Anger? Maybe It’s About Abandonment

For some, anger isn’t about anger at all but triggered old wounds and anxiety

Posted May 15, 2018

Source: alamy

Cate’s boyfriend Jake hasn’t responded to the text she sent him a couple of hours ago, and now she is furious. She fires off a host of ever-increasingly nasty texts. Finally, he responds, saying how he got tied up at work, which Cate thinks is just a lame excuse. She’s getting fed up with Jake and is ready to cut and run.

Cate: Controlling and critical? Entitled and self-centered, expecting everyone to respond to her every whim? Maybe. But behind her anger may be anxiety and fear of abandonment.

Folks who are wired for abandonment try to keep those around them on a short emotional leash. They’ve learned, either through trauma and actual loss, or by growing up in a family climate where parents themselves were wired for the same, that if others close to you get too far away — through long physical separation or actual physical distance, through a lack regular text or email contact, or like Cate, a lack of a quick response — they’re gone.

And so, as the time goes by and Jake hasn’t responded, Cate’s anxiety starts to climb. While others may show this anxiety as a neediness, a weighing-down dependency, Cate essentially bypasses the feeling of anxiety altogether. Instead she immediately gets angry, going from 0-60 in minutes.

These obviously leads to several consequences: One is that Cate does get fed up with Jake, as she has in the past with other “inconsiderate” friends. She tells herself that Jake obviously doesn’t care about her, is self-absorbed, and tells Jake that she’s done, that she can’t keep being treated this way. Or Jake gets fed up: sees Cate as a controlling, angry woman who always needs to get her way, or one who is angrily needy and feels that nothing he does will ever satisfy her and cool her wrath. He bails, only confirming in Cate’s mind how others are insensitive, don’t care about her, and yes, do eventually leave.

But sometimes all this can drag out. Cate’s angry texts do pull Jake back in, he makes contact, he may apologize. The anger in this case pays off. Unfortunately, this only fuels it more, and over time Cate ramps up more and more quickly until one of them can’t take it anymore.

What to do?

If Cate and Jake want to break this cycle they both need to avoid arguing over whose reality is right — that Jake doesn’t care, that Cate is too controlling or needy — and instead both make changes. Cate needs to start by obviously slowing her anger down but more importantly, needs to look for the anxiety underneath. She can start by simply asking herself that question: “I’m getting angry; what am I worried about, afraid of?" This question over time will help her begin to recognize the underlying emotions.

She then needs to realize and say to herself that this is less about Jake and more about her, that some old wound is being triggered. She may want to sort this out by reflection or therapy, but even if she doesn’t, simply telling herself this at the time can help her keep perspective and not disasterize.

Cate needs to learn to lengthen that leash, not for Jake’s sake but for her own. She needs to learn to tolerate greater and greater distance by experimenting with… tolerating greater distance. When she gets the urge to text or call Jake, she needs to slow down, see if she can tell what is prompting the need, resist the urge to reach out, and then pat herself on the back for doing so. The goal is to expand her comfort zone and find out that what her anxious mind is telling her will happen, doesn’t -- that Jake does, in fact, come back on his own.

Finally, she needs to help Jake understand how she feels and what she needs in a calm manner. She needs to talk about soft emotions of worry and anxiety rather than anger; she needs take responsibility for her problem and ask him to help her with it, rather than blaming him for causing it.

And what does Jake need to do? He needs to be sensitive to Cate’s needs, realize that she is anxious for reasons of her own, rather than seeing her as a controlling angry parent. Instead of always playing defense, with Cate always coming at him, he needs to play offense — reaching out to Cate before she reaches out to him — putting a reminder on his phone to send a text or call — doing this not because he wants to stay out of trouble, but because he cares about her and wants to be sensitive to her needs. This proactive stance will give him a sense of control, but more importantly will help reassure Cate before her anxiety ramps up too high and goes out of control. 

Over time, by both working their sides of the equation, Cate will learn that others are reliable, that they don’t disappear, and ultimately that relationships and the world are safer than she thought.