to be powerful, dominant, and having higher social status (for sources, see Wikipedia on Anger, fn. 31 & 32).
All of which is to say that for most people, it's not at all apparent that a roaring "outer lion" might just be hiding a fearfully quivering "inner kitten." Or, to invert a common metaphor, if you have chronic anger problems, you might actually be a sheep in wolf's clothing. Nor would you be able to recognize such heavily veiled vulnerability if, over the years (or decades!), you've routinely repressed troublesome feelings of anxiety or insecurity through donning the convenient cloak of anger.
And not only can anger help you conceal feelings of fear, inadequacy, and self-doubt by turning them into external conflict. It can also keep at bay states of depression, and emotional pain generally. Embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, and shame—as well as feelings of refusal, dismissal, and abandonment—can all be buried (however temporarily) beneath the self-righteously moralistic or "morally superior") camouflage of anger. However weak you may feel deep inside, you can fool almost anyone, including yourself, into believing you're strong if you can successfully obscure such vulnerability through the smokescreen of anger.
And, of course, given the spontaneous adrenaline production linked to getting mad, anger does, in fact, energize you. Additionally, it can assist you in overcoming fears about taking assertive action in situations that clearly violate your rights.
It can also be viewed as an asset or strength when it's used tactically—to forcefully affirm your wants and needs in circumstances where otherwise you might not be heard or even taken advantage of. Sometimes, maintaining a healthy self-respect may require nothing less than putting your foot down, through what I'd call controlled anger.
On the other hand (and much less justifiably), anger can be a strategy employed to intimidate others or aggressively bend them to your will. After all, most people would rather defer to an angry person than get engaged in stressful confrontation. Which is only natural since, on an instinctual level, another's anger scares us. In our gut, it feels as though that person is altogether ready and willing to harm us.
To sum up, though anger is generally a reaction to feeling weak, powerless, and out of control, it does to a certain extent fortify us. But, overall, such fortressing is mainly artifice. For understood as chiefly a defense against inner feelings of frailty, anger doesn't begin to reflect anything like true strength or resiliency. Ultimately, personal power has a lot more to do with cultivating the ability to restrain our impulses, not simply forfeit to them.
So what personality characteristics represent actual strengths—versus the pseudo-strength of anger? While I don't wish to stray too far from the key focus of this piece, let me briefly mention some personal qualities that I regard as much healthier alternatives in the face of some immediately perceived threat—qualities that represent genuinely adaptive responses to a variety of frustrations, dangers, and disappointments that, daily, we're all subject to.
Being able to accept, moment to moment, whatever happens to you—without somehow feeling obliged to retaliate—is crucial. It's essential to learn how to emotionally distance yourself from outward provocations, regardless of whether they were actually intended to rile you.
The primary qualities that facilitate such healthy detachment include patience, tolerance, forbearance, fortitude, acceptance, and forgiveness. These related aspects of a well-adjusted personality aren't simply virtues. They're strengths, signifying the kind of self-control requisite to discovering inner peace, tranquility, and a sense of well-being.
Impulsively losing your temper when things don't go your way is, frankly, all too easy. Any two-year-old can do it. It doesn't require the least amount of self-control. Allowing people and situations to destroy your equanimity through angry acting out has nothing to do with personal power. Rather, it connotes emotional weakness and susceptibility—a kind of "characterological impotence."
So although anger is almost always meant to protect feelings of vulnerability, it actually symbolizes or betrays this vulnerability. On the contrary, living a life in accordance with the opposing qualities I've listed above allows you to be (to adopt an oxymoron) "comfortably vulnerable."
Lastly—and perhaps most paradoxically—when you become angry, you invariably feel like a victim, at the woeful effect of circumstances beyond your control. Such an experience is hardly consonant with conceptualizing anger as giving you back your strength. Certainly, it may restore your illusion of strength. But true strength is about rising above your situation, not taking it so personally that you react with some adult version of a temper tantrum.
Patience, acceptance, forgiveness, and all the other qualities I enumerated as "anger antidotes," demand self-discipline and a willingness to accommodate yourself to the unalterable framework of human existence. You need to realize not only that some things can't be changed, but that in order to live a life of contentment and joy, you really don't need them to change.
As has been said by many people in many different ways, happiness is a function of acceptance. Anger, on the other hand, is about resisting what is. As such, anger—or more precisely, habitual anger (or resentment)—isn't simply a weakness. It's a path leading to a lifetime of frustration, dissatisfaction, and misery. Given all that I've described here, it should be obvious that everything you can do to better control your tendencies toward anger will be richly rewarded.
If at times you feel trapped by your anger, you can get additional ideas on how to free yourself from it by looking at two earlier posts of mine: "The Power to Be Vulnerable" (in 3 parts) and "The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance."
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Copyright 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.