A Most Vexing Problem
When young children are denied what they want, or when they feel criticized, misunderstood, or not empathized with, what they experience emotionally is hurt. And in such instances their impulse is either to dissolve into tears, and possibly retreat to their room, or stay engaged by puffing themselves up with self-righteous anger.
Very few of us have any difficulty recognizing that crying conveys hurt. But far fewer of us realize that getting mad—as a reaction to some perceived threat, insult, or injustice—is a desperate attempt to cover up that hurt. And in kids that inflamed emotional state is far less likely to be rationally articulated than exaggeratedly “acted out.” And, guess what? It’s pretty much the same with adults, too.
But let’s first center on the dynamics of anger in children. It’s fairly obvious that kids haven’t yet developed adequate emotional resources to cope effectively with whatever psychological pain they may be feeling. So, given their limited capacity not only to comprehend their emotions, but also to communicate them, they’re pretty much compelled to act them out. And that’s why, whether they begin to whimper, wail, shout or scream, the only way they know how to express their feelings is through visually putting them on display.
As adults, however, we’ve typically learned to restrain ourselves from physically demonstrating our emotions. Still, when our buttons get pushed, when another person makes us feel threatened—especially someone we’re intimately connected to and so emotionally depend on, like our partner—we betray a strong tendency to instantly regress into our reactive child self. Sure, we may do so with somewhat more reserve and sophistication. But we’re hardly dissimilar from children when we sulk, withdraw, rush to defend ourself—or raise our voice and fervently go into blaming (or perhaps counter-blaming) mode.
However unconsciously, most of us have discovered that our most potent defense is a strong offense. Consequently, when we feel denied or accused, we’re likely to block off our lurking fears, insecurities, and self-doubts by turning them back on our adversary. Which is the reason so many of us get mad—or even “lose it”—when our partner begins to make us question ourselves.
So when we’re distraught, when we let our emotions get the better of us, we really haven’t evolved much beyond childhood. Just like kids unable to count the cost of their acting out behaviors, our own pained reactions prompt us to respond to the one who hurt us in ways likely only to further harm the relationship. In a word, our incited reactions are counter-productive. For in the moment we’re driven by a deeply felt need to hurt the other back.
It only makes sense that once flooded with distress, we’re incapable of (re-)focusing our attention on better understanding the other person's point of view, or on making the situation better. Rather (and frequently without much justification), we assume that they deliberately meant to hurt us. After all, we do feel hurt. So our efforts are geared toward fighting back, to safeguard ourselves from any additional pain they might inflict on us.
To be sure, this is understandable enough—but, irrefutably, it’s kid stuff, too. Our behavior is coming from raw emotion, not our rational mind. And what’s most unfortunate here is that rarely is the fear, guilt, or shame lying just beneath our anger even apparent to us. So we’re generally not in any position to repair the relational damage being done by our reactive (i.e., childlike) anger.
I’ll repeat about anger what I’ve already underscored in many of my Psychology Today writings on this crucial subject (see end of post for titles and links). When in our gut we feel “assaulted” by another—and it hardly matters whether such a felt attack is verbal or physical—our emotional distress derives from such feelings as being disregarded, devalued, distrusted, guilty, rejected, or unloved. But of all the possible reactions here, perhaps the deepest, most survival-related emotion is feeling powerless. For when someone says or does something hurtful to our feelings, at the most primal level it revivifies ancient fears of helplessness and hopelessness.
So our reacting with self-righteous anger (and what anger isn’t self-righteous?!) immediately sticks a band-aid over our hurt. And furthermore, the emotion has the effect of negating the other person’s “rightful” authority to judge us.
Think about it. Expressing our anger toward another has a condescending quality to it. It’s demeaning (mostly in reaction to our feeling demeaned ourselves). Moreover, it enables us to experience not only a certain moral superiority over the other, but a renewed sense of power over them as well. Quite literally, our “fight” (vs. “flight”) reaction toward them pumps up our adrenaline supplies. Our organism now “fortified,” we’re able to feel back in control of the situation—though the reality of our actually getting back in the driver’s seat is far more illusory than real.
Returning specifically to angry reactions in children, when kids are hurt by parental reprimand or restriction, unless they’re so scared of their caretaker that they cower and recoil, they’re likely to turn the negative evaluation right back on the parent. By protesting the “terrible unfairness” of it all, their self-justifying righteousness enables them to feel less bad about themselves. Their anger transmits the message that they deserved what they’d been refused—or don’t deserve the criticism or punishment they’re receiving.
Cycling from hurt or disappointment to indignant anger also reduces the child's sense of vulnerability. For in refusing to accept the parent’s critical assessment of them, their retaliatory anger rescues them from any troublesome feelings of guilt and shame they’d otherwise have to bear.
A Most Challenging—but Powerful—Solution
So what’s to be done about all of this? After all, whether defensive (though seemingly offensive) anger occurs with a child or adult, such an aggressive reaction rarely solves anything. Blaming or shaming another may help you feel back in control, but typically it doesn’t diminish conflict. It escalates it.
In this post I’ll offer only a single suggestion on how to forestall or move beyond the impasses created by this so-fiery emotion (though, collectively, my many posts on the subject suggest a broad array of solutions). Admittedly, this particular remedy isn’t at all easy to implement. But if you can get yourself “up” for it—and execute it with genuine warmth, sensitivity and caring—it can be extraordinarily powerful.
It all starts with the realization that beneath your vulnerability-protecting anger (as well as your partner’s) are such emotions as fear, sadness, helplessness, and humilation. For it’s these core hurts and anxieties that “sourced” your anger in the first place. And because anger conveniently masks these much more disturbing emotions, unless you can accurately identify and work through them, the felt provocations that cause your upset will compel you to return to your anger again—and again—and again. Since your ego-defensive reactions may have become habitual, until you lay to rest these old self-doubts, you’ll feel obliged to continue to “exploit” your anger to safeguard these still-fragile feelings.
But beware. In such instances, understanding by itself is just the booby prize. It won’t finally resolve anything. What’s needed is to share with the person who (however accidentally) hurt your feelings, and so prompted your anger, that their actions or words stirred up old insecurities in you. The reason that admitting this can be so difficult is that it requires you to own up to your susceptibilities in the relationship (which is precisely what, till now, your "empowering" anger has been protecting you from!). And for most of us, such a confession would immediately increase our feelings of vulnerability, by betraying to them their substantial influence over us. So—frankly—it takes a very strong ego to “go there.”
If, on the other hand, you were on the receiving end of the emotional eruption, your approach will be complementary—and every bit as difficult. For here, too, you’ll need to divulge your vulnerability, willing to let yourself be “one down” and admit to the person that their shaming or blaming hurt your feelings.
You might suggest to them—tentatively, since you don’t want to further provoke them by making them feel “psychoanalyzed”—that maybe, in addition to their anger, they felt bad because they felt misunderstood by you, or that you weren’t really listening to them. Or that what you said made them feel lonely, or abandoned—maybe because lately you hadn’t been paying much attention to them. Or that your criticism brought up old fears of inadequacy—of not being good enough, or sufficiently worthy, to be cared about. Or that their raising their voice may have been a desperate plea for you to be more encouraging, sympathetic or supportive. In short, you’re trying to help them identify the soft underbelly of their anger by asking them what might lie behind it.
What do you know about their childhood wounds? (And, rest assured that, to whatever degree, we’re all among the ranks of the walking wounded!) Hopefully, they’ve already shared some of their old hurts with you, which definitely would give you a head start in talking with them. For you can begin to reflect aloud about what your behavior might have reminded them of, what they'd become particularly sensitive to. How in the past, say, might they have degraded, disregarded, disrespected, or even “dis-owned,” whenever they asserted their needs, made a mistakes, or misbehaved?
If, nonetheless, you have little idea of what so yanked their anger chain, then ask them. But be sure to make it clear that you’re not challenging their anger or requesting that they justify or defend it. You just need help in better understanding it. For only then can you offer them the caring and compassion that, alone, can restore their lost sense of relational security.
More than anything else, we all need to feel safe in our relationships. So you can comfortably assume that whatever you said or did must have threatened this crucial feeling. If the person you’re having problems with is to develop the courage to look at, and work through, their past hurts and fears—and ultimately become “desensitized” to them—they really do need you to play the role of nurturing parent to them.
And finally, it can’t just be a role. So, beyond your words, can you truly accept them—despite whatever limitations or shortcomings they might have? And more, can you love that “wounded child” trembling just beneath their “falsely fortifying” (and doubtless, irksome) anger? And regardless of the fact that this anger may feel exaggerated, unjustified—or even abusive?
If you can be sufficiently empathic and “high-minded” to really care about your having hurt them (despite their anger’s having hurt you back!), then such heartfelt compassion can be a potent healing force in their life.
And actually, that’s what, over time, will enable both of you to heal whatever emotional wounds remain from your past. For nothing removes the stinging venom from your—or your partner’s—defensive anger more than lovingly approaching what lies beneath it.
NOTE 1: For those who’d like to explore this crucial topic further, here are some titles—and accompanying links—for other posts I’ve done on anger:
NOTE 2: If this post spoke to you in any way, I hope you’ll share it with others in your circle.
NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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