The Function of Anger and Resentment

To protect, they destroy.

Posted Dec 19, 2018

The precursor of anger in mammals is a perception of vulnerability plus threat. The more vulnerable people and animals feel, the more threat is perceived. The function of anger is to protect vulnerability and neutralize threat.

In humans, the threat is almost always to the ego (how we want to think of ourselves and have others think of us). Anger neutralizes ego-threat by devaluing, demeaning, or undermining the confidence of the person perceived to be threatening.

Because anger is the most physical of emotions, angry and resentful people often get into trouble, especially in intimate relationships, without doing anything wrong, as their bodies and facial expressions devalue, demean, and express hostility outside their conscious awareness. Being around angry and resentful people makes us resentful, even when they say nothing offensive. This is something that politicians who exploit public anger don’t seem to realize. The short-term gain they get from stirring anger will eventually turn against them. Those who live by the angry vote die by it.

The vulnerability anger protects can be physical:

  • Diminished resources (tired, hungry, dehydrated, low blood sugar)
  • Pain
  • Discomfort
  • Illness
  • Incapacity.

Or emotional:

  • Guilt (violating deeper values)
  • Shame (sense of failure or inadequacy)
  • Fear (danger)
  • Sadness, sorrow (loss)
  • Grief (loss of loved ones).

A form of low-grade anger, resentment is more defensive than its aggressive parent. It’s triggered by a perception of unfairness, of not getting the praise, reward, consideration or affection to which one feels entitled. It shares the physiological characteristics of anger but is less intense and of longer duration; it reaches lower levels of arousal than anger but lasts much, much longer. Where anger (when directed at others) is an aggressive exertion of power to get someone to back off or submit to what you want (either in reality or in your imagination), resentment is a defensive way of mentally devaluing and retaliating against those whom you perceive to be acting unfairly.

The problem with perceptions of unfairness is that we’re hypersensitive to being treated unfairly but hardly sensitive at all when we regard others unfairly—they deserve it. Resentment, like anger, makes it virtually impossible to see other perspectives in anything approaching objectivity and is highly susceptible to confirmation bias.

Motivations

Emotions are primarily physiological, an integral part of the mammalian motivational system; they prepare us to do something by sending action signals to the muscle groups and organs of the body. Vulnerable emotions are self-correcting: if we allow ourselves to experience them at least briefly, they will motivate viable solutions much of the time. For example:

  • Guilt motivates behavior consistent with deeper values
  • Shame motivates new attempts at success (stop what we’re doing and try something else)
  • Fear motivates caution, safety-seeking
  • Sadness, sorrow, grief motivate value-creation (hold people and things as important, worthy of appreciation, time, effort, sacrifice).

The Curse of Anger and Resentment

By cutting us off from vulnerable emotions, anger and resentment undermine self-correcting motivations. Most failures of intimate relationships and social interactions are due to anger and resentment subverting the self-correction of vulnerable emotions. Anger and resentment create more vulnerability in the long run as they drive us to violate our deeper values. At some level, angry and resentful people are aware of this, which is why they feel moved to justify their anger and resentment by offering cherry-picked evidence for them.

The most common justification I hear is that anger is for “righting wrongs.” Of course, there are much better ways to right wrongs than with anger, which makes it far more likely that we’ll commit a wrong than “right” one. Anger distorts reality by making us oversimplify. It makes us incapable of seeing other perspectives and more likely to be self-righteous than right.

The self-righteousness of anger calls into question those few studies that suggest positive effects of anger based on self-report, lacking data from those who live and work with the angry person. Those powerful enough to force compliance with their will are likely to succumb to the self-righteous bias inherent in anger and report positive effects on questionnaires.

Escaping the Anger-Resentment Whirlpool

The first step out of the anger-resentment whirlpool is to ask yourself the following when you experience anger or resentment.

What might I also be:

  • Afraid of
  • Ashamed of
  • Guilty of
  • Sad, sorrowful, or grieving about?

The second step is to act on the motivations of the vulnerable emotions.

If I’m:

  • Afraid, I’ll be cautious and ensure safety
  • Ashamed, I’ll try something else to be successful in love, work, or social contexts
  • Guilty, I’ll be true to my deeper values and make amends for my mistakes
  • Sad, sorrowful, or grieving, I’ll create value (hold someone or something as important and worthy of appreciation, time, effort, and sacrifice).

To escape the anger-resentment whirlpool, we must build habits of validating what lies beneath them and act on the self-correcting motivations of vulnerable emotions, rather than denying, avoiding, or blaming them on others.

There is only one way the brain forms habits—repetitive practice. When you feel anger or resentment, practice:

  • Doing something likely to be successful in love, work, or social contexts
  • Staying true to your deeper values and making amends for any offense committed to self and others
  • Creating value (hold someone or something as valuable, worthy of appreciation, time, effort, sacrifice).

Practice, practice, practice: validating vulnerable emotions and following their self-corrective motivations.