Why Do I Get So Angry?

Why Do I Get So Angry?

anger management therapy image of fist

There’s a little boy. He’s not much more than 2, or 3-years-old. He’s sitting on the floor playing with his trucks. He has a favorite; it’s blue, bright blue, like kids’ toys often are. He fills the truck with small items, to ferry to, and from, the sofa to the shelf. He’s caught up in his imagination, focused on the complex task of balancing multi-colored bricks on the back of the truck. He doesn’t hear the noise; he’s absorbed in play.

A large foot lands heavily on the floor beside him, then another step, and the foot hits the treasured truck, lifting it high in the air and sending it flying against the wall and falling, cracked and broken, on the floor boards.

The little boy crumbles inside.

His mom is crying.

The front door slams.

The little boy is alone on the floor with a tumbled pile of tiny multi-colored bricks and his favorite truck, cracked open from bumper to bumper.

Rage destroys lives. It breaks the tender cords that bind us to one another – husband to wife, parent to child, sibling to sibling.

There are few among us who haven’t known the raised voice, the furrowed eyebrows, and the fear that follows as we instinctively move to defend ourselves, to remove ourselves, to get away, to stay safe.

Is Anger Always Bad?

Anger, like every emotion, can be good and bad – it isn’t always ugly, destructive, or unhealthy.

Anger, again like any emotion, serves a purpose. As human-beings, we have spent billions of years evolving so as to survive, and our emotions are vital to our survival. We would have died out long, long ago if we didn’t feel.

Emotions are like lights on a dashboard. They turn on to tell us something that we need to know to survive. They are early warning signs that our body is using to communicate an important message to us.

Healthy anger tells us that we are not getting what we need, and the action tendency is to do something in order to make our needs known and to satisfy them. We might need someone to give us space or more independence, or we might need someone to help and support us.

This healthy anger can become unhealthy when we get so upset that we lose sight of what we are angry about. In order for healthy anger to be effective, we need to be able to express it, as well as stay in touch with what we are angry about and what we actually need.

For instance, if I am angry that my boss has overlooked me for a promotion and I start yelling at him and demanding a raise, I’m probably going to find myself being removed by security. Not only did I not get the promotion or raise, but now I’ve jeopardized my job as well. Not getting a promotion may be a perfectly valid reason for getting angry, but losing control of that anger will have repercussions well beyond the immediate context.

Do I Have Toxic Anger Issues and Not Know It?

Unhealthy anger shows up in different ways. The above illustration is just one demonstration of how healthy anger can rapidly turn unhealthy when we are over-aroused and lose touch with what we are upset about.

Both unhealthy and healthy anger can look very similar on the surface, however – with rapid angry movements, clenched jaw, and fists – but still be part of a very different emotional process. The anger that we see when someone is shouting at us, for instance, doesn’t always start off as healthy anger that then turns into unhealthy anger. There can also be unhealthy anger that starts off in a completely different place.

As you can probably tell, it can all be a little confusing.

If you’ve already read my blog, Isolation-Proof Your Relationship, you will be familiar with some of these concepts, but I’ll go over them again briefly here to make this easy to understand.

There is healthy anger that turns unhealthy.

There is also another emotion altogether that is replaced by anger.

In the earlier blog, I explained it by looking at the much-loved dragon Smaug, who lives alone in the Lonely Mountain. Smaug had the not-so-hidden talent of breathing smoke, blowing fire balls, and terrorizing all those who came near. His skin was hard as stone and withstood the sharpest arrows. He was the epitome of anger.

Yet there was also a small patch of baby-soft skin, on his underside, that was highly sensitive – that was his downfall, but that isn’t part of the illustration.

We all have hard, outer exteriors and soft bits inside. We’ve had to develop that outer exterior to protect ourselves. Some of us have thick callous outer exteriors because our lives have been onerous and difficult and we have had to develop thick protective shields to keep ourselves safe. Some have slightly softer outer exteriors because our environments have been more favorable; but we all have them.

When we get hurt, when someone jabs you hard, or sticks a fist into your soft underbelly, most of us will defend ourselves. Often that defence looks a lot like anger.

In the language of emotion, when someone says or does something that touches the vulnerable part of you inside or something happens to trigger an old wound or painful memory, most of us will react. We don’t want to be reminded of the shame we felt when our mom repeatedly scolded us for peeing the bed, or the humiliation we felt when our dad, drunk, was yelling at us for playing Pokemon in the front room while he was trying to sleep it off. And so, we tend to run from the painful emotions. We may feel overwhelmed by the pain, unable to breathe, fear the pain will overwhelm us, and so we change emotions.

We have an emotional-reaction to our initial emotion.

The first emotion, the one that comes when our soft underbelly is pierced, is too painful and too overwhelming, so we run from it, and fast. We run toward another emotion that is safer and easier to feel and express – anger.

I know you’re probably sitting there thinking, “No way! You’ve got it all wrong! I was definitely upset about that mess and it’s got nothing to do with my childhood or my mother or father!” Now you may be right, and I don’t know you. But I do happen to know a little about emotions, and I’ve had the privilege of speaking with many people who struggle with anger.

The truth is, you may be completely unaware of the pain as the knife twists in your soft underbelly. You may have developed a seamless shift from internal pain to anger in which you are not consciously aware of the pain. And if anyone asked you what you were feeling you would tell them clearly and definitely “I feel anger.” And you do, you feel anger. But the anger, isn’t healthy, and It isn’t getting you what you need. I suspect you may not even know what you need. Instead, the anger is pushing the one you love farther and farther away.

When talking to kids, therapists talk about ‘sad’ wearing the ‘angry-hat’. Or you may have heard of the iceberg analogy – the tip of the iceberg is the rage, hatred, and anger, but the mass of the iceberg lies beneath the surface of the water – think ‘Titanic’. (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-anger-iceberg/)

Why Do I Get So Angry?

The little boy is older now, almost 9-years-old. His parents are fighting. He can hear the shouting. He can feel the same fear gnawing at his bones and chewing at the tissues in his skull. He starts to cry, softly at first, and then in loud sobs that he hides beneath the covers.

He’s going to be late for school again. But he doesn’t care. School is the farthest thing from his mind.

There’s a heavy noise as the door to his room is pushed open. He keeps his head hidden, then lifts it slightly to see who is there.

His father looms over him. He pulls the covers off the bed and tells him, ‘Don’t cry like a girl; boys don’t cry.’ His father thunders off, leaving the little guy to climb off the bunk bed, pull clothes on, and make ready to go to school.

Have you ever seen a row of baby geese? They follow their mom around, copying everything she does. Human-beings aren’t that different, we just take a whole lot longer to grow up.

As kids, we learn how to behave. We learn how to hold our fork and knife, or chopsticks, or fingers, or whatever it is that our parents use. And, as kids, we learn how to express our sadness, our anger, and our guilt. Just like some people eat with chopsticks, and some with their fingers, people express their emotions differently; some do it loudly while others are more subdued, like the proverbial British stiff-upper-lip.

We all grow up in different families with different ways of expressing emotions. We all learn what emotions are allowed to be expressed, how they’re expressed, and by whom.

The most widespread and perhaps most damaging of these cultural norms around emotional expression is the one illustrated above: girls cry, boys definitely do not cry.

For every man with problem anger, there is a little boy who was not allowed to cry. For every angry husband, there is a school-boy who was taught that the only way to express his feelings was through rage.

This emotional-norm is perpetuated everywhere. It is demonstrated in our cartoons, our movies, in our homes and in our schools. Even the most-committed-of-parents, who are hell bent on making sure their little boy can cry, and that their little girl can assertively-stand-up for herself, will be battling a pervasive cultural norm. 

And so, from a very young age, and for a very long time, in many, many, different situations, little boys, big boys, and grown men are taught that when they feel, they feel angry; that when they feel sad, they yell; that when they feel afraid, they shout; and that when they feel overwhelmed, they berate.

It is this cultural norm that makes it so, so, difficult for men to talk about how sad or hurt they feel when their partner rejects their sexual advances. And it’s also what makes it so difficult for men to talk about how ashamed, embarrassed, or small they feel when their wife speaks sharply to them in a public place. They’ve been hardwired to respond in anger, and do not have the emotional vocabulary to speak in another emotional language.

Fortunately, learned behaviour can also be unlearned; and new languages, even emotional languages, can be mastered.

As I end this section on gender bias in how emotions are expressed, I want to acknowledge, that men are not the only ones who get angry. Women are perfectly capable of feeling and expressing unregulated anger as well. Women can also be verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive.

Unhealthy anger, rage, hatred, and violence is the emotional foundation and emotional catalyst for intimate partner abuse – whether perpetrated by men or women. While intimate partner abuse by men towards women is widely known, men can also be the victims of partner abuse or unregulated angry attacks.

(https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/stop-family-violence/publications/intimate-partner-abuse-against-men.html)

How Does Anger Affect My Relationship with My Partner?

Unhealthy anger, or more specifically, anger that starts with another softer emotion and evolves into anger, works. It works because it gets us two things that we want. Firstly, getting angry stops us feeling other deep. painful emotions. Secondly, getting angry gives us a sense of power, making us feel big, strong, and dominant. It often helps us get our own way.

Psychologists call these “negative and positive reinforcers.” When we get angry, our anger is “negatively reinforced” in that the anger makes the bad feelings go away, and “positively reinforced” in that the anger often puts us in a position of power. We get to belittle and shame another person, rather than experiencing those feelings of shame firsthand.

Because, anger works and is reinforced in the short-term, it can easily become addictive. Getting angry makes the bad pain dissipate quickly and makes us feel good. It helps us to manage our difficult emotions. Unfortunately, all of this can happen outside of our awareness, becoming a conditioned, learned and easy response to feelings of sadness, shame, and fear.

Anger may work in the short-term, but its long-term effectiveness is questionable for a number of reasons:

When we move rapidly from one emotion to another, we miss the flashing light on the dashboard that was turned on by the first emotion. If we can slow it down, back to that initial emotion, we can try to tune in to our body sending us an important message about our core values and needs. Suppressing and then transforming that initial emotion into another emotion is akin to turning off that dashboard warning light, carrying on driving as if nothing had happened.

If you’ve ever tried that, you’ll know it usually doesn’t turn out very well.

The first emotion we felt, which we have buried and disowned, is there to tell us something very important. Burying and transforming that emotion means that we are essentially ignoring the message that our own bodies are trying to convey.

Remember: emotions are part of our survival-kit. When your emotions are telling you what you need to survive, and you turn that emotion off, and ignore it, you miss the message.

Anger doesn’t work in the long-term because it robs us of what we really need and want. We cancel the early message, and move on to express a different emotion, anger, and as a result, push the one we love away. Our first emotion, the one we disowned, is telling us what we need, in the context of our relationship with our partner, be it the need to feel esteemed, valued, loved, or safe and secure. When we shoot the messenger – the first emotion – and resort to anger, we never hear the message, and invariably never get our real needs met.

Imagine this: you’re in bed with someone you love. You move toward them and slide your hand up their leg and they turn away sharply and push you aside. The warning light is red on the dashboard. Your emotions are telling you something along the lines of, “I need to feel loved, I need to feel wanted, I need to feel like I’ve still got what it takes, and that my partner is still turned on by me.” But, instead of feeling those feelings and expressing those feelings to your partner, you turn on them in anger and blame them for being frigid. In so doing, you fail to: 1) acknowledge to yourself and your partner what you really need, and 2) to be held and loved, and make-love with your partner that will meet your deep needs to feel loved.

Anger is a way of regulating your emotions. When you move toward your partner and are rejected, you will usually feel some form of hurt and emotional pain. The immediate response is to try to reduce or eliminate the pain, and changing the pain into anger can help you do that. Anger makes the pain go away, at least temporarily, and serves as a form of emotional regulation. By sending the pain packing, however, you are ignoring its implicit message. And the by-product – anger– can be toxic to your relationship.

How Does Anger Affect My Kids?

The little boy is no longer a little boy, he’s a young man. He’s dated, he’s wed. He’s a husband. He’s a father.

And yet, inside, he’s still a little boy. He carries with him the early wounds, the scars, the deep pain of those early years, those injuries that were inflicted on him as a child.

He’s rushing home from work to hug his kid and kiss his wife. He smells the sweet aroma of garlic basted chicken and fresh bread. He drops his bag, pushes through to the kitchen. He can almost taste the meal, feel his wife’s hips against his.

He pushes the door aside. His wife’s voice stops his breath. Her tone cuts him deeply across the ribs. He wants to cry out, but a heavy hand holds a cloth over his mouth. He’s falling, falling back in time. He can no longer see the checked dishcloth his wife is shaking in her hand, or the shimmering chicken sitting on the hard-earned granite top. He’s lost sight of the tears in his little girl’s eyes.

He raises his fist and pushes it into her soft beautiful face.

Two months later, they stare at each other across an empty courtroom. He listens to her sobs as she recounts the violence of the past. He drops his head, catching it in his hands, and sobs for the woman he loved, who has long since left him, for the daughter he will not see for months if not years to come, and for the little boy who curled up in his bed, and held the covers over his ears and mouth, to block out the screaming and stifle the sobs erupting from his small chest.

They say, “history repeats itself,” and perhaps it’s true. As I write this, we are living through the 2020 COVID 19 pandemic, and looking back at the 1919 Spanish Flu. Anger cycles through generations, passed on from father to son, and mother to daughter. We learn the language of anger at our mother’s breast, and have it shouted out loud in the school changing rooms.

What will it take to change the cycle, to stop the passing of destructive anger across the generations?

What will it take for us as individuals, families – blended families, 2-house families, 3-generation families, and us as a society to address the gender differences in how we express our emotions? What will it take for us as a society to address the devastating impact of anger on intimate relationships in the home, whether expressed by a man or woman? When will we stop and recognize how far the destructive energy expressed in unregulated anger is destroying our primary social units, our families, and undermining the social network of our communities

Anger is a killer, literally. It kills. Anger takes life, in incidents of domestic violence, as well as on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

Anger is front and center in any fight between couples, between parents and kids, and between friends.

We speak and act in anger with the words we use, the volume and tone we take, and the way we hold our bodies and use are arms and face to demonstrate how we feel. 

Anger destroys relationships. It tears families apart and decimates communities.

Many of us were set up for failure by our families, by our schools, and by our environment. We don’t know how to feel our feelings. We don’t know how to talk about our feelings. For many, we only know how to be angry. If that’s you, you are not alone. It’s not your fault. You can get help, things can get better. If that’s you, call us, or call any one of the many therapists who can help. Look for someone who understands emotions, and understands anger, and talk to them. The story, your story, isn’t over yet.

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