On the Advantages of Anger

Or should we allow ourselves to express anger and if so when?

Posted Jul 17, 2014

Recently we have had a large number of grandchildren in our house, both in town and in the country. My husband and I have been busy cooking, cleaning, and caring for them. I noticed that he was at times particularly hard on the young boys in the group if they did not rise and help with the washing up or the preparation of the food. One of the teenagers was even guilty of scratching up a car.

After a heated discussion, when we shouted and screamed insults at one another like the proverbial fish wives, my husband was able to admit that he was probably jealous of the way I was treating these boys, which was how I had been treated as a child, catering to their every whim, whereas he had been brought up by a mother who was much more severe and critical, toilet trained by six months, and taught how to make his own bed, as he says, by the time he was five.

Freud, of course, has written about signal anxiety, an uncomfortable feeling of anxiety which suggests an unconscious conflict, but he might just have spoken of signal anger which can also tell us a great deal about ourselves.

Why does something make us so angry? What lies behind such an excessive feeling of rage? What can we learn about ourselves by examining our rage? Does our present rage perhaps reflect something from our past? Are we responding to the echoes of anger from childhood? Can we stop for a moment and take a good look at why we are getting so angry and be certain the anger is justified?

Certainly there are moments when anger can be useful to us if it is controlled and justified. In my own case, once again because of an excessive childhood fear of abandonment, I was often unable to express justified anger.

When my first husband drank an entire bottle of vodka, reverting to his Russian origins, at the moment of drama and confessed he had fallen in love with someone else, I let him hold me in his arms and say he loved me so much, that he felt so terrible and he didn’t know what to do. He had to be frank with me. He could not lie. He said he loved us both, the wife of 10 years and the young girl from Normandy, and she felt terribly guilty too. How could something so dreadful have happened to him, he asked me, pulling at his thinning locks drunkenly in the dim light of the big room while the river ran on under the old stone mill house where we lived.

We had three daughters, the youngest of whom, an adorable blond-headed child was just two years old.

The next morning I walked under the trees along the bank of the river feeling I might die, but obviously that was not a real choice, but rather anger turned inwards so destructively. Perhaps it might have been better to break the Vodka bottle over his head!

So anger which is after all something we all must experience at times in our lives has its uses both in our understanding of ourselves and as a fuel behind certain necessary and perhaps even salutary actions.

With a beautiful drawing by Jean Marcellino

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.