I was recently approached about participating in a documentary on anger and incivility in the land, which caused me to reflect on why things seem to be getting worse. In addition to survey evidence that shows people reporting higher levels of anger, most professionals who work in the field know that the demand for their services has greatly increased over the past decade. (My own practice group, CompassionPower, has gone from serving some 20 new clients per month in 1998 to over 150 per month in 2008.) Whatever your job, the emotional state you are likely to observe most often in the course of a typical day is some form of low-grade anger (usually manifest as impatience, agitation, annoyance, irritability, sarcasm, resentment, frustration, or superiority), plus a sense of entitlement.
The topic of this blog - anger in the age of entitlement - highlights one reason for what seems to be a steady increase in anger. Entitlement easily creates anger in today's "cult of feeling good," where feeling good seems to be the ultimate life goal. Today people feel entitled not just to the pursuit of happiness, not even just to happiness, but to feeling good most of the time. If they don't feel good most of the time, someone or something must be to blame. The blue ribbon recipe for anger is mixing blame with entitlement and vulnerability.
I believe this new sense of entitlement, along with the compulsion to blame and the vast contagion of defensive/aggressive emotions are largely responsible for the reported increase in anger. And yet, anger is not the real problem.
Anger protects us from the threat of vulnerability. Focusing treatment efforts on anger or attempting to manage it is like treating a fever. Fevers result from the immune system trying to protect the organism from infection. Treating a fever and ignoring the infection makes as much sense as trying to manage anger without reducing the need for protection, i.e., reducing the threat of vulnerability.
Confusing Emotion with Threat
The emotions we commonly identify with the threat of vulnerability are shame and fear. In many ways, anger problems are about systematic protection from the experience of shame and fear. And this is precisely why anger problems are self-destructive.
Shame and fear and not threats; they merely signal threat, albeit unpleasantly. (Too unpleasantly for those who need to feel good most of the time.) Hearing a fire alarm is certainly unpleasant, but we do not want to avoid it at all costs. In fact, we want to use it as a motivation to put out the fire. Similarly, the experience of shame and fear carry motivation to heal, correct, improve, connect, or appreciate. Acting on any of these motivations is likely to reduce fear and shame; failing to act on at least one is likely to increase fear and shame, and, indirectly, anger.
Insensitivity to fear and shame produces enormous relationship problems. Anxiety in one intimate partner is liable to produce shame in the other and vice versa. If these valuable emotions are masked with entitlement and anger, the true cause of couple conflict - the interaction of fear and shame - is confused with communication problems or incompatibility.
By numbing or avoiding shame and fear, our highly contagious anger problems strip those important emotional signals of their capacity to motivate healing, correcting, improving, connecting, and appreciating. They make life defensive rather than enriching. They make us manipulative, controlling, and self-righteous. They make us disown a part of our soul.
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