The Simple Truth about Anger
Feeling angry is a universal human phenomenon.
It is as basic as feeling hungry, lonely, loving, or tired.
“A thought murder a day keeps the doctor away.” What this quote emphasizes is that feeling one’s angry thoughts is a healthy manifestation, whereas the denial or suppression of angry feelings has a pathological effect. In my experience as a clinician, I have observed that suppressing angry feelings inevitably has destructive consequences. I postulate four major ill effects of bypassing the feeling of angry emotions. They are (1) developing psychosomatic symptoms; (2) turning the anger against oneself; (3) projecting anger outward onto others; and (4) acting out hostile, negative behaviors.
1.When we shy away from our angry emotions, they tend to become somaticized, causing varying degrees of harm to the body. Holding back angry feelings creates tension, and this stress reaction plays a part in a wide range of psychosomatic ailments, such as headaches, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. As reported by the College of Nursing, University of Tennessee: “…Such low scores suggest suppression, repression, or restraint of anger. There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis.”
2. When people internalize feelings of anger, it causes them to turn against themselves and become self-critical and self-hating. If this process reaches serious proportions, it plays a significant role in feelings of depression and worthlessness. It can lead to self-defeating, self-destructive and, at times, suicidal behaviors. Psychoanalysts have traditionally understood depression as being primarily due to anger directed against the self.
3. People who avoid or suppress anger frequently externalize their anger by disowning it in themselves and projecting it onto other people, thereby perceiving others as being angry or hostile. This causes them to experience the external environment as alien and dangerous. They then react to these perceived enemies with counter-aggression or paranoia, often triggering a dangerous downward spiral of progressive maladaptation and misery.
4. When people cannot tolerate angry emotions, they tend to act out their anger inappropriately. They find it difficult to control and are hurtful or abusive to themselves and others. Often, they act against their own best interests.
Those who stifle their anger are apt to express it indirectly through passive-aggression or by becoming withholding. Withholding behaviors, such as being forgetful, habitually late, procrastinating and otherwise provoking, alienate others; in particular, they create distance between partners in intimate relationships and bring about problems in the workplace. In general, passive-aggression is dysfunctional, drives people away, increases guilt feelings and has a bad overall effect on the perpetrator.
Lastly, when people find it difficult to acknowledge anger directly, they instead tend to justify the reasons for their anger, which leads to feeling misunderstood, victimized, righteously indignant or morally wronged. This often causes the anger and victimization to become obsessive, and the angry thoughts not only persist for long periods but build and eventually take their toll on one’s overall happiness and adjustment.
Anger is perhaps the most misunderstood of human emotions. There are many misconceptions about it. Some people perceive anger as bad or immoral and feel that becoming angry makes them a bad person. Others believe that anger is the opposite of love and feel that expressions of anger have no place in close, personal relationships or in the family. Still another common, yet incorrect, belief is that being angry at someone implies that one is accusing that person of wrongdoing.
Anger is a natural and inevitable response to frustration or stress. The degree of anger is proportional to the degree of frustration experienced at the time, whether or not one’s feelings of anger are rational and appropriate to the situation or irrational and entirely inappropriate. As the Dalai Lama rightly noted, “If a human being never shows anger, then I think something’s wrong. He’s not right in the brain.” In this regard, it is beneficial to understand that anger is a healthy emotion, and it is ideal to feel the emotion fully. Critical, vicious thoughts and attitudes are entirely acceptable, morally speaking, whereas actions must be judged on moral grounds, and even a sarcastic or superior tone or an insensitive act can be considered hurtful.
In The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships, I emphasize that it is essential, in terms of our mental health and well-being, to give all of our feelings free reign in conscious awareness and experience, whereas, in relation to our actions, we must make a rational decision about how to express our anger that involves both moral concerns and reality issues. In the chapter titled “Mastering Anger,” I describe two salient points in relation to acting on our anger: is it consistent with our values and would it be in our own best interest? Regarding the latter, it would be foolhardy, for example, for a person who values his/her job to blow up at the boss; instead, it would be more productive to simply acknowledge and feel the hostile feelings without acting them out.
For the most part, over-reactive emotional responses in adults, including intense anger or rage, contain a primal element based on early experiences that were threatening or traumatic. Becoming sensitive to the types of situations that arouse overly strong reactions of anger is useful in making a distinction between present-day and primal emotions. Whereas the anger in the current situation may be justified, the intensity is often not appropriate to the personal significance of the event. An awareness of the primal components of one’s anger not only helps defuse the level of anger but also allows time for rational self reflection and a more thoughtful consideration of one’s thoughts and actions.
Bear in mind that it is crucial to be able to express anger, and at times it can have a remarkably positive effect in personal, vocational or political situations. It is generally best to state one’s anger directly and in a calm tone of voice, rather than in an angry or rageful manner. For example, saying “I felt angry at you when you did thus and so,” matter-of-factly is more effective than expressing it angrily, which will usually provoke an immediate angry retort. However, if you are further annoyed by the response to your anger, or it fails to achieve your purpose, you can always state things more strongly and forcefully. In general, this escalation should be gradual and controlled to achieve the best results.
In summary, when we deny or suppress hostile emotions, our anger is likely to be internalized, turned against our bodies or our selves, or externalized, distorting the world around us. In addition, we are more likely to lose control and act in ways that are detrimental or destructive to ourselves and to others.
The acceptance of anger and the ability to tolerate angry feelings brings anger under our control and regulation. Indeed, when men and women are able to experience angry feelings and are comfortable with them, they become stronger and more self-possessed. In addition, they tend to be more accepting of anger in their children and more likely to encourage their child’s movement towards positive self-expression, while discouraging passive aggressive or manipulative behavior. In this way, they teach their children important lessons about anger management (e.g. when and how to express it) that are so critical in later life. For all the reasons noted above, psychotherapists work hard to help their clients recognize, accept and fully experience their angry emotions and learn to express them when appropriate.Tags: anger, anger management, defenses, depression, ethics, feelings, mental health, personal development, psychological defenses
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Back in the day, I would get angry over small, insignificant things. Since I learned how to control it, its much better and somehow, I feel that my life is more fulfilled.
I used to be so happy and strong willed I had a lot more faith in my self and life. .I had dreams and goals. I had plans I wanted to accomplish. Now Im broken-down financially. mentally. and physically. How can I get back to that place? ? Is there any one who can help me?
Hi Al, my thought for you would be to go back to the time you were still quite driven and energized, write down or consider where those good feelings came from. Then move forward year by year and figure out where you were, who was with you and what changed over time.
Where did the main events occur that shifted your hope, courage or self belief? Look at whether you were correct or mistaken in how you have interpreted those events. What did you do that led to your change in outlook about yourself and shut down motivation or dreams? ? (Like drinking more, poor company you hung out with, unforgiveness of someone, etc.)
Admitting you had pain and sorrow at stages of your life, is a big step to healing it. Try addressing one area at a time. An easy one is exercise, walk more and get in nature and your body will feel better. Make it a routine. Later work on your spiritual hope and comfort, attend a local church or pray ?. Then read more on mental health or specific issues you have.
God bless your journey.
Wouldn’t it be great if our rational minds could communicate with our deeply embedded painful emotions associated with anger. It just doesn’t work that way. Anger is intense and immediate. To suggest that someone can evaluate, in the moment, whether their anger is related to childhood or the present moment before acting, requires an unnatural ability to separate emotions from feelings and thoughts. The whole process happens so quickly, that I don’t know how one can compartmentalize and analyse the component parts in the midst of the turmoil.
It’s called mindfulness.
Thank you for this helpful information. I so need to be reminded to break out of the victim view. It is a bad habit for me. I am learning to sit with my feelings, feel what they are but also have to take the next step to speak about it and be assertive or admit them. By God’s grace I will do that tomorrow.
In “sitting with” one’s emotions, how do you avoid “suppressing” them?