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Why Is It So Hard to Move From Anger to Forgiveness?

It's all too easy to get seduced by, and then addicted to, anger.

Key points

  • Anger is a defense mechanism that helps people feel empowered and greatly reduces their sense of vulnerability.
  • The protective functions of anger can make it hard for people to get beyond it. Chronic anger can lead to rumination, hostility, and bitterness.
  • Forgiveness involves making a conscious decision to let go and is tied to benefits such as healthier relationships and improved mental health.
Brett Jordan, Photo/Unsplash Free Images
Free Yourself From Toxic Anger
Source: Brett Jordan, Photo/Unsplash Free Images

At least initially, anger is the most common reaction when you've experienced someone harming you. And that anger, derived from perceiving your basic rights and needs as violated, immediately offers you the strangely reassuring comfort of seeing yourself as a helpless victim.

Here you're proclaiming your innocence. And in labeling the other(s) as perpetrator, you're absolved of any responsibility for the physical, mental, or emotional pain you suffered. Curiously, you're relieved—and fortified—by denying you could have done anything to cause or contribute to the abusive situation you felt trapped by.

Simply put, anger is one of our most powerful defense mechanisms, which is why it's so universal—embedded, as it were, in our DNA. However unconscious your motives might be, this fiery emotion protects your self-esteem and offers you a sense of power contrary to how you felt in the relationship that so hurt you. And to expand on these self-protective functions, this typically destructive emotion:

  • Shields you from becoming angry and upset with yourself;
  • Enables you to assert moral superiority over the offending person (or people), so your honor and self-respect aren’t further compromised by their inconsiderate, insensitive, or malicious behavior;
  • Helps you feel energized, thanks to its fight-or-flight adrenaline secretion; and an attitude of righteous indignation can increase your sense of inner strength (though in the longer term the “retaliatory energy" expended in holding onto anger, whether you act on it or not, depletes you);
  • By your brain's producing another hormone, noradrenaline—which acts as an analgesic, diminishing sensations of pain—it operates, ironically, to help you self-soothe;
  • Through enabling you to feel empowered, it greatly lessens your sense of interpersonal vulnerability (and anger is the only emotion "redeemed" by this consoling feature);
  • By eliminating feelings of guilt and shame, which you may have felt before your anger arrived to rescue you, it can enhance your self-confidence;
  • More generally, it can ameliorate the originally negative message you received about yourself from the other's abusive behavior, which earlier could have precipitated feelings of anxiety and depression, being disregarded or dismissed, manipulated, out of control, rejected, or unlovable; and
  • If, given your past, you have serious issues regarding intimacy, whenever your closeness to, or dependency on, your partner begins to make you anxious (by reviving old fears of vulnerability), it helps you further distance yourself from them.

Anger as a Mechanism of Defense

I could enumerate other beguiling features of anger—such as its being useful for intimating others who earlier intimidated you, or its inducing you to take constructive action. But the usually unrecognized facets of anger outlined above should illustrate why, even though consciously you may be highly motivated to get beyond it, you may still find that, even without your permission, it's powerful and autonomous enough to reinstate itself.

To put it somewhat differently, anger as a defense mechanism has a mind singularly its own. Stuck in the past when—say, as a child—there were all sorts of things that caused you to feel extremely threatened or scared, once it "volunteered" to protect you from this intolerable sense of imminent danger, it has continued to assert itself in any situation perceived as replicating what it protected you from originally.

And that helps explain why after an inappropriate outburst of anger, it's not unusual to tell the other person that your explosion didn't really come from you, that it was some foreign entity which suddenly grabbed hold of you. Although paradoxically this articulated "defense against your defense" might seem like a lame excuse for bad behavior, it's actually more or less accurate. For if your belligerently intense reaction was over-the-top, it's because it tapped into—and recharged—an older anger never fully resolved.

Comparing Anger to Forgiveness

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that anger has some laudable aspects as well. In a previous post, I discussed these attributes, concluding that anger ought to be controlled but not obliterated.

Here, however, my interest in the emotion is confined to how it makes genuine forgiveness, which I see as far more advantageous to one's welfare and peace of mind, as exceedingly difficult for so many of us to execute.

The two qualities most frequently associated with anger are thoughts of resentment and the desire for (and fantasies about) retribution. And when anger becomes chronic, it involves your holding an everlastingly grudge against your transgressor. Frankly, it doesn't even matter how justified your anger may be. All that matters is that ultimately it's more damaging to you than anyone else, for it cements itself toxically inside you, engendering pointless rumination, hostility, and bitterness.

That's precisely what forgiveness is so well suited to address, rectify, and heal. Contrary to anger, forgiveness is about making a conscious decision to let go of what, otherwise, will continue to nag away at, and even torment you.

And despite your believing you're now ready to renounce your anger, anger's unconscious—but all-too-influential—voice can insist you not give it up. For it fears you'll thereby be saddled with a level of susceptibility toward others you're not equipped to handle. Regarding you as no older than you were when it first intervened to assist you, anger doesn't grow with you but rather remains fixated in the past.

That's why it's so essential to learn how to convince your anger that, as well-meaning and devoted to you as it's always been, you've developed more resources to cope with adversity than you had previously. And that although it was once expedient for you, it's currently no longer useful but actually detrimental. (See "How to Talk to—and Tame—Your Outdated Defenses.")

A variety of books and articles have focused on how, personally, anger hinders and forgiveness helps. They've been summarily categorized in an excellent review article by members of Mayo Clinic's staff (complemented by kindred online essays from the American Psychological Association [APA] and Johns Hopkins University), which extols forgiveness as leading to (and I quote):

  • Healthier relationships;
  • Improved mental health;
  • Less anxiety, stress, and hostility;
  • Lower blood pressure;
  • Fewer symptoms of depression;
  • A stronger immune system;
  • Improved heart health (plus reduced risk of heart attacks); and
  • Improved self-esteem.

Getting into its more existential benefits, the essay also alludes to this healing process as offering you, unlike anger, "peace, hope, gratitude, and joy." And it notes that forgiving the perpetrator doesn't require you to forget, minimize, or excuse the harm—or to make up with them.

Even if the other person won't admit wrongdoing, or isn't willing to talk to you, that lack of reconciliation needn't deter you. For forgiving another doesn't necessitate their changing: It's simply what you do for yourself, so the wrongs you suffered don't end up defining your identity.

Contrast these crucial dividends with the self-harm delineated in the Mayo Clinic's write-up on the drawbacks of clinging indefinitely to anger, which can provoke you to:

  • Bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience;
  • Become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can't enjoy the present;
  • Become depressed and anxious;
  • Feel that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you're at odds with your spiritual beliefs; and
  • Lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.

So ask yourself whether you're mentally and emotionally prepared to give up the reassuring self-righteousness of anger. Whether you're willing to make the effort to suspend your "superior" judgment of the other's wrongdoing and instead attempt to relate empathically to their motives, considering how conceivably you might have acted similarly were you in their shoes.

This is what's called "spiritual generosity," and it's certainly to be commended. But it's not wholly selfless in that taking such a compassionate stance probably serves you far better than does anger.

True, the voice of your anger will fight you on this. Because it has no idea—not until, that is, you've successfully engaged with it and toned it down—that it's been preventing you from dealing more effectively with life's obstacles, and that forgiveness is the best way to come to terms with disturbing experiences from the past.

Wanting to avenge yourself by evening the score is certainly understandable. But once you've evolved beyond such primal motivation, you can turn your energy toward accomplishing goals more in keeping with your ideals—which, till now, your unresolved anger may have been blocking.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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