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Understanding Anger-Guilt Splits

A common conflict is the emotional tension between anger and guilt.

Do you know anyone who fits the following description: Around others they outwardly tend to be giving, friendly, avoiding of conflict, and sensitive to the feelings and the approval of others, but when they are alone, they feel inwardly frustrated, annoyed, unheard, and have the sense they are always being taken advantage of? The individual might have what I would call an "anger-guilt" split. To understand the nature of such a split and where such splits might come from, we need to understand what emotions are and the role they play in orgainizing our experience and guiding us in our relationships. Once we understand that, then we can understand why our consciousness can become split into various conflicted and emotionally charged states of mind.

Let’s start with a basic question: Why do we have emotions and what do they do for us? First, emotions orient us toward the things that are important. Second, emotions energize actions with the (gut) intention of addressing those interests. Third, emotions function to track outcomes and foster learning. In addition to these three basic principles, emotions come in different flavors because we need to respond to different kinds of events in different ways. For example, despair shuts us down in the face of the repeated inability to restore or protect our interests; joy activates us to pursue the enhancement of our interests and build on them so we can respond in similar ways in the future.

Anger and guilt are social emotions that are activated as a function of social exchange. Anger is activated when we perceive the social exchange to be in the other person’s favor. That is, the kinds of situations that activate the emotion of anger are when we perceive ourselves as being treated unfairly, when our interests are not being respected, when we are not listened to or deferred to when we have legitimate authority, when someone who owes us fails to pay us back, when we are not given what we believe we are entitled to, or similar such situations. In short, when others devalue our interests relative to what we perceive we deserve, we get angry.

Guilt, in contrast, is activated when we perceive ourselves to be overly self-centered and not as concerned as we ought to be with the feelings or interests of others. Guilt results in an anxious feeling that keeps us from acting selfishly, orients us toward seeking the approval of important others, and allows us to maintain an affiliative, connected stance with the other. Indeed, when people feel guilty, they often will want to make amends by giving or doing something for others. (For a more detailed map of social motivation and emotion, see here).

As the above description delineates, anger and guilt are very much opposing emotional forces. Understanding that guilt and anger orient us toward fundamentally different action states at their base allows us to begin to see how someone might develop a split. But it is still a bit murky. After all, if someone wrongs us, we get angry; if we are acting too selfish and inconsiderate, then we feel guilty. Where is the split?

The conflicts emerge because of the fact that much social exchange takes place in shades of grey, and the meaning of acts depends enormously on the context and audience. For example, if your spouse has told you they would empty the dishes and you get home and find the dishes not done, is that an injustice? Maybe. Maybe not. The context makes a big difference. For example, if there had been an emergency, or if they had spent their entire day cleaning the house and did not have the time to get to the dishes, that is quite a different context from them having a clear history of never following through with chores and spending the day watching TV. And because issues of context matter, it is often not clear cut who has been wronged or what is the extent of the injury.

The second issue is the audience of the act. Notice in the opening paragraph I mentioned the difference between the outward (or public persona) and the inward (or private self). This gives rise to the issue of audience. When we act publicly, our actions potentially have to be justified to others. When we keep our thoughts private, we are our own audience. This is an important distinction because when we are in public, the vantage point of others may well be salient in our minds. If we see our behavior through their eyes, we are much more likely to feel anxious and guilty. However, when we then are alone thinking back on it later, we may be much more inclined to emphasize our interests and thus feel angry.

The final piece has to do with learning. Although it depends some on the individual, it is very likely that for many people, a more giving, submissive, affiliative style will be better received (at least in the short term) than angry, self-centered statements or actions. Thus, the public context potentially reinforces the guilty and anxious mind set. Yet the private context will potentially reinforce the angry mindset, as it can represent one’s interests without having to explicitly deal with the consequences from others.

Given these factors, it is not at all uncommon for people to experience themselves and their emotions as split into different self-states that compete against one another. And one of the most common of those splits is the split between anger and guilt.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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