How many times have you heard a child bellow to a parent (in the effort to avoid being punished): “I didn’t do it! He did it!" And to actually engage in this desperate tactic even in situations where their culpability was transparent? If you’re like the rest of us, probably more times than you can recall. In fact, as a child, it’s altogether possible that you may have done this yourself.
Sadly, such guileless efforts at deceit are sufficiently common in youngsters as to make them seem almost innocent. Still, such an unfortunate tendency is one we may never completely outgrow. And such prevarication is certainly not one of our more endearing traits. It’s hardly exemplary behavior to try to escape blame or criticism by “passing the buck.” And projecting our mistakes, or misdeeds, onto others represents a psychological defense that, while it may protect our ego, typically creates far more problems than it solves.
A good deal of our anger is motivated by a desire not to experience guilt—and beyond this, the distressing emotions of hurt and fear. It’s by now generally agreed upon that anger is almost never a primary emotion. Underlying it (as PT blogger Steven Stosny pointed out) are such core hurts as feeling disregarded, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, and unlovable. And these feelings are capable of engendering considerable emotional pain. It’s therefore understandable that so many of us might go to great lengths to find ways of distancing ourselves from them.
In fact, those of us who routinely use anger as a “cover-up” to keep our more vulnerable feelings at bay, generally become so adept at doing so that we have little to no awareness of the dynamic driving our behavior. Anger is the emotion of invulnerability. Even though the self-empowerment (adrenaline rush) it immediately offers is bogus, it can yet be extremely tempting to get “attached” or even “addicted” to it if we frequently experience another as threatening the way we need to see ourselves (as important, trustworthy, lovable).
After all, this is how psychological defenses work. Simply put, they allow us to escape upsetting, shameful, or anxiety-laden feelings we may not have developed the emotional resources—or ego strength—to successfully cope with.
For example, say your partner expresses something that leads you to feel demeaned. Rather than, assertively, sharing your hurt feelings, and risk making yourself more vulnerable to them, you may react instead by finding something to attack them for. It could be as petty as their forgetting to put something away, or not having gotten back to you on scheduling an event, or a past mistake that compromised the family budget—in short, anything!
In such instances, what you’re basically doing is endeavoring to make them feel demeaned, to hurt their feelings—hurt them back. It’s an undeclared, largely unrecognized, game of tit for tat. And while you’re engaged in such retaliatory pursuits, guess what? Presto! You’re no longer feeling demeaned—at least not at the moment. Which, sadly, reinforces this essentially childish behavior. (“You’re the bad one!”)
And what about the recipient of your fit of temper? Now they bear the burden you’ve just managed to shake off. Whatever feelings of hurt you were experiencing have been passed on, or transferred, to them. And their initial reaction may be one not simply of hurt but fear as well. At the most primitive, instinctual level, by experiencing themselves as the object of your anger, they unconsciously grasp that you harbor the hostile impulse to harm them. So if they step back from you, it’s not because they want to provide you with more space to vent your venom. It’s that they’re feeling an urgent need to distance themselves from it.
In any case, though, their own defensive reaction is likely in counter retaliation—blaming you right back. This can escalate the conflict between the two of you with lightning speed. It’s not a physical “eye for an eye” but a verbal “blow for blow."
Other possible reactions are for the now-distressed recipient of your (vengeful) criticism to archly defend themselves. Or to leave the scene altogether. And, of course, none of these self-protective reactions helps the respondent of your attack to understand just what triggered your anger buttons in the first place. This is another reason that anger rarely resolves anything.
To fundamentally change what can be a neverending vicious cycle, it’s crucial to comprehend not only the cause(s) of our anger but also its detrimental effects. Ultimately, feeling hurt—and consequently acting out a compulsion to retaliate in kind—is “kid stuff.” Can we learn how to hold onto our most rational adult self and “process” what’s happening inside our head? And to do this before we alleviate our feelings of guilt, hurt, or fear by turning them into anger? Can we begin to break a pattern that may well be hazardous to the relational closeness, harmony, and trust that we—like the rest of humanity—deeply crave?
Now that’s a question worth contemplating.
© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Links to other posts I’ve published on anger: