Anger the Valid and Healing Emotion
Right now, at the outset, I would like to make an important distinction between, on one hand, a healing emotion, anger, and on the other hand, a destructive force I call rage. When most people speak of ‘anger problems,’ ‘anger management,’ or fearing someone’s anger, they are speaking about rage. Rage is a destructive action. It's only possible outcome is to break someone or something.
The most fundamental reason that a self-protective impulse emerges as well-possessed anger in some and distorted rage in others is physiological. Rage results from the impulse of self-protection being forced through the 'fight-or-flight system, that is, mediated through the sympathetic nervous system. Anger, on the other hand, is mediated by the ventro-vagal 'social receptivity' system, part of the parasympathetic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is not under immediate conscious control, but it can be purposely shifted over time toward relaxation and social engagement. which is what much of this website is about. Although the goal of this page is the understanding of the healing and beneficial qualities of anger, it is necessary to have one's mind put at rest about violence. To this end, rage is discussed rather thoroughly in the box below, so that a more confident discussion of true anger may follow.
Rage is not so much an emotion as it is an activation of the emergency defense system. Three broad biological conditions are involved: 1) the fight or flight system of the sympathetic nervous system is activated, 2) certain, “conflict recognition” areas in the limbic (emotional) brain are triggered, and 3) the executive part of the cortex (orbito-frontal) loses contact with the previously mentioned limbic areas.
In human affairs, rage causes problems because it can be activated not just in rare life-or-death situations, but much more frequently in situations of social threat. The repeated physiological and neurological cascade of rage over-develops these pathways and disconnections with each episode. Eventually every self-protective impulse is pulled into a rage response. Secondarily, but no less important to 'recovery,' the interpersonal havoc that ensues unfortunately in many ways increases the tendency to rage through the psychology of shame and resentment, and sometimes through the acquisition of power.
Rage is not just really intense anger Based on the biological mechanisms mentioned above, rage or rage episodes have five universal, qualitative, and defining characteristics:
- Suddenness In a fight or flight reaction, the adrenal glands pour potent chemicals into the blood that highjack the body and mind immediately. This is unlike true anger, which works through the parasympathetic system and takes minutes or even hours to develop. That is why people sometimes say “I'm getting angry” but never say, “I'm getting enraged”
- Irretrievability It is the nature of the fight or flight system that once the chemicals are released the biological state will persist for an hour or more, even if soothing maneuvers are begun immediately, and much longer if antagonizing activity is pursued (which is usually the case) Once rage 'blows' no words or thoughts or consequences will change it. True if the consequences are severe (like arrest) sometimes actions can be crudely controlled, but the internal state remains unchanged. Even if the 'cause' of the upset goes away, the rage will persist. If an unrelated activity has to be done (like going to work) the rage will carry over to the new situation.
- Loss of Contact With rage, vision, perception, empathic feeling, and subsequent memory are diminished and distorted. That is why there is the folk expression 'blind rage,' and psychologists speak of 'dissociative rage.' After a rage, the rager often truly does not know or remember what happened (which of course aids denial.)
- Loss of Self With rage, all prior history in a relationship is lost. All principles and beliefs the rager has developed in life are inaccessible. Any previous agreements, sincerely made or not, are repudiated.. Human bonding, attachment, histories of good-will or shared pleasure are denied. The rager is temporarily without personality, a defensive entity at war with the world.
- Loss of Behavioral Control With rage, there is a certain amount of start/stop activity, but true control is more about guidance and achieving a desired result through just the right force and direction of movement. With rage, there is no ability to guide and really no desired results. Rather movement is either 'destroy' or 'hold back'. Holding back is physically painful. If the rage is strong, holding cannot last and destruction happens.
- Survival In a literal sense, lethal threats are rare in our society, and even then, rage may be less effective then a 'cool' escape plan. However, where early experience has included abuse or insecurity, any social problem can take on survival characteristics. Even something very ambiguous, like a 'weird look' from someone, can seem threatening.
- Shame Shame is feeling inadequate and unable to justify one's existence. Undiluted, it is an intolerable feeling, and rage is often an escape from the feeling (but of course a future cause of shame)
- Abandonment Being 'left out' is devastating from a child's standpoint, and many adults still feel that way. Sometimes a temporary separation, like a partner going to work, can trigger a reactive rage. Even a difference of opinion can be a trigger.
- Exposure This is where events uncover evidence that something denied is in fact true.
- Power and Control Rage usually develops strongly as a pattern from the reasons above, but since rage intimidates others, a secondary re-enforcement can come about. This is most evident in domestic abuse. Rage is self-induced by mulling over resentments, or erupts when the feeling of losing control arises.
- Dis-inhibition Rage can become a source of an adrenaline high. Like power and control, this is a secondary pattern built on the first four precipitants.
The Role of Denial, Resentment, and Revenge
Rage's most common role these days is as an adjunct to denial. Denial is not accepting that something that has happened has actually happened, or not accepting that a situation is actually occurring. Denial is natural with large losses. Sometimes it takes time to take something in. But if a reality threatens an illusion, time alone may not overcome denial. It is common to accept something conversationally but not accept it emotionally or not accept the implications. If this goes on too long, the person is living unrealistically. Ongoing denial is never stable, the actions and statements of other people will threaten it, and when this happens, fight-or-flight dynamics and rage usually erupt. After the rage subsides, denial reforms, perhaps even strengthened by shame about the outburst. Other people affected by the rage learn not to challenge the denial. This is a self-perpetuating process.
Resentment is related to denial. While denial proper is the non-acceptance that something has happened, resentment is the non-acceptance that something 'should have' happened. The most justifiable reason for the position hat something should not have happened is believing that it happened through the ill-will of somebody else (and should be reversed by some imaginary judge). That is why resentment is made known to others through blaming tendencies, and can take on the character of paranoia.
Non-acceptance can also lead to attempts to 'undo' Undoing can only be symbolic of course, even if actual actions with actual effects occur. Revenge (mostly fantasized but sometimes carried out) is one form of undoing. The results never satisfy because the original offense still must be accepted. (Retaliation is a punishing action that may be driven by the psychology of revenge or driven by pragmatics.)
Resentment and revenge are psychological defenses in that they are ways to hide an unmet need or desire that is painful to acknowledge. To get past resentment, it is necessary to discover and admit what one really wants or wanted. Some true anger may emerge, but likely great sadness and shame. This is self-focus as opposed to the other-focus of resentment. While the energy behind resentment is the distorted self-protective impulse that would otherwise emerge as anger, the content of resentment can sometimes be logically rather distant from the unmet need--this is the way with psychological defenses. However, exploring resentments honestly with a self-focus will reliably lead to the root.
Resentment, denial, addiction, and rage all contribute to each other. Resentment is so closely related to both addiction and rage, that one wonders whether resentment ia physiological as well as a psychological state. In any case, resentments ensure that self-protection is shunted to rage, because true anger requires acceptance that what has happened has happened.
Precipitating Situations for Rage
The destructive consequences of rage are well-known. If rage happens more than once or twice a year, it will dominate the dynamics of any relationship. Given the characteristics of rage described above, the following basic implications seem to apply to efforts to address rage. (Finer, more far-reaching suggestions are listed after that)
Once rage has erupted, absolutely nothing except soothing and decreasing stimuli is of any use. This is the basis of the timeout procedure taught in 'anger management' classes. Any discussion of issues is counter-productive, including discussing the effects of rage on others. Breaking off contact is almost always best. Slight increments of better composure do not indicate the rage is ending.
- Rages are not willed and so will-power cannot conquer rage. However, self-determination can lead to choices that restore balance and harmony in he self-protection system and 'short-circuit' rage. This is the idea underpinning the 'ultimate solutions section below.
- Rage may explain actions, but never justifies them. To learn, we all must be responsible for the products of our actions, even when there are involuntary aspects.
Where a rage tendency exists, there is no point in trying any relationship improvement strategies like family counseling, new activities, agreement and bargains, etc.. because none of this will transfer to the rage state. Rage has to be changed first.
Drug and alcohol use, whether it seems to be a problem by itself, greatly increases the three physical conditions of rage and should cease. Rage and addiction often co-exist and if so, they have to be addressed simultaneously.
The impulse for others to tip-toe around the raging person will be strong and almost automatic, but unless safety contra-indicates it it, rage should be addressed the first time and every time. Rage is a 'huge deal' that will escalate when accommodated.
- Certain conditions, like brain injury, may mean rage is not changeable, but secondary patterns and effects can be prevented by understanding.
Rage hurts others, but it is not a moral issue like cruelty. To confront it from the moral high ground is just to increase the shame dynamic.
Rage dynamics trample context. No 'making sense' of the rage, or things said in a rage, should be attempted because it is just crazy-making.
Safety sometimes demands force be used to restrain a raging person, but punishment produces resentment which of course strengthens the rage pattern.
Denial, although it has to be overcome, is not a sign of moral depravity, but part of the rage.
- Decrease sympathetic shift. Increase the ventral vagal or social engagement system.
- Increase behavioral control by increasing fine-motor control Bodywork, Pilates, or yoga are excellent for this. Martial arts may also help, provided the instructor is attuned to the fine-motor aspects. Brain Gym® exercises are also helpful. All these modalities strengthens the connection between the executive areas of the cortex and the limbic system.
- Identify Resentments and Replace Them with real engagement and problem solving with the people involved. The fourth step of the 12-step system has a template of sorts for this, but this is not the only way.
- Increase True Anger as described in the sections below this box on rage. Of course, where rage has been a tendency this will be doubly tricky
- Decrease Shame. This is a topic in itself but some ideas are listed in these sections under self-nourishment and respect. Shame is the engine of denial.
Beyond the distinction with rage, anger has a tricky role in social norms and interpersonal relations, as the paragraphs below discuss. Unlike rage, anger is grounded in acceptance. Not 'accepting' in the sense of permitting mistreatment, that is submission not acceptance. But anger is not about undoing what has happened and what is, although anger is sometimes about re-doing it.
Anger is not negativity, which is a tendency toward criticism, sarcasm, and judgment, sometimes delivered in a hostile manner but without any real emotion. Negativity is a defense against anxiety and unwanted emotion. Expressing negativity, however, is not satisfying, not healing, and damaging to relationships. Negativity often covers up an inability to act assertively. Negativity can also be a means to avoid real disappointment and hurt, by anticipating it in advance, like a broken clock. Willingness to bring up an uncomfortable issue is not negativity.
Anger is commonly confused with a loss of control. It is rage, however, that results in lack of control. Rage is also recognizable by the irrationality and disorganization. A person in a rage is usually unable to state what they want. Anger tends to bring a clarity and focus. An angry person may ask for more than what is practical, but what an angry person asks for will be rational. Still, even true anger may be somewhat disorganizing at first if anger has been suppressed. Anger can always 'flip' to rage if the person is overwhelmed It may be beneficial to work with anger first in a controlled setting like therapy. Anger, when a person is ready to own it, often spurs actions that positively 'take control' of a life or situation.
Anger is also confused with the desire or actuality of punishing someone. Putting aside all dubious arguments of whether it can beneficially change behavior, the act of punishment is not the logical result of anger but an attempt to be rid of anger (or more likely, painful rage). In fact violence, including verbal violence, arises from either rage, or a need to quickly as possible discard strong feelings we cannot yet tolerate.
Similarly, anger is confused with blame. Blame is placing the responsibility for one's actions and feelings on another person. Anger does not transfer responsibility to the target. Blame also functions as an attempt to punish.
Loss of control, punishing actions, and blame all have to do with the intense other-focus of rage. Anger, on the other hand, brings a self-focus. Self-focus means an awareness of our feelings, our desires, our needs, and our foundation. Others do not get the worst of it when we are able to self-focus. On the contrary, the other- focus of rage dehumanizes others into perceived monsters. Anger humanizes others.
Anger is not shouting or screaming. Rather these effects on the voice are from rage and fear, which tighten the throat.. True anger deepens the voice slightly, and adds a resonance which draws attention to itself and leads others to take the communication seriously.
Anger also is not hostility. Anger is warm (sometimes hot), has a specific concern, and impels one toward the provocation. Hostility is cold, consists of a global attitude against a person, and generally includes withdrawal. Hostility arises when there has been betrayal or betrayal is feared. Hostility is often driven underneath by past attraction or subconscious attraction
Anger is also confused with 'establishing the moral high-ground'. Many only feel they can express upset and protest when someone has done something 'morally' wrong. It is taking a victim role, and expecting that role to compel the other person. That is, they can get angry against someone, but not angry for themselves. This leads to negativity and a critical attitude that attempts to make personal interests, which are legitimate, into moral law, which they are not. This is focusing on faults and not solutions. Moreover, there is a loss of self-focus.
Anger starts as a self-protective impulse. If the impulse results in contraction, the emotion is fear. If the impulse results in expansion, the emotion is anger. If there is contraction, then explosion, then partial recontraction, this is rage. If the threat is strong, fear is realistic and protective, but not healing. Most complex social threats faced today naturally elicit elements of both anger and fear.
In the therapy community, there has arisen a slogan that anger is a 'secondary emotion that covers fear" Anger is not secondary to fear, it is secondary to threat, as is fear. Fear is often preferred by other people because it is less socially disruptive and less likely to be destructively distorted as described above and below. Still, in the therapeutic context it has be admitted that the threat that provokes the self-protective impulse is often self-imposed. The anger cannot be productive because the person is at war with themselves. In these instances, the threats need examining and not confronting, and this perhaps can be 'more coolly' done from 'the fear side.' But fear is not in any way morally superior to anger, and should not be seen as a preferable state apart from the context.
There are two main categories of self-imposed threats: ego-image, and self-negation.When the accurate observations and adult behavior of others threatens false self-mages, protective protests are self-defeating and misdirected. A clue is defensiveness. With true anger, one doesn't doubt one's legitimacy. It is necessary to distinguish righteous anger from 'self-righteous' (really 'ego-righteous') anger. Also irritable explosions may result when one waits too long to take care of oneself. For example, we want to leave to go somewhere but we are 'too polite' to interrupt someone talking to us, thinking we can wait it out. Resentment builds. It may explode, or the resentment is carried along to the next setting because it has built up in our body.
While anger is an emotion that informs and energizes action, it is never a justification for an action. Few of us have the ability to hold and experience anger calmly enough to allow anger to participate in a humane but honest response. Anger doesn't keep well—when denied it turns into buried or partly buried rage, and resentment.
Anger occurs in a relationship. If some friction has occurred with a stranger, the anger that arises puts the two people into some type of relationship, if they are capable of it. If they are not, then often there is rage instead. It is relationship which will put a cap on destructiveness. Anger is not rejection, it is the opposite of rejection (not the only opposite of rejection, but one indispensable opposite of rejection.) An angry confrontation almost always strengthens a relationship if the two parties can avoid drama and rage. Anger can bring honesty and realness where there has been acting and superficiality. 'Make-up' sex has long been known to usually great because the preceding anger has cleared away much of the falseness and distance in the relationship.
Anger is not intrinsically inappropriate, it is a strong emotion for strong situations. Some people are to accept the existence of anger, but strongly question the wisdom of its expression. That is, they have a hard time even imaging any positive effects from bringing it into their relationships. Cannot goals, even assertive goals, be achieved another way? Anger is not a tool to achieve goals. Cannot wrongs be addressed 'peacefully'? Anger is more than conveying the information of an injury. It is also more than registering a protest on ethical grounds. Anger is a biological process which restores vitality and interpersonal contact. A goal for many in this culture is to convey the most information with the least biological activation. That is a mistaken goal.
Anger is not 'resolved' by managing outcomes, but is discharged (or 'dissolved') by taking congruent steps. Discharging anger is a biological function that occurs mainly through the lower body. Verbal expression may adequately discharge anger if the ego is identified with the body and the anger, and the body's alignment allows for grounding.
True anger is a natural response to injury or intrusion. The motives of others who injure or intrude may vary quite a bit, but the response of anger is still natural, and just as healing. Many of us have trouble expressing anger toward good people or family. We may feel that anger is not 'justified' toward others who may have our best interests at heart. Anger, unlike punishments or other actions, is an emotion and does not require justification. When our ability to express anger is regained in relationships, others may perpetuate the confusion by acting like they have been punished. The key is not to try to achieve justification, but to achieve connection.
Anger is often displaced. That is, it is vented on someone else with flimsy justification. It is possible to make a complete circle of displacement. For instance a man may vent his anger at his co-worker on his wife, and his anger at his wife on his co-worker. While this seems to cover all the bases, it avoids really feeling and identifying with the emotion, and avoids getting closer.
An inability to express anger to the appropriate person contributes to an inability to express love. Anger is the trickiest interpersonal tool available, no doubt about it. Every child quickly learns that some people cannot accept their anger. Perhaps it will be all the people in their lives. Since anger is involuntary, the child comes to see him- or herself as unacceptable. One seeming way out of this dilemma is to become ‘nice.’
Niceness is no substitute for love, and in fact, it usually gets in the way of love. Niceness is based on withholding true feeling, and while that makes sense with strangers, and in casual or business relationships, it is disastrous if used extensively in close relationships. Niceness covers up anger a lot more poorly than people think. The anger comes out in distorted form, such as withholding, negativity, passive aggression, resentment, righteousness, and playing a victim role. An additional reason that anger is denied is that admitting anger means having to do something constructive about it.
There is a saying about detoxifying the effects of unprocessed anger: "Claim it, tame it, aim it."
- Claiming means accepting the legitimacy of one's self-protective impulses and recognizing the effects of anger stirring somewhere in the body and in the self. Describing injuries and injustices one has experienced may be legitimate but this is not claiming anger. There is a mistaken cultural norm to try to fix all things without any anger. Anger, however, when appropriate, is necessary for healing and self-building.
- Taming means shifting the self-protective impulses from the sympathetic or rage system to the ventral-vagal or social engagement system. This usually means some bodywork. Taming also means developing the capacity to hold anger long enough to shape it into a humane response.
- Aiming means channeling the energy of anger through the social engagement system to address the cause for the anger. It is movement toward a constructive goal. 'Stewing' with anger is not aiming! Perhaps aiming will include protest, but complaining in a way that makes it clear that the complainer is not prepared to participate in a solution is called whining, and this also is not aiming.