By Adam J. Pearson
Anger can sometimes seem to loom over us like a baffling monster, terrifying and powerful. It can appear to rage through through the bodies of otherwise harmless people and possess them like demons. A flurry of yelling, a bombardment of hurtful words, and an explosion of harmful actions often follow when anger boils up from within. Is anger really as demonic as it seems? Or might its fierce expressions sometimes hide tenderer roots?
The Evolution of Anger
As Sheila Videbeck points out in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing (2006), anger often emerges as a powerful emotional response to a perceived provocation, a sense that our basic boundaries have been violated. In our evolutionary history as a species, anger was very useful. It helped people to set boundaries and survive dangerous situations.
As the doctors at Medicine.net (2015) point out, anger “may have physical effects such as raising the heart rate, blood pressure, and the levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline.” In dangerous situations, this temporary flood of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and other neurochemicals such as norepinephrine can temporarily make us feel stronger, more energetic, more intensely centered in the present moment, and less aware of physical pain.
All of these effects helped our evolutionary ancestors to survive in dangerous conditions such as hunts against ferocious prey and violent disputes with other early humans. They were genetically passed down to us through countless generations because they served this pivotal survival value (Whipps, 2009). As neuroscientists note, norepinephrine and adrenaline mobilize the body for immediate action, a valuable asset during dangerous situations (Raymond Novaco, “Anger” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2000). Anger is thus neither intrinsically good or bad; it can at once save our lives and destroy them, set boundaries and transgress them, prevent harm and cause it.
How Anger Distorts Our Thinking
Anger has the remarkable ability to sharpen us to act responsively, however it also has some fascinating effects on our thinking and perception. As Raymond Novaco points out in his article on “Anger” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Psychology (2000), furious people tend to explain that they are angry because someone else took an intentional, personal, and controllable action against them that hurt, provoked, or offended them in some way. However, the intuitions from which our anger sometimes springs can sometimes be totally off; when we’re angry, we find it more difficult to monitor our own behaviour and objectively interpret the actions of other people (Novaco, 2000).
Anger also makes us more optimistic. It’s easy to see why this should be the case given the evolutionary roots of anger; if I’m in a life or death situation, like tussling with a sabretooth tiger as I am wont to do, it’s helpful to believe that the odds are good that I’ll survive. When we’re angry, dangers seem less dangerous, things we try seem more likely to succeed, and unfortunate windfalls seem less likely to befall us. We thus become more likely to make risky decisions and mistakenly think we are risking less than we really are.
In their study on anger and risk perception, Lerner and Dacher (2000) found that test subjects who were primed to feel angry felt less likely to suffer heart disease, and more likely to receive a pay raise compared to fearful people. The dominant assumption when we’re angry thus seems to be that everything is going to work out for us. And not so well for those at whom we are angry.
Anger also tends to make us more prejudiced when the source of anger is perceived as being in a separate social group. DeSteno, Dasgupta, Bartlett, and Cajdric (2004) found that angry people seemed to generate a “prejudice out of thin air” and see people in the out-group at which they are angry as less trustworthy, more likely to have negative qualities, and less likely to have positive qualities.
Moreover, unlike when we’re sad, when we are angry, we are more likely to blame other people’s actions on who they are than on their circumstances (the fundamental attribution error), to stereotype people, to oversimplify situations, and to pay less attention to details. Thus, we tend to misperceive those at which we feel irate and be less reflective about our emotions than we are when we are sad. When these cognitive distortions are mixed with a potent neurochemical cocktail that heightens our impulsiveness and aggression, the results can sometimes be catastrophic and regrettable.
The Hurtful Mask of the Hurting
Moreover, anger often functions as a mask in social life, a kind of outwardly hurtful attempt to cover inner hurting that screams “back off!” to others out of self-protection. When we look more deeply into the fierceness of anger, however, we can often find four far tenderer emotions beneath its rugged exterior, namely:
Each of these feelings falls into the sphere of what Dr. Brene Brown calls vulnerability, the uncomfortable combination of feeling at risk, uncertain, and emotionally exposed. Because we often see vulnerability as weakness, we thus sometimes turn to hiding our true feelings from both ourselves and others by lashing out in anger.
As Dr. Leon Seltzer (2014) suggests, anger can be a way of covering up “core hurts” such as feeling
disregarded, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, and unlovable. And these feelings are capable of engendering considerable emotional pain. It’s therefore understandable that so many of us might go to great lengths to find ways of distancing ourselves from them.
As I mentioned earlier, anger tends to make us feel optimistically invulnerable; in light of this effect, it’s unsurprising that we sometimes use it to cover up feelings of vulnerability.
In this way, anger sometimes becomes a cover for, and way of avoiding, denying, repressing, dissociating, or projecting, our true feelings onto others. This is not to say that anger isn’t occasionally the product of valid transgressions on the part of other people, when, for instance, some knavish brigand breaks into your house and robs you of all your valuable possessions. However, in other cases, as Dr. Seltzer (2014) points out, we sometimes use anger to transfer our feelings of guilt, hurt, and fear onto other people. Thus, we try to avoid accountability rather than taking responsibility for our own actions by blaming them on other people.
Dr. Seltzer goes on to illuminatingly explain how how anger can sometimes play out in relationships when it’s used to cover up vulnerability and avoid blame:
Even though the self-empowerment (read, “adrenaline rush”) it immediately offers is bogus, it can yet be extremely tempting to get “attached”—or even “addicted”—to it if we frequently experience another as threatening the way we need to see ourselves (e.g., as important, trustworthy, lovable, etc.).
After all, this is how all psychological defenses work. Simply put, they allow us to escape upsetting, shameful, or anxiety-laden feelings we may not have developed the emotional resources—or ego strength—to successfully cope with.
So, for example, say your partner (whether intentionally or not) expresses something that leads you to feel demeaned. Rather than, assertively, sharing your hurt feelings, and risk making yourself more vulnerable to them, you may react instead by finding something to attack them for. It could be as petty as their forgetting to put something away, or not having gotten back to you on scheduling an event, or a past mistake that compromised the family budget—in short, anything!
In such instances, what you’re basically doing (though it’s most likely unconscious) is endeavoring to make them feel demeaned, to hurt their feelings—or rather, hurt them back. It’s an undeclared, largely unrecognized, game of tit for tat. And while you’re engaged in such retaliatory pursuits, guess what? Presto! You’re no longer feeling demeaned—at least not in the moment. . . . Which, sadly, reinforces this essentially childish behavior (as in, “You’re the one who’s bad!”).
How does the recipient of this blast of anger tend to respond to the shifting of blame from the angry partner onto them? Dr. Seltzer continues:
Now they bear the burden you’ve just managed to shake off. Whatever feelings of hurt you were experiencing (and you can choose from the italicized list above) has been passed on—or “transferred”—to them. And their initial reaction may be one not simply of hurt but fear as well. For at the most primitive, instinctual level, by experiencing themselves as the object of your anger, they unconsciously grasp that you harbor the hostile impulse to harm them. So if they step back from you, it’s not because they want to provide you with more space to vent your venom. It’s that they’re feeling an urgent need to distance themselves from it.
In any case, though, their own defensive reaction is likely—in “counter retaliation,” as it were—to be one of blaming you right back. Which in turn can escalate the conflict between the two of you with lightening speed. Here it’s not a physical “eye for an eye” but a verbal “blow for blow” (!).
Thus, in many cases, anger can function as an expressive mask or cover for deeper feelings of vulnerability, such as hurt, fear, shame, or frustration. When we lash out at others rather than clearly communicating our needs, emotions, and boundaries, anger tends to carry us into inauthenticity and create unnecessary relationship problems that could otherwise be easily avoided. The cost of avoiding vulnerability by putting on a false front of strength is sometimes hurting those we care about for crimes they never committed.
Responding to Anger
Knowing that anger is often a cover for tenderer feelings of hurt, frustration, and fear can make it easier to remain clear-headed and open-hearted with angry people. It can definitely be hard to feel for someone who is yelling in your face; I can remember far too many cases in which I let myself get sucked into a shouting match rather than holding a calm and compassionate space for the angry person. However, my experience on the whole has been that if we can look past the yelling to the vulnerable roots from which it often springs, it can be far easier to continue to empathize with the angry.
When we speak to the core feeling of hurt rather than respond with anger of our own to the angry mask they seem to be donning, our calmly caring approach often tends to take the angry person totally by surprise. This can sometimes lead the anger to flow right out of them when they realize that it’s safe for them to express that they are hurting and know that you’re not going to belittle them or attack them for doing so.
When I took this approach with my students as a high school teacher, it was sometimes as if a switch in their mind was flicked from one radically different position to another; one moment, they would be screaming in rage, and the next, bursting into tears. A hard approach to anger only amplifies it, like adding burning gasoline to an already smouldering fire. In contrast, a calm and caring approach can make people feel safe to drop the mask of rage and display their real emotions.
This disclosure of the real vulnerable feelings at the root of the anger is far more likely to happen if the angry person trusts the caring person, especially in the case of boys and men, who are often raised from a young age to internalize the maxims “don’t appear weak,” “don’t feel weak,” and “boys don’t cry” (Whitney, 2012). As Brene Brown realized in her research on vulnerability as reported in Daring Greatly, the cultural coding of aggression and anger as masculine and strong tends to make men feel safer than feelings of vulnerability, which tend to be coded as “feminine” and “weak.”
Men aren’t the only ones who are shamed for having natural emotions, however; on the reverse side of our cultural dysfunction, women are frequently shamed for expressing their anger. As a result, many women learn to repress their anger, which in turn sometimes leaves them feeling depressed, powerless, and resentful (Kaufmann, 2004). Thus, both men and women alike are discouraged from authentically expressing their vulnerability out of a fear it will be seen as weakness. The ironic truth, of course, is that the authentic owning of vulnerability is often seen as courageous by men and women alike when expressed by others. As Brene Brown puts the point, we tend to see displays of vulnerability asymmetrically, as “courage in you, and weakness in me.”
When we see a display of rage, it can thus be useful to keep in mind that although we may seem to be looking at an angry person, we may very well be seeing someone who is hurting, afraid, burdened by shame, or frustrated. Anger is sometimes a fear-inducing expression of fear itself, a fearful extension of fear. If we can hold a calm and caring space for it, we can often look through the eyes of the mask and address the hurting roots from it stems. In my own life, I have found this to be as true for angry adults as for the shrieking teenagers that I sometimes interacted with as a teacher. It was always my calm and compassionate friends who were able to quiet me during my own rageful storming and coax me to open up about what I was feeling behind the mask of anger.
In addition to this practice, however, the American Psychological Association (2015) offers a variety of other useful strategies for responding to anger in others and managing and expressing it in ourselves. These include relaxing, investigating the thoughts at the root of the anger, problem solving, communicating our needs and feelings clearly, and using humour to defuse tension.
I find it helpful to note at this stage that there is an important difference between aggression (physically or verbally attacking others outright) and assertiveness (clearly communicating our healthy boundaries, values, and needs). Whereas assertiveness is a constructive quality that fosters communication and social relationships, aggression is a destructive force that tends to create more problems than it solves. Rather than being aggressive, we often opt to be calmly assertive by clearly communicating the feelings and needs at the root of our anger. Indeed, if we want to dare greatly and practice authenticity and courage through vulnerability, assertiveness is a part of the path. When we’re assertive and communicative, we’re also true to our real feelings of vulnerability and authentic in our words and actions. Respectful assertiveness is authenticity in action.
Anger is neither intrinsically good nor bad in and of itself. It is a natural emotion that expresses itself in very complex ways. On the one hand, it can motivate social action against injustices, express assertiveness in response to attempts to transgress our boundaries, and help us to survive in dangerous situations. On the other, however, it can sometimes be a cover for deeper feelings of vulnerability like fear, shame, frustration, or hurt.
Anger can at once offer ways of healthily keeping other people accountable for their actions and unhealthily avoiding responsibility by transferring it onto others. And it can alternately find expression as passive anger (e.g. giving the cold shoulder, evasiveness, defensiveness, defeatism, manipulative provoking, and exaggerated self-blame) or active anger (e.g. physical and verbal attacks, bullying, grandiosity, threats, vengeance, abandonment, etc.).
Anger often arises involuntarily, indeed Reuter et al. (2009) suggest that some people may be genetically predisposed to be angrier than others. Other psychologists note that our familial upbringing, the culture in which we are raised, and the extent of our development of emotional intelligence can all play a role as well.
Happily, however, our anger is not entirely out of our hands; while we may not always be able to stop anger from arising, we can learn to manage and respond to it in healthy ways. Indeed, there are things we can do that can positively affect our anger. Regularly practicing meditation, for example, has been shown to improve our ability to dispassionately observe our own thoughts and feelings and be less reactive in our behaviour.
In addition, there are other practices that can help us change the way we think about others, which can in turn shape our tendency to feel angry towards them (e.g. cognitive restructuring in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Byron Katie’s the Work, Brene Brown’s reality-checking, etc.). Regularly practicing forgiveness can help us to free our present from past grudges that can keep us inwardly steaming. Finally, from a spiritual point of view, developing an awareness of interdependence and Oneness can help us to see that the ‘others’ we seem to be attacking are not separate from us. In a sense, by raging at another, we are also raging at ourselves.
In closing, there are rare moments in our lives in which anger is an appropriate expression of self-defense in dangerous situations; indeed in the Krav Maga Street Fighting Seminar that I attended with Laurent Mougeot, the national head of the IKMF, we actively practiced snapping into bursts of aggression in life-threatening situations. However, in general, calmly managing our own anger, deescalating volatile situations, and assertively communicating our needs and emotions can serve us far better than exploding into words and actions we often regret. After all, far from being the eruptions of demonic possession, anger is often a the fierce mask covering a vulnerable core of suffering.