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Anger Problems

Using Anger to Numb or Avoid Pain

Anger provides a way to temporarily numb or avoid pain, which is why, when you bang your thumb hanging a picture, you don't pray. It’s a survival-based function of anger—if you’re being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, you can’t say, “My knee hurts, can you attack me in a couples of days?” It’s why wounded animals are so ferocious and angry athletes can play with serious injuries. When anger does its job, we're typically unaware of painful or vulnerable feelings.

Most problem anger—that which makes you act against your best interests—is about abrupt ego pain or threat of ego pain. Something happens that makes you feel devalued, disregarded, put down, disrespected, or unfairly treated. In other words, most anger is about temporary loss of personal value. When we feel a sudden loss of value, we feel vulnerable and less energetic. Anger mobilizes the organism with instant energy, pain relief, and confidence, preparing you to protect vulnerability by exerting power over someone else, either in your head or in their face. You'll think, "What a jerk," or "What a cold, inconsiderate person," or you'll actually say it, usually with sarcasm.

The problem is that anger substitutes power for value. Anger will never make you feel more valuable, though it will temporarily make you feel more powerful, provided the person you are angry at submits and does what you want. This is unlikely, because he/she will feel devalued by your anger and want you to submit in retaliation. If you violate your own values when angry, which we often do, you'll need to stay angry—usually in the form of resentment—to ward off the guilt. When the residual low-grade anger finally goes, self-doubt returns.

Personality characteristics most likely to cause anger problems:

  • Large egos: The bigger the ego the more defense it requires. Large egos often come with a sense of entitlement (but the world will not meet their entitlement needs, once they're older than 5 and not cute anymore).
  • Superiority complex: Self-value rises on the backs of others, requiring continual arousal to sustain.
  • Externally regulated self-value: It has to come from others. (Genuine personal value is regulated by what you do—namely, being true to your deeper values—not by what other people do.)
  • Anxiety levels that make them want to control their environment (but the environment offers a lot of resistance to control).
  • Low tolerance for ambiguity (but we live in an ambiguous world).

Forget "Justified," Think, "Useful," and "Authentic"

Don't bother to ask yourself whether your anger is "justified" or "appropriate." Here's the more important question: "Does my anger or resentment lead me to act according to my deeper values, i.e., is it the real me, or a reaction to someone else?" (If you react to a jerk like a jerk, what does that make you?)

The second and third important questions are: "Is my anger or resentment working to get me what I want? Are they making me the person I most want to be?"

Anger and resentment are more likely to make you self-righteous than right. When angry or resentful, we can end up wrong even when right because:

  • It's nearly impossible to understand other people's perspectives when angry or resentful; we never have a complete view of an interaction.
  • Anger and resentment make us oversimplify, amplify, and magnify only the negative aspect of something, which blows it out of proportion and takes it out of context.

It's easier to see these effects of anger and resentment when someone is angry at you and that person is right, you made a mistake. Your reaction is:

"There's more to it, she's oversimplifying."
"He's making too much of it."
"She just can't see my perspective."

You feel reduced to that one mistake, as if all the good things you've ever done don't count.

Read some fascinating anger quotes

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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