Friday, September 30, 2011

Understanding Anger

Many times people describe another person as an "angry" person or someone who has an "anger problem" and shake their heads. Emotionally abusive spouses, the controlling boss, the critical parent--all may be described as angry people. Bullies are angry people, whether they are twelve or forty-five. Maybe it's hard to understand why someone would be angry most of the time. After all, being chronically angry has many negative consequences for both the person who lives in anger and those around that person. Why would anyone continue a behavior that seems so negative?
Anger is a complicated emotion but we're beginning to understand it better than ever before.  There are different types of anger.
First consider Stephanie. That's a made-up name of course and doesn't refer to any real person. Stephanie is focused on self-esteem. Focusing on self-esteem is a trap, as we know from Dr. Neff's bookSelf Compassion (2011).  She looks for achievements to feel good about herself and assesses herself in terms of whether she is better than others in various ways, such as being smarter, more fit, wealthier, and the like. Because she sees her value as measured through these comparisons, there will be times when she realizes others are smarter, wealthier, or in better shape than she is. There are many ways of responding, and her way is to be angry when that happens. Loss of her value as a person hurts and anger is one response to feeling hurt. In some situations where someone isn't clear about who they are, the anger may be intense because they feel so worthless. Some people routinely compare themselves to others who they judge as being superior to them and the result is also anger.  Believing that you are worthless is one root of chronic anger.
Jake is an abusive spouse. When his wife Wendy returned home late from a meeting, he raged at her, demanding to know where she had been. He "knew" she was cheating on him.  Wendy apologized over and over and reassured him she loved him. To avoid his anger she told her boss she couldn't stay late any more. She made many changes in her life to avoid Jake's anger. Anger for Jake is a way of controlling his fears of abandonment.
Allison is a pretty  twelve-year-old girl who goes to a private school. She's the Queen Bee with a group of three or four followers. She puts others down and believes she is superior to other students and deserves to be adored. When she wasn't chosen as homecoming queen she was enraged. She stayed angry for months and tormented the girl who was chosen as queen. She believed she deserved it, she wanted it and she saw herself as the prettiest girl at the school. She stayed angry for months and tormented the girl who was chosen as queen.
Wesley continues to form relationships that seem promising. He has a certain closeness that he is comfortable with. He is fine until he talks about marriage and then he finds a reason to be angry with the one he cares about. He has the same pattern in business. He works well with someone until he thinks about having a business partner. Then he destroys the relationship by finding fault with the other person.
Anger is often a secondary emotion, triggered by fear. Think about your child running onto the road in front of your house. Fear comes first, then anger. Sometimes the change from fear to anger happens so quickly and automatically people aren't even aware it occurred.
Steven Stosny, in his book Treating Attachment Abuse (1995) talks about anger as an emotional salve to cover up core hurts. He identifies core hurts, some of which are feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, and unlovable. The healthy person has the power to self-validate and cope with these difficult emotions.
If someone doesn't have the ability to soothe through self-validation, then they may use anger to invalidate the person who has hurt them. By assuring oneself and others that the hurt was not legitimate, that the other person was in the wrong, the person establishes their superiority. Thus they avoid feeling the difficult emotion.
For example, Allison believes that the girl who won the contest did not deserve it and thus does avoids dealing with the feeling of rejection or legitimate loss. She attacks the girl who did win to prove her point.  Allison is exhibiting a narcissistic anger--she does not feel insecure, she feels entitled.
Jake is attempting to avoid terrifying feelings of abandonment. He does not have to see himself as wrong or selfish, or mean because he is sure his wife was the one at fault.
Stephanie feels powerless and inadequate. When someone feels powerless, anger can be empowering. What a different feeling that is! Empowering can also mean control.  For fearful people, feeling in control may be soothing and they can often get that feeling through anger.
Anger can create distance when someone is afraid of getting too close.  If someone has grown up with distant parents, they may crave closeness but at the same time be afraid of it. Anger can be protective in those situations. That's Walter's pattern.
Anger can also be a safe way to engage with someone. I fight with you, therefore we are connected.
Stosny also points out the chemical rush that comes with anger. When a person gets angry, the brain secretes norepinephrine. norepinephrine works much like a pain reducer. When provoked the brain also produces the hormone epinephrine, which causes a surge of energy throughout our body. The chemical reactions may be comforting as well. Some report feeling an almost addictive like response to the adrenaline-like rush they experience when angry.
Treating anger problems requires careful assessment to find the reasons for its occurrence.

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