Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear

Projecting vulnerable feelings onto others causes more problems than it solves.

How many times have you heard a child bellow to a parent (in the effort to avoid being punished): “I didn’t do it! He [or she] did it!!!”? And to actually engage in this desperate tactic even in situations where their culpability was transparent? If you’re like the rest of us, probably more times than you can recall. In fact, as a child, it’s altogether possible that—impulsively—you may have done this yourself.

Sadly, such guileless efforts at deceit are sufficiently common in youngsters as to make them seem almost innocent. Still, such an unfortunate tendency is one we may never completely outgrow. And such prevarication is certainly not one of our more endearing traits. It’s hardly exemplary behavior to try to escape blame or criticism by (shamelessly) “passing the buck.” And projecting our mistakes, or misdeeds, onto others represents a psychological defense that, while it may protect our ego, typically creates far more problems than it solves.

What I’d like to clarify in this post is that a good deal of our anger is motivated by a desire not to experience guilt—and beyond this, the distressing emotions of hurt and fear. It’s by now generally agreed upon that anger, as prevalent as it is in our species, is almost never a primary emotion. For underlying it (as fellow blogger Steven Stosny pointed out two decades ago) are such core hurts 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.

In fact, those of us who routinely use anger as a “cover-up” to keep our more vulnerable feelings at bay, generally become so adept at doing so that we have little to no awareness of the dynamic driving our behavior. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts on the subject, anger is the emotion of invulnerability. 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!”).

And what about the recipient of your fit of temper? 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” (!).

Other possible reactions are for the now-distressed recipient of your (vengeful) criticism to archly defend themselves. Or to leave the scene altogether. And, of course, none of these self-protective reactions helps the respondent of your attack understand just what triggered your anger buttons in the first place. Which is another reason that anger—despite its ability to offer immediate emotional release, and relief, from whatever originally provoked it—rarely resolves anything,.

So, to fundamentally change what can be a never-ending vicious cycle, it’s crucial to comprehend not only the cause(s) of our anger but also its detrimental effects . Ultimately, feeling hurt—and consequently acting out a compulsion to retaliate in kind—is “kid stuff.” In such instances, then, can we learn how to hold onto our most rational adult self and “process”—internally—what’s happening inside our head? And to do this before we alleviate our feelings of guilt, hurt, or fear by turning them into anger? Can we begin to break a pattern that may well be hazardous to the relational closeness, harmony, and trust that we—like the rest of humanity—deeply crave?

Now that’s a question worth contemplating. . . .

NOTE 1: Inasmuch as it’s one of my specialties, I’ve published a variety of articles on anger in my PT blog. If you’re interested in taking a look at other ways I’ve approached this most toxic of emotions, here are links to some additional posts of mine on the subject: Here are links to other posts I’ve published in Psychology Today on anger:

"The Anger Thermostat—What's the "Temperature" of Your Upset?"

 “Anger Always Makes Sense,” 

"What Does Donald Duck Have to Do with Anger Control?"

“A Powerful Two-Step Process to Get Rid of Unwanted Anger,"

“What Your Anger May Be Hiding,”

Mad =Angry + Crazy + Dumb” (Parts 1 & 2), and

"Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior."

NOTE 2: If you think this post might be useful to others, please consider sharing the link with them.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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