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How I Work With Anger

Right now, at the outset, I want to make an important distinction between, on one hand, a healing emotion, anger, and on the other hand, a destructive force I call rage.

When most people speak of ‘anger problems,’ ‘anger management,’ or fearing someone’s anger, they are speaking about rage. Rage is a destructive action. It's only possible outcome is to break someone or something.

The fundamental reason that a self-protective impulse emerges as well-possessed anger in some and distorted rage in others is physiological. Rage results from impulse of self-protection being forced through the 'fight-or-flight system, that is, mediated with the sympathetic nervous system. Anger, on the other hand, is mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is not under immediate conscious control, but it can be shifted over time toward relaxation and social engagement. Although the goal of this page is the understanding of the healing and beneficial qualities of anger, it is necessary to have one's mind put at rest about violence. To this end, rage is discussed rather thoroughly in the box below, so that true anger may be more confidently discussed after that.

 

Rage

Rage is not so much an emotion as it is an activation of the emergency defense system. Three broad biological conditions are involved: 1) the fight or flight system of the sympathetic nervous system , 2) certain, “conflict recognition” areas in the limbic (emotional) brain , and 3) disruption in the connection between the executive part of the cortex (orbito-frontal) and the previously mentioned limbic areas.

In human affairs, rage causes problems because it can be activated not just in rare life-or-death situations, but much more frequently in situations of social threat. The repeated physiological and neurological cascade of rage over-develops these pathways and disconnections with each episode. Eventually a positive feedback loop forms, wherein every self-protective impulse is pulled into a rage response, and these frequent rage responses increase the bias toward seeing a threat.

Secondarily, but no less important to 'recovery,' the interpersonal havoc that ensues from rage unfortunately in many ways increases the tendency to rage through the psychology of shame and resentment.

Rage cannot be received as neutral by anyone around. It will involuntarily activate the limbic system of bystanders and activate their own episode of fear, rage, or shame.

Rage is not just really intense anger Based on the biological mechanisms mentioned above, rage or rage episodes have five universal, qualitative, and defining characteristics:

  • Suddenness In a fight or flight reaction, the adrenal glands pour potent chemicals into the blood that hijack the body and mind immediately. This is unlike true anger, which works through the parasympathetic system and takes minutes or even hours to develop. That is why people sometimes say “I'm getting angry” but never say, “I'm getting enraged”
  • Irretrievability It is the nature of the fight or flight system that once the chemicals are released the biological state will persist for an hour or more, even if soothing maneuvers are begun immediately, and much longer if antagonizing activity is pursued (which is usually the case). Once rage 'blows,' words, thoughts and even fairly serious consequences will have little effect on it. True if the consequences are severe (like arrest) sometimes actions can be crudely controlled, but the internal state remains unchanged. Even if the 'cause' of the upset goes away, the rage will persist. If an unrelated activity must be done (like going to work) the rage will carry over to the new situation.
  • Loss of Contact With rage, vision, perception, empathic feeling, and subsequent memory are diminished and distorted. That is why there is the folk expression 'blind rage,' and psychologists speak of 'dissociative rage.' After a rage, the rager often truly does not know or remember clearly what happened (which of course tends toward denial.)
  • Loss of Self With rage, all prior history in a relationship is lost. All principles and beliefs the rager has developed in life are inaccessible. Any previous agreements, sincerely made or not, are repudiated.. Human bonding, attachment, histories of good-will or shared pleasure are denied. The rager is temporarily without personality, a defensive entity at war with the world.

  • Loss of Behavioral Control With rage, there is a certain amount of start/stop activity, but real control is more about guidance and achieving a desired result through just the right force and direction of movement. With rage, there is no ability to guide and really no desired results. Rather movement is either 'destroy' or 'hold back'. Holding back is physically painful. If the rage is strong, holding cannot last and destruction happens.
  • Having Forward Movement Impeded is an irritant to the limbic system. That is the trigger for road rage when people perceive they are being 'cut-off' when they have to slow down unexpectedly. Whether the irritant will result in a rage outburst depends on the general level of limbic arousal and other risk factors the person has for rage.
  • The Role of Denial, Resentment, and Revenge

    When considered in a 'lifestyle' rather than in an episode, rage has a reciprocal relationship to denial. Denial is not accepting that something that has happened has actually happened, or not accepting that a situation is actually occurring. Denial is natural with large losses. Sometimes it takes time to take something in. But if a reality threatens an illusion, time alone may not overcome denial. It is common to accept something conversationally but not accept it emotionally or not accept the implications. If this goes on too long, the person is living unrealistically. Ongoing denial is never stable, the actions and statements of other people will threaten it, and when this happens, fight-or-flight dynamics and rage usually erupt. After the rage subsides, denial reforms, perhaps even strengthened by shame about the outburst. Other people affected by the rage learn not to challenge the denial. This is a self-perpetuating process.

    Resentment is related to rage and denial. While denial proper is the non-acceptance that something has happened, resentment is the non-acceptance that something 'should have' happened. The most compelling belief for the position that something should not have happened is believing that it happened through the ill-will of somebody else (and should be reversed by some imaginary judge). Resentment is made known to others through 'snarling' and blaming, and can take on the character of paranoia.

    Non-acceptance, whether at the level of denial or resentment, also leads to attempts to 'undo' Undoing can only be symbolic of course, even if actual actions with actual effects occur. Revenge (mostly fantasized but sometimes carried out) is an attempt to undo. The results never satisfy because the original 'offense' still must be accepted. (Retaliation is a punishing action that may be driven by the psychology of revenge or driven by pragmatics.)

    Resentment and revenge are psychological defenses in that they are ways to hide an unmet need or desire that is painful to acknowledge. To get past resentment, it is necessary to discover and admit what one really wants or wanted and grieve it. Some true anger may emerge, but likely great sadness and shame. This is self-focus as opposed to the other-focus of resentment. While the energy behind resentment is the distorted self-protective impulse that would otherwise emerge as anger, the content of resentment can sometimes be logically rather distant from the unmet need--this is the way with psychological defenses. However, exploring resentments honestly with a self-focus will reliably lead to the root.

    Acceptance is not the same as liking. Acceptance gets confused with liking because we usually only accept the things we like!

    Resentment, denial, addiction, and rage all contribute to each other. Resentment is so closely related to both addiction and rage, that one wonders whether resentment ia physiological as well as a psychological state. In any case, resentments ensure that self-protection is shunted to rage, because true anger requires acceptance that what has happened has happened.

    Common Triggers for Rage

  • Survival In a literal sense, lethal threats are rare in our society, and even then, rage may be less effective then a 'cool' escape plan. However, where early experience has included abuse or insecurity, any social problem can take on survival characteristics. Even something very ambiguous, like a 'weird look' from someone, can seem threatening.

  • Shame Shame is feeling inadequate,defective, and unable to justify one's existence. Undiluted, it is an intolerable feeling, and rage is often an escape from the feeling (but of course rage is a future cause of shame, and so another destructive loop is started.)
  • Abandonment Being 'left out' is devastating from a child's standpoint, and many adults still feel that way. Sometimes a temporary separation, like a partner going to work, can trigger a reactive rage. Even a difference of opinion can be a trigger.
  • Exposure This is where events uncover evidence that something denied is in fact true.
  • Power and Control Rage usually develops strongly as a pattern from the reasons listed above, but since rage intimidates others, a secondary re-enforcement can come about. This is most evident in domestic abuse. Rage starts to be self-induced by mulling over resentments, or erupts when the feeling of losing control arises.
  • Dis-inhibition Rage can become a source of an adrenaline high. Like power and control, this is a secondary pattern built on the first four precipitants.

The destructive consequences of rage to relationships are well-known. If rage happens more than once or twice a year, it will dominate the dynamics of any relationship. Given the characteristics of rage described above, the following basic implications seem to apply to efforts to address rage. (Finer, more far-reaching suggestions are listed after that)

  • Once rage has erupted, absolutely nothing except soothing and decreasing stimuli is of any use. This is the basis of the timeout procedure taught in 'anger management' classes. Any discussion of issues is counter-productive, including discussing the effects of rage on others. Breaking off contact is almost always best. Slight increments of better composure do not indicate the rage is ending.
  • Rages are not willed and so will-power cannot conquer rage. However, self-determination can lead to choices that restore balance and harmony in the self-protection system and 'short-circuit' rage. This is the idea underpinning the 'ultimate solutions section below.
  • Rage may explain actions, but never justifies them. To learn and grow we all must be responsible for the consequences of our actions, even when there are involuntary aspects.
  • Where a rage tendency exists, there is no point in trying any relationship improvement strategies like family counseling, new activities, agreement and bargains, etc.. because none of this will transfer to the rage state. Rage has to be changed first (similar to addictions).
  • Drug and alcohol use, whether it seems to be a problem by itself, greatly increases the three physical conditions of rage and should cease. Rage and addiction often co-exist and if so, they have to be addressed simultaneously.
  • The impulse for others to tip-toe around the raging person will be strong and almost automatic, but unless safety contra-indicates it, rage should be addressed the first time and every time. Rage is a 'huge deal' that will escalate when accommodated.
  • Certain conditions, like brain injury or autism, may mean rage is not changeable, but secondary patterns and effects can be prevented by understanding.
  • Rage hurts others, but it is not a moral issue like cruelty. To confront it from the moral high ground is just to increase the shame dynamic.
  • Rage dynamics trample context. No 'making sense' of any given episode of rage, or of things said in a rage, should be attempted because it is just crazy-making.
  • Safety sometimes demands force be used to restrain a raging person, but punishment produces resentment which of course strengthens the rage pattern.
  • Denial that the raging has occurred, although it has to be overcome, is not a sign of moral depravity, but part of the rage.
  • Violence, where it occurs, requires de-humanization of the other. This occurs in rage but not in anger. De-humanizing and objectifying practices and beliefs need to be addressed in society.

Ultimate Solutions for Rage

  • Decrease sympathetic nervous tone and increase parasympathetic tone. This is sometimes known as the relaxation response. It can be achieved through breathing exercises, stretching, Pilates, yoga asanas, yoga nidra, meditation etc..
  • Increase behavioral control by increasing fine-motor control. Bodywork, Pilates, or yoga are excellent for this. Martial arts may also help, provided the instructor is attuned to the fine-motor aspects. Brain Gym® exercises are also helpful. All these modalities strengthens the connection between the executive areas of the cortex, the limbic system, and the motor cortex. .
  • Identify Resentments and Replace Them with real engagement and problem solving with the people involved. The fourth step of the 12-step system has a template of sorts for this, but this is not the only way.
  • Increase True Anger as described in the sections below this box on rage. Of course, where rage has been a tendency this will be doubly tricky
  • Decrease Shame. This is a topic in itself but there are a lot of resources on it. Shame is the engine of denial.

 

Beyond the distinction with rage, anger has a tricky role in social norms and interpersonal relations, as the paragraphs below discuss. Unlike rage, anger is grounded in acceptance. This is not to say that one accepts on-going mistreatment, that is submission not acceptance. But anger is not about un-doing what has happened and what is, although anger is frequently about re-doing it.

Anger is not negativity, which is a tendency toward criticism, sarcasm, cynicism, bitterness and judgment. Negativity drives a hostile demeanor that lacks any real emotion. Negativity is a defense against anxiety and unwanted feelings. Expressing negativity, however, is not satisfying, not healing, and damaging to relationships. Negativity often covers up an inability to act assertively. Negativity can also be a means to avoid real disappointment and hurt, by anticipating it in advance. (Willingness to bring up an uncomfortable issue is not negativity.)

Anger is commonly confused with a loss of control. It is rage, however, that results in lack of control. Rage is also recognizable by the irrationality and disorganization. A person in a rage is usually unable to state what they want. Anger tends to bring a clarity and focus. An angry person may ask for more than what is practical, but what an angry person asks for will be rational. Still, even anger may be somewhat disorganizing at first if anger has been suppressed. Anger can always 'flip' to rage if the person is overwhelmed It may be beneficial to work with anger first in a controlled setting like therapy. Anger, when a person is ready to own it, often spurs actions that positively 'take control' of a life or situation.

Anger is also confused with the desire or actuality of punishing someone. Putting aside all dubious arguments of whether it can beneficially change behavior, the act of punishment, is not the logical result of anger but an attempt to be rid of anger (or more likely, painful rage). In fact violence, including verbal violence, arises from either rage, or a need to quickly as possible discard strong feelings we cannot yet tolerate.

Similarly, anger is confused with blame. Blame is placing the responsibility for one's actions and feelings on another person. Anger does not transfer responsibility to the target.

Loss of control, punishing actions, and blame all have to do with the intense other-focus of rage. Anger, on the other hand, brings a self-focus. Self-focus means an awareness of our feelings, our desires, our needs, and our foundation. Others do not get the worst of it when we are able to self-focus. While the other-focus of rage dehumanizes others into perceived monsters. anger actually humanizes others.

Anger is not shouting or screaming. Rather these effects on the voice are from rage and fear, which tighten the throat.. True anger deepens the voice slightly, and adds a resonance which draws attention to itself and leads others to take the communication seriously.

Anger also is not hostility. Anger is warm (sometimes hot), has a specific concern, and impels one toward the provocation. Hostility is cold, consists of a global attitude against a person, and generally includes withdrawal. Hostility arises when there has been betrayal or betrayal is feared, often driven underneath by past attraction or subconscious attraction

Anger is also confused with righteousness, which is the insistence that others are not only wrong, but must be made to see themselves as wrong. Matters of right and wrong are legitimate ground for anger, but based on a felt sense of right, not on a demonization of others. Also many people only feel they can express upset and protest when someone has done something 'morally' wrong. It is taking a victim role, and expecting that role to compel the other person. That is, they can get angry against someone, but not angry for themselves. This leads to negativity and critical attitude that attempts to make personal interests, which are legitimate, into moral law, which they are not. This is focusing on faults and not solutions. Moreover, there is a loss of self-focus.

Anger starts as a self-protective impulse. If the impulse results in contraction, the emotion is fear. If the impulse results in expansion, the emotion is anger. If there is contraction, then explosion, then partial re contraction, this is rage. If the threat is strong, fear is realistic and protective, but not healing. Most complex social threats faced today naturally elicit elements of both anger and fear. Sane living requires honoring both.

In the therapy community, there has arisen a slogan that anger is a 'secondary emotion that covers fear" Anger is not secondary to fear, it is secondary to threat, as is fear. Fear is often preferred by other people because it is less socially disruptive and less likely to be destructively distorted as described above and below. Still, in the therapeutic context it has be admitted that the threat that provokes the self-protective impulse is often self-imposed. The anger cannot be productive because the person is at war with themselves. In these instances, the threats need examining not confronting, and this perhaps can be 'more coolly' done from 'the fear side.' But fear is not in any way morally superior to anger, and should not be seen as a preferable state apart from the context.

There are two main categories of self-imposed threats: ego-image, and self-negation. When the accurate observations and the adult behavior of others threaten false self-mages, protective protests are self-defeating and misdirected. A clue is defensiveness. With true anger, one doesn't doubt one's legitimacy. Also irritable explosions may result when one waits too long to take care of oneself. For example, we want to leave to go somewhere but we are 'too polite' to interrupt, thinking we can wait it out. Resentment builds. It may explode, or the resentment is carried along to the next setting because it has built up in our body.

This does not, however, mean that anger is always inappropriate. True anger is a natural response to injury or intrusion. The motives of others who injure or intrude may vary quite a bit, from well- to ill-intentioned, but the response of anger is still natural, and just as healing. Many of us have trouble expressing anger toward good people or family. We may feel that anger is not 'justified' toward others who may have our best interests at heart. Anger, unlike punishments or other actions, is an emotion and does not require justification. When our ability to express anger is regained in relationships, others may perpetuate the confusion by acting like they have been punished or mistreated. The key is not to try to achieve justification, but to achieve connection.

While anger is an emotion that informs and energizes action, it is never a justification for an action. Few of us have the ability to hold and experience anger calmly enough to allow anger to participate in a humane but honest response. Anger doesn't keep well—when denied it turns into negativity and resentment.

Anger is often displaced. That is, it is vented on a safer target with flimsy justification. It is possible to make a complete circle of displacement. For instance a man may vent his anger at his co-worker on his wife, his anger at his wife on his co-worker. While this seems to cover all the bases, it avoids really feeling the emotion, and avoids getting closer.

An inability to express anger to the appropriate person contributes to an inability to express love. Anger is the trickiest interpersonal tool we have, no doubt about it. Every child quickly learns that some people cannot accept their anger. Perhaps it will be all the people in their lives. Since anger is involuntary, the child comes to see him- or herself as unacceptable. One seeming way out of this dilemma is to become ‘nice.’

Anger occurs in a relationship. If some friction has occurred with a stranger, the anger that arises puts the two people into some type of relationship, if they are capable of it. It is relationship which will put a cap on destructiveness. Anger is not rejection, it is the opposite of rejection (not the only opposite of rejection, but one indispensable opposite of rejection.) An angry confrontation almost always strengthens a relationship if the two parties can avoid drama and rage. Anger can bring honesty and realness where there has been acting and superficiality. 'Make-up' sex has long been known to be unusually good because the preceding anger has cleared away much of the falseness and distance in the relationship.

True anger ends as soon as the problem provoking it ends. But some problems are life long (racism, etc). Anger can be 'paused' for pleasurable times, and reconvened on "Monday" for pursuing a grievance. This is because anger is not a global physiological flood like rage, but rather exists is a relationship and a context.

Niceness is no substitute for love, and in fact, it usually gets in the way of love. Niceness is based on withholding true feeling, and while that makes sense with strangers, and in casual or business relationships, it is disastrous if used extensively in close relationships. Niceness covers up anger a lot more poorly than people think. The anger comes out in distorted form, such as withholding, negativity, passive aggression, episodic rage, depression, resentment, righteousness, or playing a victim role.

I often find myself encouraging the clean expression of anger. Not because that is in itself a sure path to joyful living, but because it is one ingredient that is discouraged strongly in our culture at large, and even in our ‘therapist’ and self-help culture. Therapy can be an excellent place to start dealing with anger, because if we have been avoiding this, what is likely to emerge first is greatly distorted, and it is neither fair nor practical to people in our life to expect them to handle this well.

Many people can accept the existence of anger, but strongly question the wisdom of its expression. That is, they have a hard time even imaging positive effects of bringing it into their relationships. Cannot goals, even assertive goals, be achieved another way? Anger is not a tool to achieve goals. Cannot wrongs be addressed 'peacefully'? Anger is more than conveying the information of an injury. It is also more than registering a protest on ethical grounds. Anger is a biological process which restores vitality and interpersonal contact. A goal for many in our culture is to convey the most information with the least biological activation. That is a mistaken goal. There is a saying about detoxifying the effects of unprocessed anger: "Claim it, tame it. aim it."

The table below further defines the difference between anger and rage:

Rage

True Anger

Is associated with muscle tension, pounding heart, rapid and shallow breathing, pale skin, tunnel vision, and less coherent memory (sympathetic nervous system activation)

Is associated with even smooth movement, deeper breathing, warm feeling in the skin, focused vision, and clear memory (parasympathetic nervous system activation)

Is usually a response to a threat to our self-image or our power

A healing and protective response to a threat to our physical or emotional integrity

Is out of proportion to the provocation

Is in proportion to the provocation

Persists long after the provocation ends. (Once adrenaline hits the bloodstream, its effects persist for 1-2 hours. Muscle tension also, without practice, cannot be reversed quickly)

Subsides quickly once the provocation ends. (This is a quality of the parasympathetic system)

Is meant to silence the other

Is meant to communicate with the other

Rage

True Anger

Blames the other for what one feels

Takes responsibility for this feeling as one's own

Is a last ditch effort to maintain control when other controlling tactics seem to be failing

Wants to engage the other person but not control them

Frightens the hearer

Informs the hearer and creates attention in the hearer

Is violent, aggressive, out of control, derisive, punitive

Is non-violent, always in control, and within safe limits

Represses the true feeling

Expresses an assertive response

Rage

True Anger

Is a strategy that makes a demand that the other change

Asks for change but understands it is up to the other to change or not

Tramples the other person’s feelings

Is meant to draw out the other person’s feelings

Creates stress because one's fear and defensiveness lock up energy

Releases the aliveness in one's true self

Is held onto and endures as resentment

Is brief and then let go of with a sense of pleasure

Insists the other see how justified one is

 

Needs no specific response. All responses are information

Based on a refusal to accept what has happened, and a denial of one’s present ability to make choices

Based on acceptance of what has happened and sees anger as part of one’s ability to make choices.