Anger is perhaps the one human emotion that we cannot wrap our minds around completely. Since anger is an emotion that is vital to survival, you would think that we would have learned how to express it constructively by now. But, we still treat it like a foreign military invasion and an irregularity of behavior that has no place in our daily lives.
But, anger does have a place in our lives and in our coping repertoire. Even if you try, you can’t deny or suppress this powerful emotion for long, as it is wired into you as a response to threat. And, anger is unbiased. It favors no person, culture, race, education or social status. Because anger is an emotion that is necessary to your protection and safety and affirmation of identity. Anger is here to stay, as long as we have a reason to defend ourselves.
But, indeed, some people feel a greater pressure to defend themselves than others, because they are so emotionally invested in a belief or way of being. Take for example, the Illinois lawmaker’s recent anger outburst. “Screaming, swearing, throwing papers on the floor, and asking Democrat lawmakers to set his people (Republican) free, a red-faced Illinois Rep. Mike Bost “lambasted” the state’s powerful House speaker for messing around with the state’s pension plan.” (Huffington Post: Mike Bost Meltdown). If any of you saw this rant, I’d say that lambasted doesn’t quite sum up Bost’s emotional unhinging. It was more like he popped a cork, blew out a few veins, and temporarily went berserk. No matter how justified one’s anger is—in the end, anger hurts the body, mind, and public image of the initiator more than it does the receiver.
Thus, you have to learn how to express anger constructively. But, first, you have to know what your anger is really all about, what it may be hiding. Your anger may mask fears and vulnerabilities that are hitching a ride on events slightly related, if at all to the ax of anger that you really wish to grind. Take for example, Sharon, a 29-year old sales representative. Like many people, she carried her personal issues to work each day as faithfully as she did her cell phone. Sharon believed her parents admired, loved, and valued her younger sibling more than her. She let this issue hitch a ride on every stressful event that took place at work. Everyone was treating her unfairly and with disrespect, according to her. Even when things had nothing to do with Sharon, she was apt to feel slighted and angry about it. This took a toll on her work team and her public image. She became known as fragile and easily angered, and as you can guess, she was passed up time and again for promotions.
Thus, if you really want to manage your anger, you have to know what it may be hiding, so you keep it from getting expressed at the wrong place and time. This is what my post is about today.
What Is Anger All About?
There is a strong relationship between anger and fear. Anger is the fight part of the age-old fight-or-flight response to threat. Most animals respond to threat by either fighting or fleeing. But, we don’t always have the option to fight what threatens us. Instead, we have anger. Words are the civilized way that we get to fight threat. And, some words, as you know, are meant to sting as deeply as a stab wound. Anger is one of the ways that we help our body to prepare for potential danger. Anger stimulates adrenaline to rouse the brain and body to fight or flee a threatening situation. Of course, in more primitive days, the things that angered us centered solely on threats to our survival (a basic need for food, shelter, water, or land). Today, we are civilized; we’ve formed identities of preferences and values of living that make us complex and psychologically defensive. Assaults to your principles, beliefs, and needs and wishes are the basis for your anger, now. And, you will protect your identity as strongly as if you were defending your right to food, shelter, water or land.
Oh, we human beings do weave a tangled web, because of our defensive nature. We learn to conceal our fears from others and to protect ourselves from feeling weak, ashamed, and embarrassed. We are so good at this that sometimes, we even deceive ourselves as to what is provoking us.
Thus, what we say is the reason for our anger may not actually be true. In some ways, cave men had it easier. They knew what they were fighting over. But, you may not know why a coworker, lover, family member or friend is angry with you~ or you with them. Because:
“Behavior in the human being is sometimes a defense, a way of concealing motivations and thoughts, as language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication.” ~ Abraham Maslow quotes (American Philosopher and Psychologists, 1908-1970).
Hence, you can attribute your anger to something outside of you, rather than to your fears and vulnerabilities. Then, your denial, justification, or lie becomes a mask for what is really bothering you. But, there are still signs in the behavior that say: there’s something else going on here. Perhaps, the intensity of the anger doesn’t justify the situation? Or, for example, you may confront the angry person, as to the reason(s) for his anger, but you won’t get a straight answer, even if you do get an apology. You may think he is being difficult. But, really, he’s protecting himself from the shame and embarrassment of being exposed, as if you are a thief trying to rob him of his last dollar.
Protecting one’s Achilles’ heel is a life-and-death matter to the angered person. Seasoned therapists understand well what fear means to their patients. They never take their patients’ defenses away and expose their fears prematurely, without first giving them adequate experience of feeling vulnerable in front of them. If therapists do not do this well, they better be ready to get some pretty hefty anger directed their ways.
Six Fears or Vulnerabilities That Anger Can Mask
Know the truth, and it will set you free. This is certainly true of anger. Know the fears that your anger may be defending against, so that you can learn to get ahead of it. Let’s start now.
Mask One: Anger can be a mask to cover up hurt. To some people, it’s less threatening to show anger than to show that they are hurt. Hurt means they are weak, ineffective, and out of control. This can be hard on intimate relating, because hurt always turns into an angry argument. Feeling ignored, devalued, underestimated, and unlovable are core hurts that stem from our childhood, but can reappear in the relationships that we have today. When our self-esteem is endangered through criticism or rejection, it revives self-doubts. If you see yourself here, you have to work on loving yourself more, so that people and situations do not rock how you feel about yourself. If you feel deficient in some way, you may unconsciously look for situations to express this deficiency as anger toward others, that ends up hurting you and loved ones.
Mask Two: Anger can be a mask to self-soothe inner tension. Some people get angry to relieve themselves of inner tension. These persons’ nervous systems make them especially sensitive to threat, real or imagined, so that they live with a high level of inner discomfort. For them, anger is a psychological salve, especially if they are prone to violence. The excitatory nerve chemical, norepinephrine, gets secreted during the arousal of the anger, which acts as an analgesic for inner tension. That’s why the release of anger can make us feel better, at least temporarily. Internal anger and upset activates the release of norepinephrine that simultaneously numbs physical discomfort. This mask of anger is very harmful to relationships, but nonetheless crucial in enabling many vulnerable people to emotionally survive in them. Hopefully, this is only until they learn better coping mechanisms or get medically treated for this problem.
Mask Three: Anger can be a mask for fears of emotional intimacy. Strangely enough, anger is the safest way for some people to attach to others, especially with regard romantic involvement. People who have difficulty asserting and negotiating their wants and needs often feel unsafe relating to their romantic partners. They are particularly vulnerable to using anger as their main expression of relating. Truly, it’s fascinating to observe couples who primarily relate to each other through anger. In therapy, just when the arguing stops and communication begins, one or both partners move toward anger, once again. It’s all that they know. No one has ever taught them how to express anger constructively, or even more importantly, how to express more intimate, loving feelings. Getting angry is a way they know that they are attached. When I address what their anger is really all about and ask them to express their emotions with “I need and want…”, they feel silly. They verbalize, perhaps for the first time, how uncomfortable intimate dialogue makes them. Intimate relating makes them feel especially vulnerable to relationships in which they feel easily controlled by others, and having to negotiate needs and wants with their lover makes them feel weak and vulnerable.
Mask Four: Anger can be a smokescreen for self-consciousness. I recall a time when my eldest sister was reading to a group of children that included my brother, at the local library. She began by asking the children their names. When she asked my 6-year old brother what his name was, he became so self-conscious that he jumped up and started hitting her. Her question surprised him and made him feel self-conscious. Some people never learn how to deal with their self-conscious feelings without feeling angry. Do you know people who always get irritated in a work meeting or to have to ask confrontational questions? Some of them may actually be combative or oppositional characters. But, some are really just more self-conscious.
Mask Five: Anger can be a mask for self-empowerment, for people who are unassertive. If you find yourself here, you need to learn how to express your needs comfortably and assertively, so they do not explode in an untimely and unhealthy way.
Mask Six: Anger can also be a mask for sadness and grief. Did you ever disclose something painful to a parent, and have him or her yell rather than empathize with you? Hopefully, you realized over time that it was his or her way of dealing with sadness and grief. Anger helps them to feel they can go to battle for you and help you to do battle for yourself, if need be. Unfortunately, what they don’t realize is that all you really needed was a kind word and a hug.
The more comfortable you get with your fears, the less apt you will be to express them through anger. Many people respond to fear with anger, because human beings don’t like being exposed or open to being harmed and shamed. You’ll have healthier more satisfying relationships, if you start working on these fears today.
There’s nothing more I enjoy than helping you to understand your inner workings and to help you to live the best life possible. If you like my post today, please let me know, by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. I welcome your comments and thoughts. Warm regards to you, Deborah.