Anger Anyone?

Some of the very logical or morally upright folks out there believe that you should never get angry. Never ever.

I’m not one of those folks. First of all, we are all human, and to be human means to have emotions. Second, it is hard to imagine a humanity capable of defending itself, the spouse, and the kids, who can’t get in touch with some needed anger when we or our loved one’s are imperiled.

When danger appears, we are built to fight or flee. The sympathetic nervous system readies you for action. Adrenaline starts to pump, the big muscles of our body receive more blood as the heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, the pupils widen (the better to see danger, my dear!), and sweat gland activity heightens to keep you cool in the event of a major exertion of energy (as well as to make you slippery, so that an aggressor can’t get a firm grip on you).

All of this has been “selected for” in the Darwinian sense: if our ancestors hadn’t successfully fled the tiger or defeated the enemy with the help of these physiological changes, we’d not be here and their genetic line would have stopped.

The same logic suggests that the female of the species historically tended to choose males who were capable of defending her and the kiddies, especially when pregnancy and child-rearing made them particularly vulnerable. But, since the female couldn’t always depend upon the male when he was out hunting and gathering, she needed some anger too.

So, if you get angry, as you almost certainly do, you have come by at least some of it honestly and through no particular effort of your own.

That said, how do you know when your anger goes over the top? Some people will tell you when that happens, of course, and sometimes the authorities will in the form of police. If you are no longer a child and get into fist fights or find yourself yelling a lot, you’ve almost certainly got a problem, either as an aggressor or as a victim. Alcohol might add to your combustibility since it tends to disinhibit people, making big emotions more likely. For some otherwise mild mannered men and women, drinking turns them to the dark side. As the old Chinese saying goes, “first the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Substitute the word “anger” for the word “drink” and you have an equally valid way of looking at anger. Do you have the anger, or does the anger have you?

On the subject of old sayings, there is an Italian saying that also applies to this issue: “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves.” This means, of course, that revenge is likely to consume you (and perhaps even lead to your demise) just as much as it is likely to succeed in hurting the other party. Lives have been eaten-up and made perpetually miserable by the preoccupation with righting wrongs. Think of the centuries long enmity that exists in the Balkans or the long standing animosity between the Greeks and the Turks. Numerous other examples could be cited. One act of revenge causes the victim to look for his own revenge and back again in a circle without end.

Anger is often the result of a real injury, but the danger is in becoming the thing that you learn to hate because of that injury. The data on the likelihood of child abuse being perpetrated by parents who were themselves abused  is fairly well known. Such a parent is much more likely to abuse his children than a parent who was not himself abused as a child. When I tell people this they often find it puzzling. Surely, they say, the abused child would learn what not to do from the parent’s bad example. But think of cigarette smoking or drug/alcohol abuse. Again, the child raised by an addicted mom or dad is at greater risk of duplicating the parent’s behavior than one raised by parents who are abstinent. Not only does the child have the model of the parent as a bad example in these homes, but, in the case of abuse, the youngster has to deal with the anger and hurt inside of him, which comes from being targeted. As children these kids can rarely succeed in retaliating against their parents, but they can take their feelings out against other smaller children (including their siblings) or against their own helpless children when they have become adults. Indeed, unless the abused child is able to obtain relief from the feelings of anger and sadness that come with abuse (and this usually takes therapeutic intervention), he is likely to carry some of these emotions and their behavioral consequences into adulthood. A good book on the subject is For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. A first class movie that depicts exactly what I’ve described is Good Will Hunting.

Back to the question of how you might know whether you have an anger problem, there are a few additional indicators. Do you (or do people tell you) that you react out of proportion to events that are not seen by others as being that big? Do you find yourself feeling angry or irritable much of the time, or awakened by resentments in the middle of the night? Do you have road rage? Have you every punched a wall or thrown an object due to this sort of upset? If you are an athlete in a contact sport, do you enjoy inflicting pain on the opposition?

Even if none of the above apply, there might be other ways that you express your resentment. Do you intentionally delay or put off tasks that others (a spouse or a boss) want you to do, but you don’t believe are that important? Are you sarcastic to others, rather than direct? Do you grumble in discontent or talk behind the back of others at what they’ve done (or not done) or complain about their personal qualities, but put a friendly face on in front of them? If you’ve answered “yes” to some of these questions, you might just be “passive aggressive,” expressing your ire indirectly.

Again, I’m not saying that all anger is inappropriate. And, certainly, one shouldn’t always turn the other cheek, lest one regularly get taken advantage of. But anger can be a problem for you and for those around you. Like a big dog, it should be kept on a short leash. If you can’t manage that, think about counseling.

A recent review article in The Behavior Therapist by Kulesza and Copeland concludes that cognitive behavior therapy is the current treatment of choice for anger problems. The authors emphasize the need for both training in behavioral skills and the use of cognitive restructuring to insure the best results. Therapy for anger issues is therefore likely to include direct instruction about antagonism and its management; self-monitoring of angry feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; relaxation training; assistance in new ways of thinking about the events that trigger rage episodes; social skills/assertiveness training; direction as to how to think about and undercut anger when it does occur; and practice in being exposed to triggering events so that new skills can be employed and the patient can learn to tolerate or diffuse the emotional intensity and stop short of vehement outbursts.

Among self-help books, one of the best is Stop the Anger Now: A Workbook for the Prevention, Containment, and Resolution of Anger by Ronald Potter-Efron.

7 thoughts on “Anger Anyone?

  1. Thank you for promoting CBT, which I am finding to be very effective for my GAD and self-esteem.

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  2. I’m going through your list of posts chronologically (oldest to newest), Dr. S. I have now made my way to this post, and found it quite interesting. I like how you included passive aggressiveness because it’s my number one pet peeve when people are passive aggressive with me, and then, of course, I react angrily to them. The thing is, most people who are passive aggressive don’t think they have an anger problem; that irks me. I know I can easily get angered, especially when feeling real or imagined danger. I know that I’ve gotten in trouble right after I was discharged from the Marines because I thought that I was defending myself against two men during a flashback. I had no idea what diagnosis I had at the time, but I was in and out of emergency rooms and had to file bankruptcy in my 20s because of the expensive medical bills; if only psychiatrists were part of the ER, then I would have had a proper diagnosis. Instead, all these medical tests, including cat scans, were utilized to diagnosis nothing but GERD or IBS or acute anxiety. PTSD includes irritability, but I think the etiology matters. If the reason is because you’re having a flashback or feeling physically threatened, that’s one thing. However, if the reason is because of revenge, that’s entirely another. I don’t believe in revenge anger, and I certainly think that passive-aggressiveness is almost revenge-like. I believe in communicating what you feel is going wrong, or walking away, depending. I believe in self-defense as well, but it gets tricky when your sensors are way off due to PTSD. I think the source of the anger matters, and whether or not the anger is due to a real or imagined threat, a revenge, a fear of confrontation (for those who are passive aggressive or avoidant), unresolved grief issues from chronic-complex trauma, impulsivity problems related to emotional dysregulation (anything that angers or frustrates such individuals will set them off, no matter what the etiology is), or real fear of abandonment (another revenge-like aggression, though it is not passive-aggressive, whereby a person gets angry at the real or imagined abandonment when someone cancels plans or breaks up with them). My main issues concern fear of people in power who abuse their power, social stigma that cripples the stigmatized person’s reputation and advancement, and those who flat out harm me physically or emotionally. My anger is not really yelling, but it does involve wanting to discuss the issue; my anger is often taken out on myself when I feel helpless, tense, anxious, fearful, panicked, and trapped. I tend to stoop to the other person’s level when I’m placed into a defensive position; I rarely take the offensive position. I also believe there is a positive side to anger, such as the kind of anger that is exemplified in the Bible (e.g., Jesus turning over the tables), or the kind of anger that is a form of social justice, or the kind of anger that allows you to finally stand up for yourself when all your life you’ve been silent, timid, afraid, shy, or self-blaming. I haven’t found the balance yet. I got the impression in therapy that therapists want their clients to subdue or hold in their anger and replace it with positive thoughts or alternatives; but what if their anger is part of grief work, or social justice, or in the forms of tears, or so bottled up over the years that a release is due? What then? I wished there were more positive aspects to expressing anger, and being allowed to express anger that way. When Marines are trained, their anger is positive. Their anger fuels their strength to push past their limits and increase their thresholds. Their anger allows them the courage to stare the enemy in the face and complete the mission, even if that mission involves lawful physical attack and injury on their enemies during wartime. Their anger allows them to prepare to kill the enemy, kick in the dog tags between the teeth of their deceased military brothers and sisters so that they can be later identified, and survive to fight another day. Their anger allows them to fight, to climb, to hold their breath under water, to rappel, to take a bullet, to take a stab wound, etc. When discharged, the energy of that kind of anger lingers without a home; social justice, criminal justice, the law, police work, and other fields appeal to many homecoming veterans who want to transition their mad skills (pun intended), but oftentimes they are discriminated against, or are dealing with latent PTSD, or are dealing with relationship problems because of their military culture – a lifestyle that is deeply embedded and will not change or assimilate for the sake of civility. Although you’re trained to be polite to your superiors and to civilians, you’re also trained to fight and stand your ground with a level of command presence. They teach you that in the police academy as well. The anger taught in both police and the military is not impulsive; rather, it’s calculated and appropriate to the task. To lose that task, that lifestyle, and that strength when you return home crippled, or when warzone PTSD gets the best of you, or when military sexual trauma betrayed your trust, is to be angry on so many levels – grief anger, unfulfilled task-and-purpose/mission-critical anger, righteous and justice-seeking anger, subliminal anger, and even the delusional anger that comes with imagined danger. It’s just different from other forms of anger that I’ve seen and experienced as a victim of others’ forms of anger. Perhaps the CBT is the same, but doesn’t etiology count for something? And isn’t there a way to transmit the maladaptive anger into a more adaptive anger? I just wondered what your thoughts are on that.

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    • I do think the etiology is important. To hear the story of the conditions that produced the anger helps the therapist begin to approach the unapproachable. We treat all sorts of people who survived circumstances that are beyond our ability to put ourselves in their place. We need lots of humility to treat the unknowable. As to another part of your question, the line between assertiveness and anger is fuzzy. The latter is sometimes necessary, but even the kind of anger I know from my own experience can be like having a tiger by the tail. Thanks for telling some of your story, Multinomial.

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      • Thank you Dr S.

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      • Admittedly, I’m dealing with my own forms of anger. I’m trying to find the kind of anger that would give me the edge I need to clean my house; my energy is so depleted, but I miss the anger I had when I pushed myself to my limits. The treatment for chronic fatigue is the antithesis of the training I once had, and the mindset I had when using anger to push my limits. I miss that self-power. I also feel like a vulnerable doormat, which angers me. I’m also angered by so many things I would like to grieve over, but I’m angry because I’m sick of grieving. I just want to move past all this. I want my life back, but I need to figure out how to not want my life back anymore. I’m not ready for the acceptance stage of grief because I’m too angry and feel like I’m giving up; I don’t want to give up; I want to fight and show those assholes who did this to me that they haven’t stolen all parts of me, and that I’m strong enough to persevere. I’m just not ready for letting things go. I’m angry about being angry. I wish I can laugh and be angry and be happy at the same time; then, I’ll let things go. I’m a confused mess these days, so don’t pay any attention to my ramblings. I’m just glad that therapists believe in the etiology; I’ve heard for so long in academic settings that certain theoretical orientations (and thus, certain therapies) don’t allow for or embrace the etiology, which I thought was disheartening. I forgot about assertiveness and the very short-lived assertiveness training I had. I tended to be more angry than assertive, or more aggressive than assertive. It’s as if my projection and transference came out at once whenever I’d demand a refund for an item, or whenever I’d demand that a man remove his arms from my shoulder since I never welcomed that in the first place. I even scared a stranger once when he tried to approach me at 3 a.m. I was outside smoking a cigarette, and this overweight African American guy must have thought I was prejudice (I wasn’t) when I said to him, “I’m a disabled veteran with PTSD, please don’t approach me; I’m trying to smoke my cigarette in peace.” He looked more scared than I did when he replied, “No, ma’am, I’m just passing through.” I said it with such anger and fierceness that my body language and tone of voice must have shown him that I was ready to fight and use my lit cigarette as a weapon of opportunity if I needed to. Assertiveness went out the window as soon as my anger propelled me to say those words and exhibit my body with vigor. I was stupid for going outside at 3 a.m., but I refuse to smoke in the house. I need to quit smoking, but I’m too angry to do so right now. I think a “tiger by the tail” statement hits the nail on the head.

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      • As you suggest, there are places for anger in preparation for and engagement in combat. And anger is necessary to prevent the takers from taking whatever they want of us. I imagine there are a number of books written about this, too.

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