Anger Problems: How Words Make Them Worse

Are you more impaired when angry or drunk?

Posted Feb 01, 2009

In their attempts to describe anger, many therapists and authors use words that obscure more than they illuminate. Pseudo descriptions like, "appropriate/inappropriate," "normal/pathological," or "healthy/unhealthy" tell us nothing about the experience and motivations that occur during anger arousal. They are normative terms with no meaning apart from the values, ideologies, and biases of those who use them.

Anger is certainly natural. It is part of the innate fight/flight/freeze response we share with all mammals, although most species opt to flee or freeze as a primary defense. It carries a powerful motivation to prevail, dominate, or retaliate in response to perceived threat to juvenile offspring, self, territory, and, in the case of the more cooperative social animals, pack mates. (A lesser kind of frustration-anger, stimulated by failure of specific task-performance, also seems to be common across mammalian species.)

Despite the universality of anger, modern humans are the only animals that have anger problems. This is not, as some have mistakenly supposed, because human civilization suppresses anger more than the social organizations of other pack animals. On the contrary, in other species of social animals, anger-displays are limited - often by pain of death - to those who have achieved territorial dominance, namely alpha males and matriarchs.

Humans have anger problems because we have recycled the primary function of anger from the protection of life, loved ones, and fellow tribesmen to protection of the ego. The part of the ego that anger protects is a combination of how we want to regard ourselves (internal value) and how we want others to regard us (external value). Having evolved to more egalitarian cultures, humans now more widely perceive high internal value and expect more external value, i.e., we have bigger and more fragile egos. Today, something like a verbal insult seems to make everyone lose value and require the protection of anger, even though there is no physical threat of harm. (Throughout most of human history, displays of big egos and overt anger expression were limited to tribal chiefs, kings, noblemen, and husbands. Widespread egotism and anger are the downside of egalitarian societies - there is no such thing as a free lunch.)

Ego and Mental Errors
The recycling of anger to protect the ego introduces a much more complicated instigating factor to go along with the perception of threat, namely a perception of ego vulnerability to loss of value (feeling devalued or disrespected). Brain-stem reflex is enough to perceive the threat of an attacking saber tooth tiger. But it takes a complex network of mental processes to organize the sound of an assemblage of utterances into meaningful words and then construe them to be a verbal threat to the ego - "She said what?!"

When it comes to construing someone's indirect behavior (e.g., not putting down the toilet seat) as an ego threat, still more complicated mental processes come into play. These include a theory of mind, which allows us to guess at other people's states of mind (infer their thoughts, emotions, and motivations), the assignment of symbolic meaning to the behavior, and an attribution of mal intent. The more complicated the mental processes, the more room for error.

The Neurological Imperative: Conserve Energy
In its continuous effort to conserve metabolic resources, the brain makes shortcuts of everything it does repeatedly, including complex mental procedures, at the cost of even higher error rates. Through the inexorable process of habituation, a perception of ego vulnerability, repeated over time, consolidates into a presumption of vulnerability, which requires the continual protection of anger. Also by virtue of habituation, the repeated experience of anger in defense of the ego reinforces its sense of vulnerability. The more you experience anger, the more anger you need to experience.

Inflation
In addition to needing more and more protection from threat, the angry person attempts to reduce the fear and sense of inadequacy (shame) that go with a vulnerable ego, through a process of inflation. An inflated ego is one whose value depends on downward comparison to the value and rights of others - I'm not equal, I'm better! In addition to temporarily making the ego feel less vulnerable, inflation justifies the motivations of anger to prevail and dominate. It also creates a sense of entitlement - I deserve special regard, treatment, or resources - that is certain to cause negative reactions in others and require a response of still more defensive anger. As if that weren't bad enough, inflation guarantees cognitive dissonance whenever reality smacks against the overestimation of intelligence, talents, looks, shoes, or socks - whatever is used to inflate the ego.

Is It Natural?
It's an arguable point whether defense of ego, inflated or otherwise, is a natural function of anger, but defense of ego is certainly a perversion of natural function of anger when it leads us to devalue that which we most value, namely, life, loved ones, and fellow tribesmen. Hence the term, "natural anger," though more accurate than normative terms, also misleads more than it illuminates.

The "healthy" way to experience anger
Normative words neither describe the function of anger nor come anywhere close to what actually happens to us when we experience anger. Yet everyone wants to know about "healthy" anger.

I enjoy giving the following accurate description of what occurs when we're angry to members of the press who naively ask about "healthy anger."

"I am angry (or resentful, impatient, irritable, shut down, cranky, etc.), which means that I am presently in an impaired mental state that reduces my ability to grasp ambiguity and see any nuance of a situation. The adrenalin rush I'm experiencing makes me amplify, magnify, and oversimplify that which has stimulated my anger, while it degrades my interpretation and judgment of environmental cues and renders me unable to see other people's perspectives or to see them at all, apart from my emotional reaction to them. I am probably more self-righteous than right. I am doubtless engaged in a petty ego defense that will make it more likely that I will violate my deepest values than protect them and almost certainly make me act against my long-term best interests. I am less able to control my impulses and tolerate frustration. My fine motor skills are temporarily deteriorated. I should not try to drive, negotiate, analyze an issue, or do anything important, until I have regulated this temporary state that has prepared me to fight when I really need to learn more, be more compassionate, or solve a problem."

Of course, we are unlikely to experience anger in this truly healthy way, without a great deal of practice. The point here is that the use of normative terms to describe anger obscures and distorts what happens in the experience of anger and thereby compounds problem anger - a recurring form of the emotion that makes us act against our long term best interests. To the extent that words are used to justify behavior that devalues, manipulates, or dominates others, they greatly exacerbate anger problems.

Don't Justify, Improve
The real motive behind the use of normative terms to describe anger is to justify certain kinds of anger and condemn other kinds, as if you have a right to experience some forms of anger but not others. What are mere conceptual problems for therapists and authors who try to distinguish justified from unjustified anger turn into disaster for people who use the pseudo-distinction as a guide for ordinary living. Of course you have a right to be angry and to experience any kind of anger. (You have a right to shoot yourself in the foot, for that matter.) The more important question is this:

"Is my anger helping me be the person, parent, intimate partner, friend, or coworker I most want to be?"

This question invokes your deepest values, which are the foundation of your ego, as well as its ultimate strength. If your behavior remains consistent with your deepest values, your sense of internal value increases, reducing the need for ego inflation. With increased internal value, you become less dependent on getting value from others. With reduced dependency as others, you are able to see them as separate people, who, like you, are often blindly and sadly protecting their own inflated egos; in other words, you become more compassionate. You perceive less internal vulnerability and less external threat, which makes you less likely to stimulate reactive anger in others. In short, you make anger less necessary in your life. You begin to see anger as not at all a bad thing but an important signal to get back to your core value. 

Unfortunately, reducing perceptions of ego vulnerability and threat by raising core value has not been the history of treatment for anger problems.

The Sad History of Treatment for Anger Problems
Linguistic confusion is a large part of why the major approaches to problem anger have persistently ignored the interacting perceptions of ego vulnerability and ego threat that stimulate anger. Instead, they have targeted the anger for treatment, as if it caused itself.

The 19th Century approach, which lasted almost to the middle of the 20th Century, was twofold: "Good" anger, unexpressed, somehow festers into "bad" anger and most present anger has its source in the distant past.

One of the curious contradictions of the "repressed" hypothesis was the contention that expressing repressed angry feelings makes you less angry, while expressing repressed sexual feelings makes you more sexual. Research shows that they were right in the latter but wrong in the former. As for the "source" hypothesis, its implicit assumption was that emotions do not work in the stimulus-response pattern observed in research, but in some kind of imprinting process, similar to that discovered by Konrad Lorenz in geese. Just as goslings follow the first thing they see move (whether it's mother goose or a middle-aged scientist), anger is "transferred" from the first people who stimulate it, usually parents. While motion-imprinting offers obvious survival advantages for migratory birds, the transference of anger from its "source" to everyone else, if it actually happened, would present an enormous evolutionary disadvantage, by curtailing the flexibility of mammals to adapt to the continual changes in their environments and by destabilizing social units with continuous fights over the inherent unfairness of transference. Thankfully, the large research literature on the adaptability of the brain puts this fear to rest.

The explicit presumption of the "source" hypothesis was that identification of the original source of good anger would somehow stop current bad anger, like turning off a water faucet. Of course it did not; and battered women drew little succor when their psychoanalyzed assailants informed them that they were really angry at their mothers. But the ultimate flaw of the "source" hypothesis is that the truly original source of anger, when understood as a universally mammalian response to threat, lies in a past much more distant than one's parents. It is not transferring old feelings caused by your mother to your wife that is the problem; it's mistaking your wife for a saber tooth tiger, which happens when the ego inflates beyond the deepest values of life and loved ones.

Failure of Insight

By the middle of the 20th Century, a more scientific understanding of brain function revealed why insight fails to change habituated behavior. Once habituated, specific behaviors, along with the thoughts, emotions, and motivations that go with them, are processed in a different domain of the brain that is faster, more compressed (in terms of neural firing), and less metabolically expensive than the language domain. This realization gave birth to what soon became the predominant approach to anger problems - cognitive-behavioral methods to "manage" the feelings and arousal of anger. While "anger management," as it was carelessly called, sometimes reduced the harm one might do while angry, it did nothing to reduce the need for anger to protect a vulnerable ego. Thus "anger management" is one of the silliest terms in behavior science and the subject of widespread ridicule in the media. Anger doesn't need to be managed; the ego vulnerability and misperceptions of threat that cause anger problems need to be reduced.

Ironically, like the insight-oriented therapies it was reacting against, the anger management movement still relied on conscious regulation of unconscious processes, which is why it failed. The habituated presumption of ego vulnerability and the subsequent anger response occur roughly 5,000 times faster than you can say, "I'm angry." By the time we know that we are angry, we're already motivated to attack. In the real world, outside anger management classrooms, anger management fails for the same reason that diets don't work. Before you know that you are hungry, you're already motivated to have a hot fudge sundae and unlikely to remember, i.e., access information from an entirely different domain of mental processing, that you should, instead, have a V-8. The difficulty of crossing domains during emotional arousal explains why Mr. Hyde won't remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class or, for that matter, what his therapist told him about Mom. What typically happens with real world anger problems - the kind that questionnaires don't capture - is something like this: With the perceived ego threat lying dead or unconscious on the floor, you remember that you should have taken a time out instead. (Anger management does seem to work a little better and last a bit longer with college students, if that makes you feel any safer in your community.)

Beyond Anger Management

In the 21st Century, the therapeutic treatment of anger problems must finally address their cause: perceptions of vulnerability and threat that have become habituated and, therefore, resistant to conscious insight and management. We need to develop habituated responses, which condition the activation of one domain (vulnerability-threat-anger-attack) to activate another (internal value-human other-heal-improve). We must condition habits of automatically raising core value whenever it is lowered, which reduces the motivation to devalue others. This is the goal of most of my work.