Deep, dark, surprising and frightening, our ability to feel anger is one of our most powerful weapons in building a liberated and empowered life. It enables us to build friendships and other growth-oriented alliances. It keeps us safe from attack. It motivates us to make the changes essential to a rich and fulfilled life.
Sadly, the feeling called anger is also one of the hardest sources of inner information to interpret. It is therefore frequently misunderstood. It can have frightening and even dangerous repercussions when not recognized and embraced.
The message of this article is: learn to love your anger. This will protect you from its negative potential and will free you to understand others’ anger-driven actions. By doing this, you will free yourself from one of the most controlling dynamics in the human condition.
The first step to embracing anger is to recognize that anger is a feeling, not a behavior.
Anger is a feeling, not a behavior
We’ve been pretty misled about anger. We see somebody shouting and we think: he’s angry. In fact, he could equally well be hurt or scared. We confuse the behavior with the feeling. Anger is not a screaming child or a screaming mother. These are manifestations of anger, behaviors designed to relieve us of the pain of the anger stimulus.
Technically, anger is an emotional-physiological-cognitive internal state. It is a secondary emotion, which is to say it is a feeling which follows inevitably from another feeling. We always feel something else – a primary emotion – first. As an example, the feeling of anger is triggered by such events as being afraid, attacked, offended, forced, controlled, trapped, interrogated, or pressured.
Anger also results from hurt pride, physical pain, and from being unable to meet unreasonable expectations. These sources are particularly difficult when they occur in childhood, when direct expression of anger is typically forbidden. Then the feelings must be managed in other ways, with results reviewed later in this article.
What all these primary feelings amount to are feelings of hurt; of pain, not pleasure. Accordingly, we can say that anger is the necessary and inevitable reaction to hurt.
The particular nature of anger benefits us in two ways:
- if we learn to identify it, we have the opportunity to select a productive behavioral response to it;
- we can use its ‘appearance‘ as an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.
Before we can do either of these things, however, we have to fully accept and invite our anger into our conscious awareness. This means accepting its inevitability and the fact that, being inevitable, it is always totally justifiable.
The inevitability of angriness
Unless your nervous system has been damaged, if you put your hand in a fire it will hurt. The hurt will prompt you to pull your hand away, and probably to say something along the lines of “Ouch!”.
I suggest that this sequence is a totally healthy, self-protective and inevitable consequence of your action. I further suggest that the “Ouch!”, or other expletive, is actually a behavior related not to the initial burning, but to the secondary emotion of anger which followed inevitably on the pain of the burn. In linear format, the sequence therefore goes: pain – self-protective physical behavior – anger – angry behavior.
Once the idea of the inevitability of anger is accepted, anger-motivated behaviors can be seen everywhere. A toddler walks into a chair and hits it: “Bad chair!” A commuter runs for a train, misses it, and sighs heavily, pained in his frustration.
The pain does not have to be huge for anger to be present. We’re so accustomed to thinking of anger as overpowering and frightening that we forget the two-hundred times a day when we experience the minor hurts of existence.
It’s only when we reach home and kick off our shoes that we realize how tense we’ve been. That is the measure of our effort in containing our anger.
All anger is justifiable
If we are to embrace and learn from our anger we must be totally open to it. That means we have to see it as it is: totally justifiable. As soon as we regard it as reprehensible we want to hide from it. However, the formula is simple:
Anger is inevitable, therefore it must always be justifiable.
Even as I write that, I sense my own resistance to it and have to remind myself:
Anger is the feeling, not the behavior.
Anger will not be denied
As anger is an inevitable emotional response to hurt, there is no way to prevent it from happening. Yet many of us will say, with total conviction: “I’m not angry.”
Partly, this is because in addition to the conscious uses of anger, we also have unconscious ways to experience and apply it. We may unconsciously use anger to blame others for our own shortcomings, to justify oppressing others, to boost our own sagging egos, and to handle other emotions (as when we become aggressive when we are afraid). Any situation that frustrates us, especially when we think someone else is to blame for our loss, is a potential trigger for anger and aggression.
Back in 1972, L. Madlow identified many of the clues to anger in his book: “Anger: How to recognize and cope with it.” He categorized many behaviors and verbal comments, some of which would be said to others while others might only be thought to ourselves. They may help identify the presence of anger you have not previously been aware of.
Recognizing our own and others’ anger
The search for anger inside ourselves repays immeasurable dividends because it means we are mining our deepest needs and desires. It’s no problem recognizing when we’re really angry, but it is the minor hurts that guide us each day. These prompt the behaviors, particularly in group settings at work or in personal life, which end up dictating our direction in each moment and therefore through life.
The more things we recognize in our lives that cause us pain, the more clearly we will be set on a successful path of pleasure. Our angers, tiny as well as huge, are our guides onto the rewarding path.
Here are some of the indicators Madlow identified to look out for:
Direct behavioral signs, aimed at self or others:
- Assaultive: physical and verbal cruelty, rage, slapping, shoving, kicking, hitting, threatening with a weapon, etc.
- Aggressive: overly critical, fault finding, name-calling, accusing someone of having immoral or despicable traits or motives, nagging, whining, sarcasm, prejudice, flashes of temper.
- Hurtful: malicious gossip, stealing, trouble-making.
- Rebellious: anti-social behavior, open defiance, refusal to talk.
Direct verbal or cognitive signs; words and attitudes that reveal anger:
- Open hatred and insults: “I hate your guts;” “I’m really mad;” “You’re so damn stupid.”
- Contempt and disgust: “You’re a selfish SOB;” “You are a spineless wimp, you’ll never amount to anything.”
- Critical: “If you really cared about me, you’d…;” “You can’t trust _______.”
- Suspicion: “You haven’t been fair;” “You cheated!”
- Blaming: “They have been trying to cause me trouble.”
- Disrespectful: “They just don’t respect the owner (or boss or teacher or doctor) any more.”
- Vengeful: “I wish I could really hurt him.”
- Generalized insults: “Guys are jerks;” “Women are bitches;” “Politicians are self-serving liars.”
- Less intense but clear: “Well, I’m a little annoyed;” “I’m fed up with…;” “I’ve had it!” “You’re a pain.” “I don’t want to be around you.”
Thinly veiled behavioral signs:
- Distrustful, skeptical.
- Argumentative, irritable, indirectly challenging.
- Resentful, jealous, envious.
- Disruptive, uncooperative, or distracting.
- Unforgiving or unsympathetic attitude.
- Sulky, sullen, pouting.
- Passively resistant, interferes with progress.
- Given to sarcasm, cynical humor, and teasing.
- Judgmental, has a superior or holier-than-thou attitude.
Thinly veiled verbal signs:
These are phrases and styles you hear so often you may not register the anger beneath them.
- “No, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed, [annoyed, disgusted, put out, or irritated].”
- “You don’t know what you are talking about;” “Don’t make me laugh.”
- “Don’t push me, I’ll do it when I get good and ready.”
- “They aren’t my kind of people.”
- “Would you buy a used car from him?”
- “You could improve on…”
- “Unlike Social Work, my major admits only the best students.”
Indirect behavioral signs:
These are the indicators you especially need to watch for in families, where microscopic changes in behavior can go unnoticed until they suddenly appear as a fully-fledged trend:
- Withdrawal: quiet remoteness, silence, little communication especially about feelings.
- Psychosomatic disorders: tiredness, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease.
- Depression and guilt.
- Serious mental illness: paranoid schizophrenia.
- Self-defeating or addictive behavior, such as drinking, over-eating, drug-taking and accident-proneness.
- Vigorous, distracting activity (exercising or cleaning).
- Excessively submissive, deferring behavior.
Indirect verbal signs:
- “I just don’t want to talk.”
- “I’m disappointed in our relationship.”
- “I feel bad all the time.”
- “If you had just lost some weight.”
- “I’m really swamped with work, can’t we do something about it?”
- “Why does this always happen to me?”
- “No, I’m not angry about anything–I just cry all the time.”
The extent to which anger is integrated into our moment-by-moment behavior and interactions is made much clearer by such a list. However, there are also times when it is a highly significant but invisible factor in interpersonal dynamics. It is then referred to as concealed or passive anger.
Passive anger is such a frequent and potent source of disturbed relationships that it warrants a considerable section to itself. Remember, all of us are capable of manifesting our anger in any of these ways.
Passive anger: the scourge of relationships for angry and angered
The persistent passive management of anger is one of the hardest personality traits to contend with in a relationship. This is because it is rooted in a kind of false innocence and denial which can be hard to dent.
Most of us associate anger with nastiness. Typically, we are reluctant to think of ourselves as potentially nasty, but we have little trouble believing that others are capable of it. The predominantly passively angry person – often designated ‘passive aggressive’ – takes this to its ultimate conclusion: they act as if they believe that they are pure as driven snow while everyone around them is a disaster waiting to happen.
Given that we suffer small hurts hundreds of times a day, we should expect fairly frequent expressions of anger. One of the clearest indicator that someone is passively angry is that they don’t express anger in a direct way often enough.
Our passive-aggressive tendencies can be seen when we show our feelings through our behaviors rather than by open expression of our feelings. Procrastination, inefficiency, and forgetfulness are passive-aggressive behaviors commonly used to avoid doing what we need to do or have been told by others must be done.
When being passive-aggressive, we will appear to comply with another’s wishes, and may even say that we want to do what we have agreed to. However, the requested action is either performed too late to be helpful, performed in a way that is useless, or otherwise sabotaged. “Oh! Is that what you meant?” is a passive-aggressive form of apology. It escapes blame while subtly holding the other responsible for not being clearer.
‘Passive-aggressive personality’ is often used as a label to identify those who make extensive use of this coping strategy. However, it is important for us not to fall into the passive-aggressive trap of seeing these traits as just existing in ‘them’. Passive aggressive qualities are present in all of us.
Passive-aggressive signs and qualities
The ‘goal’ of passive-aggressive behavior is to get the other person to feel and perhaps show the anger which is actually present but denied in ourselves. The ways we go about this are almost infinite, but some signs are:
- Obstructionism: We will promise to do something for you, no matter how small, but we won’t say when, and we could do it so slowly it will drive you mad. Sometimes we won’t get to it at all, mysteriously blocking any real progress to your getting your way.
- Fostering chaos: We might make messes while exhibiting good intentions and helpfulness. We’ll leave the yard work incomplete, the DIY job almost finished, but still undone. We manifest almost intentional inefficiency. That way, we won’t be ask to do that task again.
- Feeling victimized: We protest that others unfairly accuse us rather than owning up to our own perceived errors and mistakes. To remain above reproach, we set ourselves up as the apparently hapless, innocent victims of ‘their’ excessive demands and tirades.
- Making excuses and lying: We might invent white lies to cover up for not fulfilling promises. Also, we might make up a story rather than give a straight answer. By withholding information such as an affirmation of love, we gain power over the other.
- Procrastination: When acting passive-aggressively, we are infinitely creative in finding ways of not starting a task.
- Chronic lateness and forgetfulness: Similarly, one of the most infuriating of all passive-aggressive traits is the inability to arrive on time. By keeping others waiting, we set the ground rules for our relationships. We might even present this as a charmingly eccentric and individualistic view of time.
- Ambiguity: It is passive-aggressive behavior to foment mixed messages and ambiguous promises. When we agree to do something, our partner may still walk away wondering if we actually said yes or no. Of course, this gives us the let-out later when we do or don’t carry out the maybe-promised action.
- Sulking: One of the most popular passive-aggressive reactions is to retreat from any pressure and sulk, pout and withdraw. We do this particularly when we feel put upon or are confronted by the truth of our failure to live up to our promises and obligations.
- Acting superior: When in passive-aggressive mode, we float above the inferior crowd; we believe we do a better job than others – or could do; we resent constructive criticism and suggestions from others; and we unreasonably criticize or scorn people in positions of authority.
Not even the most passive-aggressive individual is going to display every single one of these traits, and none of the rest of us are going to be entirely free of them. These behaviors are underpinned by a fear of authority and thus a need to avoid its effects. So we hide out. This goes hand in hand with another common passive skill: the ability to apologize with great charm and frequency.
Finally, in case you think there’s no way you could ever fit into the passive-aggressive model, consider this statistic from Psychology Today (1983). The magazine asked, “If you could secretly push a button and thereby eliminate any person with no repercussions to yourself, would you press that button?”
The result? 69% of males and 56% of women said yes.
The answer to passive-aggressive behavior? Learn to identify what’s going on and develop safe ways to express the primary feeling that prompts the anger response.
Fear and anger
Fear, that great opponent of love and growth, is a major source and sustainer of anger. Indeed, the more physiologically damaging and overt anger reactions seem to occur when we feel utterly helpless. In this, they exactly emulate our condition when anger first appears – in early infancy.
Fear is also a major factor in triggering passive or concealed anger reactions in our relationships, especially:
- Fear of dependency: Unsure of our autonomy and yet still afraid of being alone, we fight our dependency needs by trying to control our partners, keeping them at a tolerable distance.
- Fear of intimacy: When our life experiences have taught us to be mistrustful, we are reluctant to show our emotional fragility. In a passive way, our fear will lead us to deny those feelings – especially love – which we think will “trap” or reveal us. We will passively create distance through obscure passive behaviors.
- Fear of competition: Many of us feel inadequate and unable to compete with others in work or love. We may respond to this by presenting as self-sabotaging wimps with a pattern of failure, or by taking on the role of the tyrant or superior being, dismissing as irrelevant any threat to our power.
Another fear-promoted manifestation of anger is seen in our need to present as the victim. In this mode, we believe that someone or some situation has mistreated us.
More chronically, we might believe that the whole world is against us and that we’ve been singled out for bad treatment: “Born under a bad sign,” as the Willie Dixon blues has it, “I’ve been down since I began to crawl./If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at at all.”
There is a major advantage for our victim selves in feeling helpless. It means we don’t have to take responsibility for what has happened to us. Phew!
In case you’ve missed the pleasure of seeing the victim in yourself, here are some of the signs.
- seem unable to accept love and support. If you offer them help, they never get enough and if you try to cheer them up, it seldom works.
- are much more likely to sulk, pout, look unhappy, or lay a guilt trip on someone than to get angry. “Why does it always happen to me?” they ask, ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
- specialize in: “Yes, but . . .” responses to all your well-meant interventions.
- personify self-pity, pessimism, sadness and jealousy.
When we victimize ourselves we are locking the door on growth out of fear of our own anger. That fear may be of our own inner violence, or ‘murderous rage’, or it may be of a less extreme nature. None of us wants to be seen as ugly, nasty, mean-spirited, bad, or any number of other negative characterizations.
However, those are the behaviors which are prompted by anger, not the anger itself. Much better to embrace the anger, take responsibility for ourselves, monitor our responses and grow a little stronger each day.
It is also better for the world in general.
It benefits all to be open with your anger
Poet William Blake, writing a couple of hundred years ago, expressed the reasons for speaking your angry mind as succinctly as anyone:
A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunnèd it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veil’d the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.
It is worth remembering that the pleasure of seeing our foes outstretched – literally or actually – is very short-lived. And the consequences can be devastating.
Another reason for articulating our anger is to stop it surfacing ‘by surprise’. Many violent crimes are committed by people described as gentle and good natured. Everyone is surprised when ‘the nicest person on the block” turns out to be a serial killer.
More clinically, psychological tests frequently describe persons who have committed violent acts as being over-controlled. By this they mean they are not emotional or impulsive and are very inhibited about expressing aggression against anyone.
It’s doubtful that too many readers of ‘Dynamic Living™’ are potential murderers, but all of us are capable of letting our anger build up as we smile our way through the day. It’s only on the way home that we find ourselves overreacting to a perceived insult on the highway, or shout at the children unfairly.
Other psychological effects of repressed anger include fairly major signs of distress, such as depression, eating disorders, self harming and sexual acting out. And don’t forget the increased possibility of heart attack or stroke.
Wow. Time to start shouting! NOW!
Or maybe not. In reality, if we are aware of our anger and accepting of it, we can actually use it to our own advantage. We do not have to shout and scream and turn red in the face if that doesn’t seem tactically wise at that point.
How to make anger work for you
The ‘typical’ response to anger is to demonstrate our displeasure by one of the many behaviors designed to keep others away. We might shout, grimace, swear, threaten or so on. The problem with all these standard techniques is that they alert and alienate others without passing on any usefully specific information.
This comes about partly because secondary feelings do not meet the originating need. Thus, if the hurt at the base of my anger is fear, swearing doesn’t resolve it. The person I swear at can’t know what to do to help and my stance probably makes things worse by driving away the person who might help me.
What would be more useful? You’ll have your own ideas, but here’s a start:
- Suggestion 1: If confronted by an angry person known to you, do not assume you are the cause. Try asking them what is hurting them or otherwise putting them out of sorts.
- Suggestion 2: For oneself, when you feel angry, take a brief moment to ask yourself the root of your own hurt. The answer to this can be quite surprising and revealing of our own vulnerability. It can also be multiply-faceted, so be ready for a knot of strands of pain to emerge.
- Suggestion 3: When expressing in response to your own impulse to anger, you don’t have to be specific. Sometimes it seems as if the need to clarify what it is we’re angry about increases our frustration so we respond in an aggressive way even if we don’t want to. Most of us are content if our partners simply say: “I’m feeling really uncomfortable about something right now but I can’t quite see what it is.”
- Suggestion 4: In a meeting, instead of simply condemning your colleagues as a bunch of idiots, try saying to yourself: “I am really upset by this. Why does it bother me so much? What specifically am I feeling? What are my primary feelings? What need do I have that is not being met? What principles of mine have been violated?”
The answers to these questions will help you decide what course of action to take in view of what your goals are. Simply being aware that you have multiple options and that you can decide to pick the best one helps soothe the anger. If you can give yourself the time, you could follow this sequence of steps before expressing yourself:
- Explore to reveal your primary emotion.
- Ask whether there is anything related to it which you can control.
- Consider your options.
- Choose the one which will bring you the most long term happiness.
As soon as we begin to think about our options and their consequences, we start to feel more in control and less threatened. Then we can make appropriate plans and escape from the automatic stimulus-response mode which is the root of anger’s danger and universal dislike.
Summary: The Benefits of Knowing and Owning our anger
Anger is an intense emotion. It is evidence that we feel strongly about something or somebody. We don’t feel angry with people who don’t matter to us. If we allow it to, it can help show us what we value and what we lack, what we believe and what our insecurities are. It can help us become more aware of what we feel strongly about and which emotional needs are important to us.
Anger which is embraced helps us in several ways. First it raises our self-awareness. Second, it helps us communicate more precisely. Third, it helps us learn more quickly who respects our feelings and who we want to spend time with.
Paradoxically, embracing our anger helps us feel more in control. When we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we are feeling provoked, we can take control of our response. Pretty much every study on the subject shows that people feel better and are healthier when they have a sense of control over their lives.
Anger, then, is the much-maligned essential clue and motivator to a richer life. Embrace it, enjoy your malign fantasies as fantasies, and try only to act in thoughtful response to the primary, triggering, emotion.
You won’t succeed a hundred percent – after all, under stress we regress – but you could feel a lot better for trying. cjc