When you experience anger, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a victim, for virtually all anger can be understood as a reaction to what feels threatening or unfair to you. In such instances, you feel unjustifiably attacked, taken advantage of, betrayed, violated, or powerless. And your anger, essentially retaliatory in nature, agreeably serves the function of restoring to you a sense of righteousness and control, even dignity and respect. Added to this, the energizing surge of adrenaline accompanying your eruption further accentuates your sense of “wronged virtue.” So naturally, you feel morally superior to whoever or whatever provoked you in the first place.
There’s a perverse pleasure in getting mad. Despite the fact that anger rarely solves anything and frequently makes matters worse between you and the person or situation that incited it, in the moment it still affords you considerable gratification. However unconsciously, self-servingly resorting to anger offers you the “reward” of both comfort and consolation. And it labels the other as perpetrator—and you as victim.
By definition, victims are always innocent: They’re at the receiving end of someone else’s misconduct. So whether directly or indirectly, in getting angry you’re getting back at them through emphatically giving yourself the self-aggrandizing message that you’re above them. What they said or did, you wouldn’t have done. In short, you’re better than they are. After all, as petty as it may seem, arriving at such a conclusion is pleasing; enjoyable. How can you not alleviate whatever ancient feelings of inferiority or incompetence may yet be residing inside you when you’re comparing yourself so advantageously, or meritoriously, to another?
Consider. When is the last time you got angry? And the second before your anger came to your emotional rescue, what were you experiencing? Anxiety? Hopelessness? Guilt? Shame? Or might you have been battling with feelings of belittlement, being discriminated against, disparaged, or put down? I think that if you’re ruthlessly honest with yourself, one or more of these troublesome feelings will reflect your experience—before, almost instinctively, you turned to anger to validate or vindicate yourself.
Over a decade ago, I wrote a piece entitled “What Your Anger May Be Hiding.” And one of the matters I addressed was how anger could be comprehended as the “low road to self-empowerment.” For not only can it enable you to fend off emotional pain tied to residual self-doubts from your past (i.e., old—and as yet unrectified—beliefs about your not being good enough), it can also help ward off immediate feelings of powerlessness.
Here’s an excerpt from that earlier post:
[Stephen] Stosny's hormonal explanation of anger (see his Treating Attachment Abuse, 1995) is suggestive. Not only does our brain secrete the analgesic-like norepinephrine when we're provoked, it also produces the amphetamine-like hormone epinephrine, which enables us to experience a surge of energy throughout our body—the adrenaline rush that many of my [own] clients have reported feeling during a sudden attack of anger. [Never mind here what, biochemically, regularly losing your cool can do to you physically—see, e.g., Debbie Strong’s “7 Ways Anger is Ruining Your Health.”]
. . . A person or situation somehow makes us feel defeated or powerless, and reactively transforming these helpless feelings into anger instantly provides us with a heightened sense of control. . . . In a sense, [anger] is every bit as much a drug as alcohol or cocaine. And it's my strong belief that many, many millions of people worldwide are addicted to anger because of its illusorily empowering aspects.
Although almost nobody appreciates their proclivities toward anger as coping strategies calculated to disarm, denigrate, or intimidate "the enemy," I'm convinced that anger is employed universally to bolster a diminished sense of personal power. Contrary to feeling weak or out of control, the experience of anger can foster a sense of invulnerability—even invincibility.
Having dealt with other pleasurable—or (pseudo)-empowering—aspects of anger in previous posts, I’ll end by simply bulleting the most prominent ones, including each of their almost inevitable drawbacks. So, in addition to what’s already been described here, anger can assist you in:
- Getting your way with others by intimidating them—but typically, it's hardly an enduring fix.
- Negotiating more effectively with others—but if your anger is clearly feigned, your stratagem will be recognized and make you much less effective (see, e.g., Todd Kashdan & Robert Diswas-Diener, The Upside of Your Downside, 2015).
- Energizing your entire system, and so increasing the vigor of your actions—but such "dynamism" is also likely to offend others, motivating them to retaliate against you.
- Obliging your listener to pay greater attention to what you’re telling them—but frankly, such forcefulness is probably scary to them, and so alienates them from you and damages the relationship.
- Protesting against something that feels unjust, hindering, or handicapping to you—but unless such dissent is done with the required diplomacy, it can do more harm than good.
Can you recognize yourself in any of this? And if so, when you believe others aren't treating you fairly, can you find better ways (i.e., less objectionable to them and detrimental to yourself) of conveying your thoughts and feelings?
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.