Forms of Anger in Families

Why do therapists who work with angry people hardly ever talk to their families?

Posted Nov 13, 2019

Most problem anger—that which causes emotional or behavioral troubles—occurs among loved ones.

People are surprised to hear this, if they equate anger with rage and violence. Although family violence is in tragic proportions, it thankfully does not infect families to anywhere near the levels of anger in its many forms. As the most dangerous and socially controlled emotion, anger has mutated into dozens of expressions.

Here are a few:

  • Chilly (closed off)
  • Impatient
  • Edgy
  • Intolerant
  • Restless
  • Agitated
  • Annoyed
  • Exasperated
  • Irritable
  • Prickly
  • Petulant
  • Cranky
  • Bad-tempered
  • Sarcastic
  • Resentful
  • Frustrated
  • Aggravated
  • Embittered
  • Sour
  • Contemptuous
  • Mean
  • Hostile
  • Antagonistic
  • Infuriated
  • Hateful
  • Vengeful
  • Explosive
  • Rageful
  • Angry.

The ancient Greeks had seven words for love. We have dozens for anger.

The many forms of anger in families are largely habituated. (The brain is more likely to fall back on habits in familiar environments.) They run on autopilot, as a result of our “toddler” defenses of blame, denial, and avoidance.

Consider the frequency of various forms of anger in families, compared to the occurrence of compassion, kindness, appreciation, affection, which are far less likely to habituate.

For peace and well-being in families, habits of blame, denial, and avoidance must be replaced with habits of improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting.  

Anger and Vulnerability

The mammalian response of anger almost always occurs with a perception of vulnerability plus threat. The more vulnerable we feel, the more threat we’ll perceive. Anger temporarily blunts pain and gives a surge of energy to meet the perceived threat.

In modern times, we’re likely to perceive the most vulnerability to the sense of self (including how worthy of love we are and how valuable our love is to others) in our families. Not just in reaction to what loved ones do to us. Much of our vulnerability comes from what we do to them. Every act of selfishness, rudeness, every failure of compassion and kindness in regard to loved ones causes guilt, shame, and anxiety. We don’t notice those vulnerable feelings because we blame loved ones for something, allowing anger to serve it’s protective function.

But the problem is not anger. It’s dread of vulnerability in families, which makes us lurch into anger to protect the fragile ego.

The problem with that strategy, which begins as early as toddlerhood, is that families can scarcely hold together without guilt, shame, and anxiety, all of which are motivations to repair and strengthen emotional bonds. When we act on guilt, shame, or anxiety, we’ll try to repair and strengthen attachment bonds. With anger, we’re likely to damage them.

Test the Hypothesis

Think of times you experienced any of the forms of anger above, and ask yourself:

What might I also have felt guilty about?

What might I also have felt ashamed of?

What might I also have felt anxious about?

Just thinking about the vulnerable feelings will free you of the toddler reactions: blame, denial, avoidance. You’ll want to repair with loved ones. And, not incidentally, the anger in any of its forms will readily dissipate.