Many of us assume that what’s in our past is past. But for decades now, clinical research has made painfully obvious that what we haven’t successfully dealt with—not so much in reality as inside our head—can continue indefinitely to influence our behavior. And much too often, in negative, self-defeating ways.
Really, how could anyone doubt that the way they think and act is, to whatever degree, determined by their history. Or, more specifically, how they came (rightly or wrongly) to interpret this past as regards keeping themselves safe, or escaping intolerable feelings of vulnerability.
As discussed in a variety of posts I’ve written for Psychology Today, the primal emotion of anger is one of your most powerful defense mechanisms. Instead of blaming yourself for what’s hurt, scared, or infuriated you—and so, as a result, feeling helpless, guilty or ashamed—pivoting to anger enables you to project any nagging self-blame or personal responsibility onto others. And as long as you’re not really conscious, or critical, of this psychological chicanery, your so convenient "blame transfer" offers you a comforting sense of righteousness, or moral superiority.
So, even as the emotion of anger triggers considerable physiological stress, it reduces your psychological distress. For when you get mad you secrete adrenaline, which biochemically can’t help but make you feel stronger. Unquestionably, this energy surge is a kind of pseudo-empowerment, but when you “default” to this fiery emotion you nonetheless feel fortified. Additionally, and paradoxically, when you react to any felt provocation with anger, neurochemically you’re also priming yourself for self-soothing. It’s something like screaming out your choice cuss word immediately after missing the nail you were aiming at and instead hammering your forefinger—which is to say that when you get angry, you produce not only adrenaline but also nor-adrenaline, which has sedating properties.
But ultimately your anger is far more your enemy than your friend. As various writers have pointed out, it ends up harming not only your relationships, both professional and personal, but your self-esteem as well. And it’s also repeatedly been shown to damage your health and shorten your life (e.g. see Redford Williams, Anger Kills, 1993). So it’s essential to learn everything you can about where it’s coming from beyond any immediate provocation, as well as how to moderate it.
This post is mostly about achieving a better understanding of the source of your anger. And if the people around you see your anger as disproportionate to present-day circumstances, you need to explore whether the here-and-now situation inflaming you might unconsciously be bringing up there-and-then upsets never laid to rest.
So what’s essential to recognize is that, however unintentionally, you may be carrying forward a significant amount of unrectified anger from the past. You might call this your “anger baseline.” (And it’s certainly not zero, for virtually all of us harbor some unreleased anger from childhood.) If in fact you’ve habituated to this level of anger, you may not even be conscious it exists—before, that is, you begin receiving feedback from others on how it’s affecting them. It’s analogous to a massage therapist telling you where, physically, you’re holding in your tension, and because that region of your body routinely feels that way, you can’t really grasp what the practitioner is talking about until this area of tension is alleviated and you notice how your body feels different—looser, relaxed, and more comfortable.
Coming from a Repressed Family
So, say you grew up in an emotionally repressed household. You probably would have learned very early that any full-throated expression of anger was frowned upon—if not outright punished. You became aware that when you experienced various sorts of obstacles and frustrations, it just wasn’t safe to give vent to your annoyance. Still, it’s crucial to understand that holding in anger doesn’t imply that it simply evaporates over time. No, as Candace Pert emphasized in her pioneering work, The Molecules of Emotion (1997), unreleased emotions stay inside you (slumbering, as it were) in the form of neuropeptides. And, however unconscious on your part, they can be reawakened by anything in your life that reminds the younger you of specific incidents or time periods when you felt required to “contain” that emotion inside you.
But when you’re older and feeling safer about letting out this anger than you were previously, there will be tremendous internal pressure to do so. And what this means is that whatever anger you now express will be exaggerated to the extent that added to your present-day irritation are those old neuropeptides now bubbling up to the surface. Earlier, your anger was less compelling than, say, was your anxiety, so it was pushed down beneath that more dominant emotion. If, however, you’re now feeling relatively secure in your relationship with those currently frustrating you, that earlier anxiety is far less likely to constrain you from letting your anger barge forth.
So, until you find an appropriate way to discharge, once and for all, that suppressed—or even, repressed—anger from the past, it can break out, like a ferocious animal set free to attack anything felt menacing to it. And that’s why even though others might find your expression of anger excessive or abusive, it will yet be exactly proportionate to what’s now provoking you plus whatever similarly provoked you in the past (but which, back then, you dared not allow yourself to express).
That’s why, though in the moment the level of your anger will feel warranted, there’s virtually no way that the people you “target” with it will experience your outburst as commensurate with anything they said or did. Rather, the victims of your verbal (hopefully, not physical) assault will see your aggression as unjustified, over-the-top, and (quite likely) needlessly cruel. And this regrettable circumstance explains why anger, originating in the past but never given vent toward its original provokers, can be so damaging to your adult relationships—particularly with your family, who may feel much safer as focal points for your frustrations than your family of origin ever did.
Coming from an Emotionally Untethered Family
It’s also possible that you grew up in a home where “let-it-all-out” anger was the norm. Your family may have been unusually contentious, quarreling over almost everything. It was simply how they “did business” with one another. And there may—or may not—have been hard feelings afterwards. Still, this anger-permissive atmosphere could have been confined to your parents, and the “privilege” of venting anger with such abandon wasn’t extended to you.
Furthermore, if you didn’t conform to what seemed like an unfair double standard, you were regularly berated, lectured to, or punished. In this (opposite) kind of family, your anger was also aroused, but necessarily had to be subdued. And what that typically means is that once you become an adult and feel antagonized, you still retain the belief that you have as much right to blow off steam as anyone else. So your current displays of anger will be on top of the anger you’d felt obliged to suppress earlier.
Ironically, completely different family backgrounds can yield the same unfortunate, anger-suppressing results.
Coming from an Overly Permissive Family
A final scenario is one in which growing up you were allowed to express just about as much anger as you pleased. Perhaps brought up by parents who believed that “boys will be boys,” or saw your anger as a sign of masculine strength (for they didn’t want their son to be a “wimp”), your anger—as a reaction to any sort of immediate frustration—was reinforced simply by your caretakers’ not reacting negatively to it. As a result, you developed a very short fuse and unwittingly got into the habit of intimidating others you really didn’t mean to offend. This pattern is reflective of many men who “own” their anger only insomuch as they claim: “Hey, that’s just the way I am! And you’re too sensitive, anyway!”
But though this rationalization might explain these individuals’ anger—at least as they’d prefer to see it—their temper still can’t be accepted as anything inherent in them. So not only do they need to take responsibility for it but, with sufficient motivation—and perhaps also some professional assistance—they’re quite capable of overcoming it. For it’s not primarily their biology that’s caused the problem but their biography. And getting in touch with the source of such negative programming will probably constitute the first step in transforming it.
Freeing Yourself From Dysfunctional Programming
So what can you take from all of this? Simply that how much anger comes out of you in situations that you find irritating or offensive will be proportionate either to (1) how much anger you originally held in when you felt forced to stifle its expression, or (2) how much anger became comfortable for you to express because your caretakers did little to discourage it. And that’s why, when others criticize you for excessive anger, it’s vital to consider whether such anger is piggy-backing on much older anger that needs to be confronted and, at last, overcome.
As a further complicating factor, it should be noted that before an individual actually blows up, any unexpressed frustrations in the more general present—say, from a few minutes ago to a few days ago, and whether with the current anger target or somebody else—are also likely to accentuate that person’s outburst. Which is one reason that, generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to hold in your emotions.
Given my own clinical experience over the past 30+ years treating individuals with life-disrupting anger problems, I’ve pretty much concluded that those with the most serious issues with the emotion are the ones that, considering the broader context of their upbringing, usually have the most to be angry about. That is, they grew up in markedly dysfunctional households with parents highly deficient in meeting their fundamental wants and needs. Experiencing such treatment as inequitable, yet learning that confronting their caretakers about this perceived injustice only made matters worse, they were obliged to store all their cumulative anger inside them. Consequently, as adults they’re still carrying (as a grievous personal burden) a great deal of anger they’d never had the opportunity to discharge.
In such situations, learning relatively simple anger control techniques doesn’t work all that well. For the problem goes much deeper than mastering a skill set that can keep your anger at bay. For that doesn’t accomplish much more than holding your anger at a distance—just what your (pseudo-) solution was in the first place. This submerged anger needs to be brought forth and given a voice. And it definitely deserves to be honored for its felt legitimacy.
So what will be far more effective in “completing” your past anger will be to allow it, finally, to be confirmed, validated, and released in a safe, controlled manner. You permit it—as you couldn't before—to be expressed (in your “mind’s eye,” as it were) to those who originally sourced it. That way you'll be able to make your peace with it and let it go. Otherwise, you’re just be learning how, endlessly, to keep pent up a disgruntled emotion that still longs to be let out.
Techniques for dealing with past anger are discussed in other posts of mine (see Note below). Still, in many instances the resolution you seek may require professional assistance. For you may harbor unconscious obstacles in confronting what may still be lingering—or roiling—inside you, and therefore need an intuitive, insightful therapist (preferably one who practices IFS or EMDR) to help you identify, and work through, what for so long you’ve felt obliged to hide.
Here are just a few earlier posts of mine that discuss self-help methods for tackling ongoing anger problems:
- The Internal Blame Game: How You’re at War With Yourself
- The Power to Be Vulnerable (Part 1 of 3)
- Anger: When Adults Act Like Children—and Why,” “Don’t Let Your Anger 'Mature' Into Bitterness
- A Powerful Two-Step Process for Getting Rid of Unwanted Anger
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.