Through the years, as I have counseled with hundreds of people trying to make sense of their anger, I have learned one thing. There is always something more that feeds the anger than what is observed on the surface. Angry people may appear strong, willful, or certain, but be assured that beneath the veneer are fear and loneliness and insecurity and pain. Especially, there is pain. Whether they admit it or not, angry people are hurt people, and they have somehow come to believe that they can resolve their own pain by inflicting pain upon others. Their reasoning is usually subconscious; nonetheless, each time anger is misapplied, it is a reflection of a deep wound that longs to be healed.
As I work with individuals trying to overcome anger’s harmful effects, I recognize that they will remain trapped inside their own anger if they do not learn to peer deeply inside their souls to explore the factors that give impetus to their anger. Yes, they will need to learn techniques, if you will, that would represent an improved means of addressing frustration, and they can certainly be expected to learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy forms of anger. They need to recognize, though, that a mere attempt to adjust anger’s manifestation without also digging into the matters generating the pain produce superficial change at best.
To be released from the trap of anger, these persons need to identify the cry behind the rage.
Exasperation was written all over Julie’s face as she sat in my office with her husband, Steve. “We’ve been married six years,” she explained, “and during that time I’ve hardly known a moment of peace. When we dated, Steve had been a perfect gentleman. In fact, he was so nice to me and my kids that it almost seemed too good to be true. Well, in the first month of marriage I learned that it was too good to be true. This guy has a temper like no one I know.” Julie’s face turned red and tears watered her eyes as she tried to keep her composure.
“In our first few months of marriage, I learned that he had dozens of do’s and don’ts regarding the ways life should unfold. He had rules for everything, and if I or one of my kids broke a rule, the floodgates of anger would burst wide open.” Julie went on to explain that Steve could curse easily at her, calling her foul names and making wild accusations. Sometimes he would slam doors, throw things, or punch his fist into a wall. When driving his truck, he would tailgate motorists who drove too slowly and he often made nasty remarks, even though it would do absolutely nothing to move the traffic along more smoothly. Steve had never been fired from his job as a plumbing contractor, but that was because he owned the company. Through the years, he had worn out one employee after another because he could be so moody and belligerent. Anger seemed to be the defining feature of his personality.
When I asked Steve what he thought about the things being related by Julie, he grinned and shrugged, “What can I say? She’s right, I’ve got a temper. But hey, don’t most people? It’s not like I beat her or anything like that. Yeah, I could probably stand to lighten up a little, but it’s not like I’m some sort of criminal.”
With that response, Julie heaved a great sigh. “He’s impossible, and I don’t know if he’ll ever get it! His anger is draining me, and I’m not able to handle it much longer. If he’s not careful, he’s going to get his third divorce because I’m not going to keep putting up with it, just like his first two wives wouldn’t.”
In my counseling office, I encounter people like Steve who seem to retreat toward anger like an old friend who is not really good for them but is familiar. Despite many damaging experiences, they keep going back to the familiar anger patterns because they know no other way to respond when their world becomes problematic. Family members and friends may plead with them to change tactics, but to no avail. Even after apologies are offered and promises for improvement are made, the ugly forms of anger predictably return. As illogical as it may be, it can seem to outside observers that chronically angry people have a strong commitment to keeping distasteful emotions alive. Certainly they have not made a commitment toward better alternatives.
People like Steve, who have such a ready response of anger, seem to be held captive by their emotional impulses. Though they may openly admit that their anger produces very few positive results, they remain stuck in a nonproductive cycle as if drawn to it like a magnet. This nonproductive anger becomes a trap that keeps them caged inside a life of misery.
Let’s acknowledge that no one is entirely free from anger. Whether we want it to be part of our life experience or not, it is natural to each personality. Sometimes we have little control over the possibility of anger being experienced; it can appear quite unannounced. At times it can be triggered by an immediate hurt or frustration, while at other times it is provoked by a memory of past experience. When I counsel angry people, it is not the experience of anger that concerns me; rather, I focus most powerfully on what they do with the emotion and why it can so easily be used nonproductively.
As I continued to speak with Steve about his anger, I learned that this problem had plagued him most of his life. Steve’s own father had also lived inside an anger trap. Easily agitated, the father was known for violent outbursts that would seemingly arise from nowhere. “I remember as a grade school boy,” Steve recalled, “when my brother and I were bickering in the back seat of the family’s station wagon as we were traveling on vacation. Without a word of warning, my dad pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road, then he came around to my door. He opened it with a jerk, yanked me out of the car, then he blistered my bottom hard.
My little brother started crying and my mother yelled at my dad for being so abrasive, but none of that fazed him. He pushed me back into the car, and still without saying a word, we drove on. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was mean and cold. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times he took out his anger like that toward either me or my brother.” I probed, “How did that harsh treatment affect you?” Still trying to act nonchalant, Steve shrugged and said, “I hated it, but I also got used to it. It got to the point where it didn’t bother me anymore.”
I did not buy that last statement for a second. Receiving such ill treatment did bother Steve, and it played a great role in the development of his own adult anger. Throughout his teen years, then through his twenties, thirties, and now his forties, Steve’s anger played out in an almost nonstop fashion. That anger did not arise from a vacuum. It had very deep roots that were tied to the pain he never resolved as a boy who lived in fear of his father’s next outburst. For him to make improvements in his current management of emotions, he would need to open his mind to great insight and adjustment. Despite his statements to the contrary, I recognized that Steve was a deeply wounded man, and the potency of his current anger was a clear signal that he was not remotely coming to terms with his pain.
When I hear stories from angry people and those who live with angry people, I learn that the triggering experiences for anger vary widely. Anger may arise, for instance, if a family member speaks in a wrong tone of voice. It is displayed when a coworker does not produce desired results. Anger is experienced when traffic is unfriendly, when others are argumentative, when bills pile up, when the dog relieves himself indoors, when someone fails to do as promised, when another person is critical, when a child refuses to mind, when one is feeling ignored.
In most of the instances that trigger anger, the emotion is likely to be managed distastefully, usually in insulting, invalidating, or insensitive behavior. That being the case, many will conclude that anger has no positive function. It seems to be the response of a person who is mean-spirited or who has low regard toward those provoking the response.
Anger, though, is not a one-dimensional emotion, and we need not summarily dismiss it as all bad. Although it can certainly be used in an unhealthy or unstable manner, it is not always wrong to feel angry. At the heart of anger is a cry for respect. Though angry persons may not speak these exact words, their emotion may reveal thoughts such as:
“You need to understand that I matter.”
“I want to be held in high regard.”
“I’m tired of feeling as though life is going to be one extended struggle.”
“I deserve better treatment than what I am currently receiving.”
“I’m not going to let you get away with ill treatment toward me.”
“My opinions are as good as anyone else’s. Pay attention to me!”
“Don’t look down on me. That’s offensive.”
When people feel angry, it is a response to a perceived threat or invalidation. The anger taps into a primary desire for self-preservation. In fact, anger can be defined as the emotion of self-preservation. Specifically, angry people wish to preserve personal worth, perceived needs, and heartfelt convictions. Angry people want to feel that they have significance, and they are distressed as they assume that others will not or cannot address them in a way that reinforces personal significance.
Angry people, however, tend to do themselves no favors because the legitimate message of self-preservation can be communicated so distastefully that the receiver of the message hears nothing good. For instance, Steve described to me how his anger could be triggered by Julie’s occasional forgetfulness. She might tell him that she would pick up his shirts at the dry cleaner’s, but at the end of the day when he asks about the shirts, he will hear, “Oops, I forgot to get them.” Likewise, he might ask her to purchase a specific item when she goes grocery shopping, and she could easily pick up a number of items—with the lone exception of the one he had requested.
Steve explained to me, “She’s been forgetful so many times in our marriage that I can no longer tolerate it. When is it going to occur to her that she needs to be a person whose word can be trusted?”
Was Steve wrong to feel angry? Not necessarily. In fact, it would be reasonable for him to speak openly with Julie about her forgetfulness. Instead of addressing his convictions constructively, though, Steve’s communication style resembled a rocket launch. “What’s the deal with you?” he would shout. “Why can’t you help me with one measly request?” Of course, Julie never received such indignation well, meaning the legitimate portion of his message would be completely lost.
People like Steve can learn to address anger constructively. For instance, requests can be made for appropriate treatment without the request turning into an opportunity to belittle or intimidate. Boundaries and stipulations can be established even as the offending person is treated with dignity. The experience of anger not only does not have to become a springboard for foul treatment, it can actually prompt someone to stand up for needs and convictions in a positive manner.
Those who are caught in the anger trap, however, have not learned to approach anger constructively. Shackled by insecurity, fragile egotism, shame, or distrust, their anger is so raw that it can be displayed in circumstances that may not really warrant anger, and it is commonly displayed in a manner that completely sabotages any possibility for relationship growth or healing.