Anger is complicated. When an individual feels angry, he tends to express this experience with destructive behavior—whether it’s physically destructive (i.e., breaking things) or emotionally destructive (i.e., making hurtful comments). The response by others is often focused on this external behavior. Like post-hurricane efforts, the tangible destruction must first be addressed by those on the ground prior to evaluating the causes of the storm or how to prevent future vulnerability. The anger-driven behavior serves to obfuscate the inner anger experience. Significantly, for the one acting out, the outburst serves to divert attention away from his emotions toward a more tangible problem: the damage created.
The goal of this article is not to condone the destructive anger-driven actions. Nor is it meant to encourage others to ignore such behaviors. In fact, if one finds oneself the recipient of hurtful remarks and/or physical abuse or harm, I urge them to acknowledge the issue and seek help and safety for themselves regardless of their understanding of the underlying emotions surrounding such behaviors.
Desire for Emotional Connection
Relationships are upheld by feelings. Cultivation of positive interactions provides for emotionally flourishing relationships. But sometimes an individual may begin to feel distant from significant others in their lives and not know how to healthily repair the connection. They desire a closer relationship but don’t have the tools to accomplish this with finesse. And so, they resort to a more chaotic and raw form of emotional infusion: anger.
Think about a mother and her teenage daughter who love each other, but have minimal emotional contact. Their days consist of crossing paths with little engagement. Suddenly, the daughter makes a snarky remark to which the mother responds angrily. The next five minutes are spent yelling at each other, slinging insults back and forth. The mother-daughter relationship is, instantaneously, infused with the emotions so lacking during their generally meaningless daily interactions. As a result of the “fight” both mother and daughter feel more emotionally connected, even if the emotion present is an unpleasant one of anger or hate.
Of course, it would have been healthier for the mother and daughter to find ways of expressing their feelings of care, concern or love for each other without resorting to anger and fighting. But they seemingly did not know how to execute this sort of healthy interaction. So, the two resort to anger, albeit unintentionally, to re-establish the emotional bridge between them.
With repetition, anger becomes synonymous with love, and angry displays represent a comforting reassurance of connection. Anger becomes the emotional embrace that allows the two to maintain their relationship.
Replacement for Another Feeling
Anger is sometimes referred to as an umbrella emotion. When one experiences a feeling that he or she (often without awareness) deems intolerable, anger surfaces and overshadows that emotion. Anger becomes a replacement emotion that arises to protect the individual from other “unbearable” feelings.
The perceived intolerability of certain feelings can be rooted in familial or societal messages, whether overt or covert. Hearing messages or witnessing behaviors that communicate the wrongness of having certain feelings can leave an indelible mark on the developing psychological mind. Receiving messages of “men don’t cry” or “just suck it up” to feelings of fear, sadness or physical/emotional pain, serve to invalidate one’s internal experience and send the message that these feelings are “not okay.” And when these feelings arise in the course of life we may find ourselves at a loss for what to do.
So anger swoops in, with its mask and cape, and saves us from these uncomfortable feelings. Anger shoves aside the “not okay” emotions and, often with behavioral representation, distracts from the unwelcome internal experience.
Attempting to Assert Control
There is a sense of comfort and power that comes with having an internal locus of control. Believing that one plays an integral role in dictating the outcomes of his own life provides a sense of safety and security. When that sense of control begins to tip toward an external locus, one may feel exposed, nervous and vulnerable. To mitigate these feelings, a person takes steps to tilt the scale toward personal control. Anger is the finger on the scale that often shifts the perceived power back into one’s own hands.
You call your internet provider to dispute a charge. After being passed along the “hierarchy” of representatives, you are told that the charge will not be refunded.
You scream, slam the phone against the wall and angrily express your discontent. Why this response? Because you are in a bind. You need your internet. You feel slighted, helpless and as if you have no alternative but to pay the bill. You recognize that the internet company, to a certain extent, has control over your finances. The control-scale has tipped in their favor.
So you try to shift the scales with anger. “I’m the customer!” “I’m going to switch service providers!” The louder you yell, the meaner you are, the more powerful you feel. You are reminding them that, in this relationship, the control is yours. While you may not get your billing issue changed, you feel more powerful, less helpless and less vulnerable. Anger has provided you the illusion that you, and you alone, dictate the outcomes of your life.
Recognition of one’s own vulnerability in life, which is a reality of being human, can result in feelings of fear and anxiety, a sense of helplessness and an overall experience of despair. Feeling as if one is not in control of the outcome of one’s life may create a loss of agency that can be paralyzing. Anger’s behavioral representation (yelling, breaking things etc.) provides an individual with a feeling of power and control.
With Understanding Comes Responsibility
A nuanced understanding of anger can act as an x-ray into an angry individual’s world and assist others in healthily interacting with said person. Importantly, people are not expected to be radiologists. It is each person’s own responsibility to learn to effectively express and manage their anger, a task that is certainly made easier with insight into the source of their emotions.
Tips for effective management of anger:
1) Step away: Remove yourself from the situation until your anger subsides.
2) Take a breath: Breathe deeply and slowly (inhale for five seconds, exhale for seven), repetitively.
3) Intensely exercise: Defuse your body’s energy with intense physical movement.
4) Soothe yourself: Positively engage your senses. Smell a pleasant aroma, view images that elicit calm/joy, listen to music you like, eat something tasty.
5) Understand yourself: When not in “anger mode,” take the opportunity to reflect upon your feeling/reaction, what triggered it, and work to understand what is causing you to feel as you do. Daily journaling can assist with personal exploration. Working with a mental health professional may also provide a forum for development of more intricate self-understanding.
6) Clean your mess: Even when attempting to employ learned skills, there will be times when you act out. When that happens, forgive yourself, take the time to regroup, own your behavior (verbally to the other person) and work to repair your destruction.
Recommended reading: “Calming the Emotional Storm,” by Sheri Van Dijk, MSW
Tzachi Rosman, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Teaneck, New Jersey. He is author of “Jerry Sets Sail,” an illustrated children’s book whose theme focuses on self-esteem and belonging. Tzachi may be reached at 646-734-5252 or via e-mail at [email protected]