Home > Emotional Healing > Anger as a case study

Anatomy of emotional healing: Anger as a case study

Anger exemplifies how our culture distorts our perspective on emotion. We regard anger today the same way as we did sex fifty years ago: necessary but uncivilized, dirty and hateful. Angry men are violent bullies or criminals; angry women are castrating bitches. One must stifle these horrid emotions before somebody gets hurt.

Of course, many of my patients are harmed because they repress anger. Some women in particular act for the benefit of others in a way that demeans themselves -- then they wonder why they feel emotionally paralyzed and unable to function. The male version of this is less apparent but equally self-destructive.

The men's movement has produced a wonderful perspective on anger. Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette's book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover describes three stages of men's maturation from awkward teen to a man in his fullness. Our culture recognizes only the first two of these. There is no American model of a genuinely wise man.

The earliest stage is an adolescent, often a petty tyrant. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and struts around in assured self-righteousness. I think of this as the Rambo stage. In real life, Rambos may become bullies. More often, in this stage we humiliate ourselves when we overreact and then have to eat crow. True, many of our conventionally successful men are good at finding socially acceptable ways to be tyrants. Business and politics are full of them. But most of us aren't rewarded for dominating others. Nobody likes a self-righteous despot. Society pressures us to grow up.

So most men move up to -- and stay in -- the second stage, emotional suppression. I call this the Dagwood stage. The icon of the emotionally suppressed man is the television sitcom hero: bumbling and clueless. Squelching emotions means suppressing wisdom, courage, and the capacity to act.

The conventional view of a mature man is someone who is always rigidly in control. This type of restraint is actually suppression, achieved at a hideous cost: Such a man demonizes his emotions and pretends they don't exist. This leads to the classic marital dynamic of a woman who yearns for an emotionally expressive husband, and a man who just doesn't understand what the fuss is all about. "I've spent years trying not to be emotional, and when I do express my emotions (i.e., anger and frustration), you don't like that either!" To the guy, it seems like a lose-lose game.

Besides, there's a heroic version of emotional suppression: the John Wayne persona. This character has experienced hideous trauma in the distant past: classically the violent death of a spouse or child, which he avenged by killing the perpetrator. (This is the mythic equivalent of the childhood most men experience, growing up deprived of emotional support, particularly from the father, who of course suppressed his emotions too.) But John Wayne is able to squelch the pain and be a hero in the world, blessed by a superior moral authority and capacity to act. Because he's an injured, self-righteous prig, nobody could stand to actually live with the guy. That's why he's always a loner, remaining above the crowd. (Apparently the actor who played John Wayne wasn't anything like this oppressive persona.) An equivalent is the sports hero, who is always humble and self-effacing off the field but who performs miracles while doing his thing. Though his emotions are part of his success, you never see them.

The female equivalents of emotional dumping and suppression aren't as clear, but here's one possibility. The classical ingenue is a sweet young thing convinced of her capacity to win over everyone with her pure love and support. Emotions are vital in this endeavor, but she fearlessly suppresses them to the larger goal of giving to everyone.

But the ingenue has to grow up too. While many people welcome her gifts, few provide anything in return. She's too naive to be discriminating and winds up repeatedly being used. After countless disappointments, her idealism burns out. She winds up in the second stage: angry and cynical. Now her emotions are on the surface, but they perpetuate accusation and bitterness. She yearns for intimacy but is too defensive to allow it.

I would propose that at the core of these various dysfunctions is a misunderstanding of the proper nature and role of anger. (Fear is part of this process, too, as is the perceived need to be in control, but let's start with anger.)

Our culture sees two possibilities for anger: dump it (excessive expression) or bury it (suppression).

The clearest image to bring these into focus is a bodily function. Dumping anger is like going to the bathroom in the street, or pooping in your pants: incontinence. Suppressing is like constipation: the anger is still there, but there's no way to let it out cleanly. It builds up until it explodes or makes you sick. Anger has a third option not available to bodily functions: coming out covertly.

Finding examples of dumping is easy: rage, tantrums, yelling, pouting, blaming, throwing things, violence, and revenge. I also include indirect dumping like whining, paranoia, being a professional victim, and getting even.

Examples of suppressing or "constipation" include suspiciousness, depression, chronic pain, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and not saying anything for months and then blowing up over nothing. My favorite is passive-aggressive anger.

This table lists some examples of each manner of expressing anger:

DumpingSuppression/"constipation"Appropriate anger
Yelling Depression Setting limits
Hitting Low back pain Clear communication
Blaming Withdraw in injured silence Withdrawal as limit setting or reducing risk of harm
Violence Passive-agressiveness Appropriate, proportional self defense
Revenge Emotional numbness and paralysis Experiencing anger fully without acting on it
An eye for an eye Cynicism Acting on the passion and wisdom within the anger
Whining Irritable bowel Embracing pain as a sensation and investigating its meaning
Professional victim Chronic headaches, TMJ Getting the message from you to you, then acting on the clarity of your insight

What in the world do you mean by "appropriate anger"?

Many people can't imagine that there could any such thing as appropriate anger. To find out what this could be like, let's explore the nature of anger itself.

What is anger? Patients with chronic pain are often surprised at my definition of anger: the experience that something's wrong, along with an alerting mechanism ("Hello! Wake up! Pay attention!") and the energy to do something about it. What's surprising is that this is also a good definition of pain. Most of us think of anger as an emotion and pain as a physical sensation, but in fact both have (different) physical and emotional components. Pain implies that some part of your body is being injured, whereas anger is more about threat, loss, or disappointment caused by something outside you. However, often pain's message of bodily damage is wrong -- think muscular low back pain, tension headache, or upset stomach. Similarly, it's easy to become angry even when nobody is actually hurting you.

Both anger and pain carry an imperative to act: "Do something now!" Yet blindly following the urge to act out is what gets hotheads into trouble, or causes pain patients to panic and exacerbate their symptoms. As a rule one must suppress the urge to respond immediately. (Of course, at times an immediate instinctive response to pain or anger is precisely what's needed.)

Our culture teaches us it's okay to express anger when it's justified -- when we're right and the other person is wrong. But this test fails more often than it helps. Children always believe their anger is justified. And even if you're right, it's not smart to yell at your boss or the police officer who just pulled you over. Divorce courts are full of formerly loving spouses trying to destroy each other because they're convinced how mean and unfair the other has become.

No matter what the circumstances, it always seems to me that I'm right and you're wrong.

So it appears that usually it's safest to bury your anger, unless you don't care about the other person or they can't hurt you. But denying anger leaves you helpless when you need the wisdom and power it contains.

Many people don't recognize how effective suppressing anger is at making them paralyzed and impotent. Indeed, fundamentalist and totalitarian societies demonize anger except in certain rare circumstances, when it is necessary to attack a perceived enemy. Most of my patients who grew up in abusive households were forbidden to become angry. As a result, they never learned to think for themselves or discover what they wanted in a particular situation.

Denying people the right to appropriate anger is a form of mind control. Insisting they dump or suppress it makes them childlike and powerless.

Anger is not intrinsically harmful or damaging. The emotion carries a physical sensation that varies from person to person, often a feeling of heat in the chest and a need to move. Just as you can become angry without hitting or yelling, you can feel any emotion without having to act on it. It's okay to feel happy without taking off all your clothes and dancing in the street. You can feel afraid without cowering under the bed, sad without crying.

(Of course, sometimes an emotion is so strong it overwhelms you, which I call flooding. It's hard to manage your behavior when you're being carried downstream in a deluge.)

Anger -- or any strong emotion -- becomes interesting and vital when you neither act on the immediate emotional urge, nor bury it. If you stay with the experience until your head clears, you'll open to the message it contains. Sometimes the message is about someone else. Often it's about you. You may discover a cornucopia of emotions mixed in with anger: fear, hate, love, passion, deep caring.

I believe that at its core, anger is often strength and wisdom. In any given instance it may of course be something entirely different: terror, fear of loss of control, regret. But staying with and working through the feeling often opens you to what you feel deeply, along with the energy to act appropriately.

This brings us back to the curious notion of appropriate anger. If it's not just an automatic reaction to being hurt or wronged -- if whether or not it's justified doesn't matter -- then anger may be a message to you from you. When you get the message, you act appropriately. What does this look like?

Often anger follows something another person does that isn't okay with you. Appropriate anger means you respond with strength. More often than not, strength is clear and persuasive, not harsh or aggressive.

Say you're in a meeting and Joe says something really stupid that drives you crazy. Responding by dumping means you lash out, tell Joe how idiotic his idea is, thereby convincing Joe he's right. (There's no better way to solidify an opinion than to attack it.) Or you gossip about him behind his back and undermine the whole group.

Suppressing your anger means Joe may convince the others his dumb idea sounds good. That makes you even more upset, and you tune out and shut down for the rest of the meeting. Everyone wonders what's wrong. That doesn't work either.

Responding from strength looks different depending upon the situation. You might say with passion and clarity, "Let's do it this way!", and everyone agrees. That's it! you're done. Or Joe may start ranting and raving, and you find a face-saving way to set limits.

Whatever happens, your anger belongs to you. You don't have to say anything to anyone, and -- unless you dump -- you don't have to justify it. When you allow anger to be fully present without acting on it or believing its initial distortions, it informs you. Appropriate action follows naturally.

My favorite example of the sort of strength and passion that results is what it must have been like to be with Mother Teresa. Journalist accounts describe someone absolutely compelling. She put every able-bodied person near her to work, and they did so gladly. Her spiritual fire, commitment, and strength were compelling and contagious.

So if Moore and Gillette's first stage of male maturation is Rambo, the Boy Tyrant, and the second stage is a bumbling Dagwood, what's the third stage? It's the title of their book: King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. It's man in his fullness. It's the ability to feel deeply without rationalizing one's emotions as right or wrong, to act decisively yet to embrace uncertainty. It's understanding that wisdom requires accepting human limitation -- welcoming awkwardness and not knowing despite the pain and frustration they may bring.

Achieving appropriate anger

One of the most powerful strategies is to investigate your anger (or any other strong emotion) from the perspective that you don't understand it and would like to learn more.

Usually, when we get ticked off, the perceived reason why pops into our head right behind the emotion itself. Sure, sometimes why you're mad is obvious. But if you watch carefully, often you don't know why you're angry, but it's intolerable to be mad for no reason. So we "pin the tail on the donkey": blame the nearest victim and then justify our emotion to ourselves. Or, somebody does something that upsets us, and we find ourselves grossly overreacting. (It's a lot easier to recognize these stunts in others than yourself.)

Here's one way to get beyond the rationalizations. When you can find some time when you won't be disturbed, sit down with a pad of paper and write down the following question: "What's one reason I'm angry?" Then write down the first answer that comes to your head. Write down the question again, and then the next answer that you think of. Don't edit the answers, and accept whatever comes to you without judging it, even if it seems silly or irrelevant. Keep writing down this question and whatever answer you get for fifteen minutes.

Other useful repeating questions are: "What's one reason it's right to dump my anger?" and "Name one reason it's right to suppress my anger."

You want to get to the point that the anger is just there, without any reason for it. You can feel it, but you're certain you don't understand it. Then investigate the raw emotion itself. In what part of your body do you feel it? (Emotions are virtually always felt physically.) What is the physical sensation? How big and strong is it? What is it saying to you? What's it like to have this emotion: how do you respond to it? What do you tell yourself when you're angry?

As you hang out with this emotion, it will begin to shift, in much the same way as the view through a kaleidoscope changes from one pattern to the next as you turn the barrel. Follow the thread of this dynamism. It will dump you into the lap of your deepest self.

Ultimately you want to learn to hold strong emotion within a nurturing sense of peace and equanimity, of compassion for yourself and others. One the one hand you're diving into the intense feeling and filling yourself with its experience. On the other hand, you're observing from a safe space, noticing and acknowledging what's going on: physical sensations, judgments and evaluations, memories from the past, whatever.


Last updated Fri, Jun 19, 2015

Send feedback, comments, or discussion about this page.

©2011, James Gagné, MD