Anger is not a bad thing if it is APPROPRIATELY EXPRESSED. Expressing it inappropriately will usually get us nowhere and can badly backfire. However, its appropriate expression is often effective.
As we begin to realize that what was done to us as children was wrong, anger often emerges (especially when we start to understand all the ramifications of how we have subsequently been affected by it).
Repressing anger (‘bottling it up’) is often painful and stressful. We can also get to the point when we can contain it no longer and this might result in it being MISDIRECTED (expressed against the wrong person) or is it being expressed in a DESTRUCTIVE and DAMAGING way (to both ourselves and those we interact with).
It is much better if anger is MANAGED and only expressed in a manner which is beneficial.
For some, expressing anger gives rise to a feeling of power, the power that was denied us in childhood, and can therefore feel that by expressing this anger we are in some way protecting ourselves or taking back ‘control’ (though, almost always, uncontrolled outbursts of anger backfire very unpleasantly). The adrenaline associated with such anger can sometimes lead to it being expressed in a very intense way. Whilst this may be understandable, then, such expressions of anger ULTIMATELY HARM THE PERSON EXPRESSING IT.
THREE CATEGORIES OF ANGER:
1) PRIMARY ANGER.
This is anger which is REASONABLE given what has occurred – it is directly related to what has happened and is not influenced by extraneous factors.
2) SECONDARY ANGER.
The psychologist Aaron Beck, during the 1980s, defined this type of anger as RESULTING FROM FEAR or HURT. WE USE IT TO TRY TO PROTECT OURSELVES AGAINST FURTHER TRAUMA. This type of anger can be EXPLOSIVE and feel as if IT IS ‘TAKING US OVER’. It may occur in response to:
– perceived rejection
– a perceived slight
– a perceived threat
All of the above may trigger memories, consciously or unconsciously, of the original trauma; this can explain the (seemingly) disproportionate intensity of the reaction.
3) PAST ANGER.
This refers to anger we are currently feeling but which STEMS FROM THE PAST. When it is TRIGGERED BY CURRENT EVENTS, the anger we express, similar to the anger illustrated in 2 above, can be disproportionate (to the current event). For example, we may see a mother in the street screaming aggressively at her child which in turn triggers memories of how we ourselves were treated in childhood.
It is better to express anger in a healthy and helpful way rather than to REPRESS or DENY it (in the case of the latter, it can profoundly, negatively affect our peace of mind or lead us to TURN THE ANGER IN ON OURSELVES or DISPLACE it (i.e. take it out in an inappropriate way on those who do not deserve it).
It is natural to feel anger towards the person/s who caused our childhood trauma but the anger we feel is often COMPLICATED BY FEELINGS OF AMBIVALENCE if the person/s who caused our trauma also did good things for us. Such ambivalence can feel very painful and confusing, leaving us feeling CONFLICTED. In simple terms, we develop mixed, and very often contradictory, feelings towards the person/s.
Alternatively, we may excuse the person/s who caused the trauma by telling ourselves they behaved as they did due, for example, to the extreme stress they themselves were under.
This may make it more difficult to feel the anger, and, as a result, we may feel EMOTIONALLY NUMB ( a kind of dissociative state).
Whilst anger should not be forced, if we find it difficult to connect to our anger the following exercise may be useful:
1) to imagine ourselves at the age we suffered the trauma, remembering how young and vulnerable we were (if you have a photograph of yourself at the relevant age to look at this could be helpful).
2) think about what occurred and how it made us feel
3) think of the ways in which our lives have been damaged as a result, and how many years have been lost (it is important to do this in a safe way and reading my post on COPING MECHANISMS could be helpful in order to help ensure this).
When we can start to feel the anger without it overwhelming us, we can try to focus on our anger for longer periods of time.
Now we turn to how to deal with these angry feelings:
HOW TO DEAL WITH FEELINGS OF ANGER.
We often respond to anger in ways that only damage us. This may include turning the anger in on ourselves (e.g self-harm, self-hatred), turning it on others who do not deserve it (DISPLACEMENT) or perhaps turning to drink and/or drugs to temporarily dissipate the pain and anguish our feelings entail.
However, clearly, it is important to deal with our anger in a CONSTRUCTIVE way.
One way to do this is to express it ASSERTIVELY (i.e. in a CONTROLLED, APPROPRIATE and RESPECTFUL manner).
To express anger towards a particular person, in a SAFE and appropriate way, can be achieved in the two ways outlined below:
here, the person is not confronted face-to-face. Examples would be to write a letter (it is not even necessary to send it; merely writing down our feelings towards the person with whom we are angry can be a step forward, alleviating the painful feelings associated with repressing anger) or to role-play (perhaps getting a friend to play the part of the person we are angry with).
In order to make sure this is done appropriately and safely, planning and preparation are definitely helpful.
How Holding On To Chronic Anger Can Harm Us.
I remained angry at my parents for a very long time indeed. I would repress it for lengthy periods, but it was always lying dormant, waiting for a trigger that would cause it to erupt. My outbursts of rage, therefore, were intermittent and would tend to occur at times and of exceptionally intense stress or when they behaved in a rejecting way that resonated too painfully with my memories of how they rejected and discarded me in my youth.
Being chronically angry, apart from anything else, is a very destructive and emotionally distressing frame of mind to endure – it is also highly mentally enervating and exhausting, sapping one’s energy and, often, too, spoiling one’s quality of sleep. These effects can combine to lead to a state of constant exhaustion.
Many people who were mistreated by their parents as children harbour anger, hostility and resentment towards them for years or decades. Some hold on to these destructive feelings even after their parents are dead; indeed, not only may these feelings not abate once their parents are dead, they may even intensify. This may give rise to feelings of guilt and shame, too, about not being able to free themselves from their anger.
As I’ve already suggested above, such deep-rooted and pervasive anger often impacts on many areas of the angry person’s life in very harmful ways. I provide examples of how this may happen below:
– displacement of anger onto innocent victims when anger is not being directed at the parents. This may lead, frequently, to getting into conflict with other relatives, friends, work colleagues, service providers etc. and always seeing the worst in people. Often, the angry person will not be consciously aware that the anger s/he is expressing is displaced anger.
– quick to condemn those one perceives as having done something wrong/immoral and to then dismiss them as a ‘terrible person’
– gain a reputation for being an angry, judgmental, censorious and unforgiving person, even when this isn’t the ‘real you’
– loss of capacity to experience joy or pleasure in life
– a proneness to express moral outrage
– a marked tendency to be critical about everyone and everything
– strong need to feel morally superior in relation to others
– development of a ‘me against the world’ approach to life
– feelings of hatred for others easily triggered
– general misanthropic attitude towards the world
– fantasies of revenge
– regard self us utterly innocent victim, persecuted relentlessly by moral inferiors and idiots
– perpetual feelings of resentment and bitterness which alienate others
– regard self as ‘judge and jury’ when it comes to assessing the moral character of others and as omniscient and infallible in one’s ‘god-like’ judgments.
Overcoming Aggressive Behaviour Linked to Childhood Trauma. 5 Step Method.
Common examples of aggressive behaviour include:
– finding it very difficult to accept criticism or acknowledge our own faults – this can result in becoming very defensive which might include becoming enraged and aggressively counter-attacking the individual who challenged us
– trying to get our own way with little or no regard for the feelings or wishes of others
– shouting and becoming verbally abusive and hostile when others fail to comply with our wishes
– turning discussions into heated arguments and trying to dominate the other person by talking over them, interrupting and generally not giving them a proper opportunity to put their own views across
– using threats (both verbal and through body language) or physical assault to get our own way
If we think some or all of the above may apply to us, a method frequently used by therapists involves carrying out a practical exercise involving 5 key steps. I give details of what this exercise involves below :
1) Try to recall a specific example of a time you were in a situation in which you think you acted aggressively, think you might have acted aggressively or were accused by others (either correctly or incorrectly) of behaving aggressively (what does not seem aggressive to us may still be perceived as aggressiveness by others).
2) Write down how you behaved in terms of body language etc, what you said, and how you said it (tone of voice etc.)
3) Write down what the consequences of what you said and did were, both immediately after the event and later on. Also, write down how what you said and did make you feel (again, both immediately after the event and later on)
4) Write down what you could have said and done in a calmer way
5) Write down what you think the pros and cons of acting in the calmer way you described in step 4 may have been.
WHAT TO DO AFTER COMPLETING THESE FIVE STEPS :
If you think that the pros outweighed the cons in step 5, make a conscious decision to experiment by acting in this calmer way next time a situation arises in which you may previously have behaved in an aggressive manner. See if you feel better for having behaved more calmly, and achieved a better outcome. If you find you prefer acting in this calmer way in situations which in the past would have provoked aggression, by consciously reminding yourself to behave in this new way it should become an ingrained characteristic.
Anger And ‘Thinking Errors’ (Cognitive Distortions).
In this section, I want to specifically examine how ‘errors in thinking’ can cause us to experience excessive and counterproductive feelings of anger:
Thinking errors (sometimes referred to as COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS) we may make that can cause us problems managing our anger as adults:
1) Jumping to conclusions:
Psychologists also refer to this as ‘mind-reading’ (though this is not meant literally). It means that we may be prone to drawing definite conclusions about what’s motivating another individual based on flimsy evidence. An example might be:
‘I just know that person is deliberately trying to irritate me’
when, in fact, if we were to be more objective, we’d see there was little evidence that the person was, in fact, deliberately trying to do this.
This involves exaggerating in our own minds how serious the consequences of something that has gone wrong actually are. People who tend to think in terms of extremes (sometimes referred to as ‘black or white’ thinkers) are particularly likely to do this (ie ‘catastrophize’).
For example, we may tell ourselves that a person ‘has ruined’ our ‘life forever’ and thus become extremely angry whereas a more objective judgment might be that the person has caused us a temporary and quite easily surmountable setback.
3) Selective attention/perception:
This involves disproportionately focusing on negatives. For example, we may become very angry with a person by focusing solely on what s/he has done to upset us whilst ignoring the person’s good intentions/motivation and/or all the positive things the person has done for us.
4) Using Emotive Language :
This refers to when we think or speak about a person using exaggerated and emotive language. For example, we might tell ourselves a person is ‘evil’ whereas a more sober assessment of the person we’ve deemed to have wronged us clearly would not warrant such a melodramatic judgment. Therefore, the anger we display towards the person may be as disproportionate as the language we use to describe him/her.
5) Over- generalization:
This involves seeing a person as always behaving in ways that upset us when, in fact, for example, s/he may only occasionally upsets us with his/her behaviour. A common expression that reflects such over -generalization is :
‘You never think about anyone but yourself!’
when, in fact, if we gave the matter more thought, we would be able to think of plenty of evidence that contradicted this.
All of the above, then, can make us feel more intensely angry than would be objectively warranted. To put it in a very colloquial way, the above represent examples of how we can fall into a trap of unnecessarily ‘winding ourselves up’.
It is in our own interests to avoid making these errors as anger is so often destructive and counterproductive. Also, being constantly angry is a very painful state of mind which is emotionally exhausting and a waste of energy; energy that could be channeled in far more constructive directions.
Research has shown that a very effective way of treating these types of ‘thinking errors’ is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Click here to read one of my articles on this.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)
David Hosier. BSc; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).