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Anger Always Makes Sense

What are three key ways to understand unprovoked anger?

Yelling Man / Flickr
Source: Yelling Man / Flickr

Were there times when another person’s anger seemed unreasonable to you? Exaggerated? Clearly disproportionate to what the situation might warrant? For that matter, have there been times when the intensity, or duration, of your own anger took you by surprise? This post will explain why all anger —though frequently almost impossible to fathom when it occurs—can yet be grasped as rationally based.

Below are three key ways to understand presumably overblown anger. Though instances of such eruptions may not seem particularly logical, they may be totally understandable psycho-logically. And becoming more aware of the origins of another person’s anger can make all the difference in helping them get beyond it.

1. The angry person was already frustrated, disappointed, irritated, etc. by something you said or did—but keeping a stiff upper lip, held their fire. Why? Probably because their reinforcement history “programmed” them to avoid conflict whenever possible. Still, this latest provocation in a series of felt provocations may—however petty in itself—have been more than enough to set them aflame. Though they refrained from expressing it earlier, their anger build-up was well underway before this latest perceived affront.

It’s crucial to recognize that annoyance or anger not immediately vented doesn’t necessarily fade away or disappear. It can just as easily smolder beneath the surface, such that when a further statement or behavior also “triggers” the individual they’ve now reached their anger threshold. So if (to you, at least) they unexpectedly “lose it,” such an emotional outburst may in fact have been “prepared for” earlier. You simply missed its progression, or its various tell-tale signs (such as a change in facial expression, dilated eyes, muscle contractions, fist-clenching, more rapid breathing, foot-tapping, pacing, etc.).

And the message to be taken from this? Simply that if someone’s sudden explosion seems excessive for the circumstances you may, inadvertently, have upset them (though to a lesser degree) beforehand—despite their having abstained from expressing it. And this is why it’s essential to inquire what else prior to their outburst you might have done or said that bothered them. And whatever they say, take care to validate their anger as “reasonable”—even inevitable—given their interpretation of your motives, which you can then clarify in a way that very likely will lead their anger to subside.

It can hardly be overemphasized that if, instead of resisting their anger, you encourage them to expand on it, you’re not really required to agree with anything they say—especially since most (or all) of their displeasure with you might reflect a fairly clear-cut misunderstanding of where you were “coming from.” You simply need to assure them that their (mis)interpretation of your behavior would, of course, have made them very upset with you.

2. On the other hand, it may well be that you hadn’t provoked the angry person earlier. But someone else did. And now that anger is being redirected toward you. Too many of us hold things in and don’t let the person we’re presently engaged with know that we’re battling a bad mood—whether because of something specific that happened at work, or some insensitive or aggressive remark that another made to us, or some more general setback, failure, or defeat. Frankly, it could be anything that got to us and struck us as unfair or made us feel vulnerable. As I’ve pointed out in other posts for Psychology Today (see, especially, here), anger can function as a robust defense against feelings of powerlessness. So if a person seems much too quick to blow their top, they may—before their encounter with you—have somehow been made to feel weak or defenseless.

In such scenarios it’s essential that you not take the other person’s words personally. For they were probably right on the cusp of their self-protective anger threshold prior to your uttering a word—or even looking at them (supposedly in the wrong way). And, however counter-productive it usually is, it can be exceedingly difficult in these instances not to react negatively. For, after all, you may yourself be struggling with uncomfortable emotions, such as feeling belittled, threatened or (gratuitously) attacked.

So it always makes sense to ask them—non-confrontationally!—exactly how you made them so annoyed. And additionally, whether anything might have happened to them beforehand that they also experienced as insulting, disturbing, or otherwise offensive. See whether they might be willing to provide you with a broader context for their being so agitated. It makes little sense to question the legitimacy of their anger because, in the moment, their subjective sense of having been provoked will almost always feel normal, logical, or justified.

3. Your behavior, however innocent, may have have reminded them, however unconsciously, of past circumstances that caused them to become irate or enraged—but which, at the time, they couldn’t adequately “process” or “complete.” Psychoneuroimmunologists such as Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion, 1999) have shown that emotions actually have a physical existence—as neuropeptides residing chemically inside us. And, dormant but not dead, they’re just awaiting opportunities to be revivified.

Consequently, any present-day experience falsely identified by the “molecularly sensitized” individual (or, more psychologically, their incensed “inner child”) as replicating a past experience may be quite enough to stir up old (frequently very old) unrectified feelings. Which is why sometimes the most minor incitement—tapping into deeper issues that still remain charged—can compel them to react with a fervor that goes considerably beyond the current provocation. For now their former anxiety, sense of inferiority or shame no longer hinders them from letting loose an anger directly linked to their erroneous “de-construction” of the present situation as grossly unfair to them.

If in the moment you’re able to calm them down and get them to explore the dynamics of their anger, it’s essential that you inquire about what other feelings your words or actions might have induced in them. Here the single most important thing you can do is to validate the hurt feelings that probably underlie their unexpected outbreak. For their seemingly excessive anger toward you probably stems from old feelings related to being disregarded, disrespected, distrusted, devalued; or made to feel powerless, unacceptable, or unlovable.

And given such an overwhelming biologically-grounded impulse on their part to defend their vulnerability through anger, it’s finally irrelevant whether what just happened meaningfully links to what happened to them in the past. For the current circumstance might be only coincidentally, or peripherally, connected to an anger they’ve possibly suppressed since childhood. And in such cases, though the person’s attacking energy is unquestionably directed at you, it really has very little to do with you.

So if you experience yourself as “trapped” in a situation like this and sense that you’re not really the cause of the angry person’s flare-up but have accidentally triggered it, the best thing to do is not to trade verbal punch for punch, archly defend yourself, or leave the abusive scene altogether. Rather, endeavor to stay calm and ask the angry person whether they might help you better understand just how they construed your words or actions—since your motives (so far as you can understand them) were benign. Such an empathic response to their outburst may well catch them off guard. And since we all need to feel listened to and taken seriously, their anger toward you is likely to soften.

And if, through much tact, restraint, and self-control, you continue to “contain” the situation, the probability increases that they’ll begin to reflect on what so provoked them—beyond, that is, anything you yourself did to them. While it’s hardly advisable to “psychoanalyze” them (for they’d probably perceive such an “intervention” as patronizing), you can certainly ask them who, or what, your irritating behavior may have reminded them of.

Ultimately, in all three instances I’ve provided of anger that (presumably) is exaggerated, irrational, or misplaced, it can be seen that the emotion does have firm roots in reality. Just not in any here-and-now reality. It’s also safe to assume that if you can understand something of the origins of the other person’s outburst, in virtually all cases you’ll be better able to deal with it strategically (as opposed to reactively). Which will increase the odds that the other person will stop confronting you and—as is infinitely more productive—start to confront themselves.

Note 1: As a caveat, I should add that this post has not considered biological or genetic factors that at times can underlie, or intensify, one's (excessive) anger. These factors—which might also include head injuries and other physical/neurological traumas, as well as negative side effects from certain drugs—may have their own rationality, but they're not psychological in origin.

Note 2: Inasmuch as dealing with anger is one of my main clinical specialties, I’ve published a variety of articles on it in my PT blog. If you’re interested in taking a look at other ways I’ve approached this most toxic of emotions, here are links to some additional posts of mine on the subject:

“The Source of Your Anger is Tied to the Source of Your Anger”

“I’m Not Angry—But I Still Think You’re Being Unfair”

"Feeling Vulnerable? No Problem—Just Get Angry"

"How Is Your Anger Best Seen as Retaliation?"

"Anger: When Adults Act Like Children—and Why"

"Does Your Partner Have Rage Attacks? Here's What to Do"

"Angry Tears"

"Don't Let Your Anger 'Mature' Into Bitterness"

"The Rarely Recognized Upside of Anger"

"The Anger Thermostat—What's the Temperature of Your Upset"

“Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear,”

"What Does Donald Duck Have to Do with Anger Control?",

“A Powerful Two- Step Process to Get Rid of Unwanted Anger,"

“What Your Anger May Be Hiding,”

“Mad =Angry + Crazy + Dumb” (Parts 1 & 2),

“The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?”, and

"Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior."

Note 3: Additionally, if you’d like to review some of my other self-help/relationship articles for Psychology Today, here’s the link that will connect you.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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