- Repressed anger can lead to depression, paranoia, and passive-aggressive behavior.
- Someone who represses anger may fear that if they directly expressed it, they would be rejected or abandoned.
- Reclaiming the right to assertive anger can undo the damage repressed anger has caused.
Many people see anger as something bad, something they need to suppress, hide away, or quickly undo. Contrary to this common impression, however, anger is a natural emotion—neither good or bad, it just is, and it serves a function.
Unfortunately, due to a myriad of reasons from childhood family experience to social conditioning, many people have mistaken anger as something ‘bad,’ or even immoral, and have unconsciously deeply suppressed this natural emotion. However, what is suppressed does not automatically disappear.
People who internalise anger hold it within their bodies and psyche. They may direct anger towards themselves and blame themselves in most situations. As they divert their anger towards themselves, they may suffer from depression, anxiety, and somatisation (emotions turning into bodily pain or physical ailments).
Symptoms of Repressed Anger
Here are some ways repressed anger can affect us:
Do you feel sad for seemingly no reason?
Do you often feel hopeless and empty?
Do you lack energy and motivation, even towards goals you have set?
Have you been experiencing an underlying current of sadness for a long period of time?
Psychoanalysts have long known that when anger is repressed and turned inward, it turns into depression. People who have this tendency find themselves feeling sad and down about everything when actually they are angry about something specific.
People whose repressed anger turns into depression might have adopted the defence mechanism known as identifying with the aggressor. When they were abused or bullied as a child, a part of their psyche took on the aggressor’s voice, and this part takes on a life of its own, perpetuating the abuse in the person’s mind. They may carry a ‘critical inner voice’ within them that constantly belittles them. Their inner critic constantly attacks them, just like their critical parents, bullies, or teachers once did.
Someone who represses anger may fear that if they directly expressed it, they would be rejected or abandoned. When conflicts happen, the fear that anger will disrupt relationships overrides all other feelings. When anger is redirected inward, it could fester and turn into toxic shame and guilt. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this shame and guilt pave way for depression.
Some people have learned from their families, schools, or religion that anger is a bad or even immoral thing. They become afraid of the power of their own rage. When anger emerges, they feel an intense inner conflict. Simultaneously there is a force to squash it all down. They may immediately switch the focus onto other people’s needs, or ‘what the situation needs from them,' rather than their own needs. To avoid conflicts, they opt to be the listener or peacemaker and will do anything to maintain peace and harmony.
This tendency is especially common among the emotionally sensitive and highly empathic. Their life experiences have taught them that they are ‘too much,’ ‘too dramatic,’ ‘too outspoken,’ ‘care too much about small things,' etc. To fit in or even just to survive, they have learned to silence themselves. In conscious or unconscious ways, they try to curb their own excitement and energy. As a child, they kept their head down so as not to upset an already depressed parent, or provoke an aggressive one. Their role in the family was the mediator or the invisible one, and they would do everything to not bother anyone with their emotional needs. They would rather appease others to keep the peace than to express it and risk having a conflict.
Paranoia is a less known impact of repressed anger, but it can emerge. When someone has repressed anger, they can sometimes project it outward. Rather than acknowledging that something has caused them to feel hostile, they project these feelings onto others and perceive others to be hostile to them. They experience the world to be a strange and dangerous place and find it hard to trust anyone. Whenever they assert themselves, even only mildly, they experience an irrational fear that others will retaliate and punish them.
This kind of anger is quieter, and even if expressed, it is worded as ‘frustration,' or ‘annoyance.' When repressed anger is paired with perfectionistic or obsessive-compulsive tendencies, it may manifest in a self-righteous way, in which the person becomes highly critical of themselves and others with unrelenting standards. People who are highly perfectionistic bottle up resentment for two reasons: the accumulated self-hate for not being able to meet their own standards, or other people’s sloppiness or lack of ethics. When they have dedicated their lives to doing the right things, and to a high standard, it is understandable that they feel resentful when others don’t but still seem to ‘get away with it.'
Most of the time, people with self-righteous anger do not appear angry but overly civilised, controlled, and tense. Because they do not like thinking of themselves as an angry person, they rarely express or admit feeling resentful. When they feel it is justified, however, they may blow up in a kind of rage that shocks people.
Passive-aggressive anger often involves withholding behaviours. A person may forget something, neglect their responsibilities, procrastinate, or perform badly in a task. They may give their partners a cold shoulder, make sarcastic comments, forget their promises, or stubbornly refuse to comply with any request. Someone with passive-aggressive anger can also subtly guilt-trip others and make others feel responsible for upsetting them.
Passive-aggressive anger can damage relationships in a silent and gradual way. Those on the receiving end of passive-aggressive anger feel punished and attacked without knowing why. Even with the best intentions, they do not know what they can do to improve the relationship with someone who holds passive-aggressive anger.
The impact of repressed anger can include the following:
- Psychosomatic symptoms and physical ailments such as headaches, chronic cough and digestive issues
- Emotional numbness
- Depression or dysthymia
- Lingering sadness without clear reasons
- Lack of motivation, chronic procrastination
- Urges to hurt oneself
- The inability to stand up for oneself, and thus let others take advantage of them
- Having unreasonably high and unrelenting standards
- Having a harsh inner critic
- Inability to relax or have pleasure in life
- Confused sense of self and identity confusion
- Being abused or used by others due to inability to assert boundaries
- Paranoia and intense anxiety
- The tendency to judge others
- Alienation and social isolation
- Self-sabotaging behaviours
- Sudden outbursts that surprise others
- Lack of satisfaction in relationships and friendships
- Broken relationships, affairs, and divorce
Anger is an important emotion in the human psyche and should not be banished or disowned. It can be useful if we can learn to notice it and receive the message anger is trying to deliver to us. Through assertive anger, we harness the very human and natural emotion to reinstate our boundaries and fight for our birthrights. Anger just is, and being able to be angry when someone oversteps is a sign of psychological health.
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