Feeling Vulnerable? No Problem—Just Get Angry

Anger is awesome in restoring a sense of power and control—but at what cost?

Posted Mar 07, 2018

Free Stock Photo/Public Domain
Source: Free Stock Photo/Public Domain

If there’s an instant “fix” for feeling sad, anxious, or otherwise vulnerable, nothing fits the bill like anger. This fiery emotion—causing you to simultaneously secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline—fortifies you for battle (though typically it’s verbal, not physical), and also anesthetizes you from the hurtful feelings that precipitated it.

If you’ve never explored the psychological and chemical dimensions of this powerful fight response—or what, energetically, it seeks to do for you—consider how anger enables you to:

  • Defend against another’s criticism (i.e., by forcefully turning their negative judgment of you back on them—because, however unconsciously, their unfavorable evaluation was experienced as threatening your sense of personal competence or adequacy, which may not have been very stable to begin with);
  • Categorically invalidate the other’s viewpoint (which, opposing your own, may have played into old, uneasy feelings of insecurity and self-doubt);
  • Assert your power in the relationship (which was threatened, denied, or denigrated by this real—or supposed—adversary);
  • Shift the accusation or blame they made you feel vigorously back on them (most frequently toward your spouse, child, or parent—with whom, especially as an adult, you might feel at greater liberty to “go off on” then any friends or associates);
  • Self-righteously conclude that you’re the victim (which frees you from taking any responsibility for the conflict your anger has created between you and the other person);
  • Protest against the other’s making you feel disregarded, devalued, disparaged, distrusted, or rejected (for without such a steamed-up dissent, you might be concerned that in not resisting them you’d be acquiescing to their apparent “display” of superiority over you);
  • Punish the perceived offender for bringing buried doubts about yourself too close to the surface (and here again, you’re evading inner, uncomfortable feelings by transforming them into external conflict);
  • Intimidate them in the coercive effort to get them to back off—or down—from their triggering behavior (which you lack the ego strength to admit was emotionally painful to you);
  • Paradoxically, "soothe" yourself when you’re experiencing the other person as attacking you (and don’t yet know how else to calm yourself down); and finally, on the most profound level, your anger:
  • Blocks not only emotional hurts but physical and mental pain as well (which, before the anger “mercifully” kicked in, had begun—distressfully—to resonate within you).

Is it not obvious, then, that before your retaliatory anger was stirred up, someone’s (interpreted) “jab” or “punch” made a hard landing on you? Or felt as though it was getting ready to? And that’s why I’ve long understood anger as not really pro-active at all, but reactive. In the moment someone makes you feel vulnerable, you feel compelled to take up arms against them. For it was they who, however accidentally, prompted you to experience this disconcerting, destabilizing feeling.

Pexels/Free Stock Photo
Source: Pexels/Free Stock Photo

Anger becomes for many people a firmly entrenched habit—an almost automatic, go-to way of empowering themselves because it so effectively wards off perceived threats to their welfare or self-image. And this overarching defense mechanism readily expands to raging vehemently at inanimate objects (and scaring all those in the vicinity)—like a waxy carton of milk that slips out of their wet hands and splashes all over the kitchen floor. And that’s just a single instance of how displeasure with oneself can (in a nanosecond) be transferred to something now identified (or personified) as one’s antagonist.

The easiest way to explain the multiple protective functions of anger (as delineated above) is to describe it as the only negative emotion that’s devoid of any vulnerability. At least not, I should add, in the moment. And doubtless, this explains why it’s so seductive, and so often clung to in situations where our sense of pride, competence, respect, intelligence, or attractiveness is experienced at risk. For we dodge the ego-threatening hardball in furiously hurling it back at our perceived assailant.

And that would seem to be the predominant function of anger, which is actually a secondary emotion, arising in knee-jerk fashion to safeguard us from such primary emotions as embarrassment, fear, shame, guilt, depression, or grief. Ironically, when we get angry we’re not fighting someone or something else: We’re actually fighting ourselves in the sense that we’re forcefully pushing back down disturbing feelings that an outside force has brought much too close to our fragile emotional surface.

But regrettably, we must also examine the substantial collateral damage our anger, once it’s become habitual, does to our relationships. Our anger may feel defensive to us, but others will almost certainly react to it as offensive. Our getting mad each time a more negative emotion threatens to become conscious and overwhelm us, or undermine the way we need to see ourselves, can seriously hurt, or frighten, others. Or lead them to go out of their way to avoid us. And over time it can do great—and sometime irreparable—damage to our closest ties.

So eventually, this now “customary” anger is doomed to backfire. In not confronting deficiencies in our self-image—which we’ve never adequately attended to, or found ways to heal—we cause pain in others. In short, our anger sabotages us. It renders almost impossible our receiving from others the love, support, caring, and compassion that we desperately need. As a result of so aggressively defending our troubled ego against others’ perceived threats, we’re likely to end up feeling more shame, anxiety, depression, or abandonment than we had earlier.

So, if you can see the dynamics of your own anger in some (most?!) of these characterizations, are you now ready to do something about it?

NOTE: I’ve written over 15 articles on anger, not just on the various ramifications of this stormy emotion but how it impacts close relationships, particularly marriages. Here are a select few that not only complement this post but include specific ideas on how to better cope with anger—or, indeed, the issues underlying it.

“What Your Anger May Be Hiding,” “Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear,” “Don’t Let Your Anger ‘Mature’ Into Bitterness,” “The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?,” “The Source of Your Anger is Tied to the Source of Your Anger,” and  "A Powerful Two-Step Process to Get Rid of Unwanted Anger.”

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.