What Is Anger -- Part II

Additional Aspects of Anger

Posted Dec 30, 2014

What is Anger? – Part II

We are exploring the three pillars of the origins of human development—affects (feelings), language, and cognition.

Recently, we have been investigating two of our most important innate affects, Interest (curiosity) and Anger. We explored Interest in the May-October 2014 Newsletters. In the November 2014 Newsletter, we began our examination of Anger, and this month we complete it with Anger—Part II.

In the January 2015 Newsletter, we will begin to immerse ourselves in the other two major areas of development, language and cognition.

To review briefly from last month (November 2014 Newsletter): Distress and Anger are intimately linked. They are best viewed as quantitative feelings—a “too-much-ness.” Any excessive stimulus, such as noise or light, will cause the infant to display the classic expressions of distress. If this stimulus is sustained and increased, Distress morphs into Anger.

In adults, we use the term “stress”—too much stress of any kind (internal or external, past or present, hurt feelings or physical pain, and so on) will result in Distress—irritability, annoyance, edginess, etc. And still more stress will result in Anger.

Additional Aspects of Anger

Paranoia and Projection
Anger is often overlooked or misunderstood in psychopathology as well as in everyday relationships. In pathology, one sees anger behind a variety of symptoms. For example, many people are raised to believe anger is a forbidden, scary affect. They may develop obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as checking and/or rechecking locks, lights, and so on. Clinical work shows us that fear of anger and loss of control often are behind these symptoms.

Anger also plays a role in people who tend to be more or less paranoid, that is, feeling others are out to hurt or impede them. The conviction that others are out to do harm to one seems to have roots in two places, “outside” and “inside.” Regarding “outside,” if one has been the victim of chronic physical or verbal abuse, these patterns can be imbedded in the brain and create a sense of wariness and fear of harm by others. With respect to “inside,” anger that one feels internally can be “projected” (attributed) onto another person. This occurs especially if anger is seen as forbidden, with a need to deny the anger. In other words, it’s as if one is saying “I’m not angry at you, you are angry at me.”

Projection is a very important mechanism. It is often due to projection that children talk about being afraid of monsters under the bed or in the closet. Projection of what? Again, projection of their own internal anger onto figures in the outside world. Nightmares, fears of monsters, other aspects of “paranoia”—many of these are due to one’s own anger being projected onto the outside world.

Why does the anger need to be attributed elsewhere? Often because the person has been made to feel that the anger is unacceptable or forbidden or too intense or scary. This gets us back to the basics—anger is a built-in feeling, an SOS signal, a response to too much stimulation. If one tries to prohibit this feeling, the resulting fear can lead to a need to project angry feelings onto figures outside of one’s self. One can often help children and their parents quite dramatically by allowing the child to recognize and label and express his/her internal feelings of anger.

Hurt Feelings – “Narcissistic Injuries”
Another important aspect of anger and psychopathology involves so-called “narcissistic injuries,” or blows to one’s sense of self and self-esteem. When one’s feelings are hurt, or one is criticized, this kind of stimulation leads to distress. Bob Dylan writes in “Things Have Changed”:

“I hurt easy, I just don’t show it
You can hurt someone and not even know it
The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity”

If there is too much criticism, or sense of attack or accusation, what happens? Recall the basics: the distress becomes excessive and turns into anger and rage. This is the so-called “narcissistic injury” which results in anger and rage. Examples? Think of “road rage,” being honked at, the sense of being criticized or accused, and the anger which can result. Or consider parents whose three-year-old has just began to put words to feelings: “I hate you… you no good!” Many parents will hear this as a criticism, as when they were the child, and feel anger and rage, and respond accordingly. This sequence sometimes results in child abuse. As we will discuss later, the parents here need to translate from the child’s words back to the child’s feelings, that it, to the distress which led to the outburst.

“Learning” is another area ripe with narcissistic injury. By definition, learning something means you did not know it before—and this in itself can cause narcissistic injury. The injury may come from the outside (“you mean you don’t know that?” or “just so you know…” or virtually any “teaching”) or from the inside—from yourself (“I am so stupid, I can’t believe I don’t know that” or “I don’t understand this”). Teaching itself, or showing someone how to do something, implies a potential narcissistic injury—there is something the other person does not know. That’s why the best teachers and psychotherapists are those who can “cushion” the learning process, i.e. help someone to learn something new without eliciting the shame and fear and distress which can often accompany such a process.

In terms of evolution, the narcissistic injury and anger sequence would appear to have benefits and liabilities. If one is attacked, criticized, assaulted—verbally or physically—it would be useful in some instances to have anger/rage mobilized for defense or flight, with all the adrenalin and other physiologic manifestations at the ready. On the other hand, to have criticism stir up so much rage, or to have learning provoke such distress and resistance, seems to be counterproductive in our more psychological world.

Handling Anger
So—what is the most beneficial way to think about and handle anger? First, let’s remember anger is a built-in biological response to excessive stimulation. That is, we can’t help but feel anger under certain circumstances. It’s what our brains are programmed to do, just as we are programmed to be curious. Therefore, any sense that anger is a forbidden or prohibited feeling is misguided … again, one cannot help but feel anger at times.

Thus, the first order of business is to establish a sense of internal freedom with respect to anger—anger is a legitimate feelings, and we do not want it covered up or repressed. So, yes, we have angry feelings at times toward loved ones, murderous feelings even, a desire that they be “gone.” Intimate human relationships are marked by ambivalence—positive and negative feelings directed toward the same person. This is one of the great discoveries of psychoanalysis, that our feelings are sometimes in conflict. Why? Because we have both positive and negative affects, and both sides of the polarity can be stirred up.

Children will often express their anger in very raw forms—“I hate you! I wish you were dead!” This is the child’s way, as she begins to learn language, to verbally express the anger/rage affect. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Again, the first priority is to establish internal freedom, to allow the adult or child to experience the feeling of anger inside themselves with as little prohibition as possible.

The second order of business deals with the expression of the anger. In the infant, one sees the pure expression of the anger/rage affect: the roar of anger or the jaw clenched, the red face, the eyebrows down and in, the eyes narrow. This is the bodily expression of excessive distress, or anger. In an adult, one often sees similar bodily features, although there may be some softening if an angry person is trying to exert conscious control over their expression of anger.

The above constitute nonverbal expressions of anger. There are other nonverbal expressions as well, of course: physical lashing out, fighting, yelling and screaming, and sometimes other behaviors such as stealing, lying, and bullying.

However, the real key with respect to dealing with anger lies in verbal expression. With children—and adults—the goal is to help the person put the feelings of anger – the excessive distress – into words. This is also referred to as interpreting or labeling the affects. Thus, one might say to a child who is having a tantrum: “You are angry. Something hurt or upset you. Let’s try to talk about it.” The important activity is the labeling of the affect: “distress,” “anger,” “rage.”

This putting words to the feelings symbolically encodes the physical and emotional manifestations of “too-muchness,” of excessive distress, of anger. The brain has much more chance of regulating behavior if something can be put into words, or symbolically encoded. This process of verbalizing and its beneficial effects lies behind all psychotherapies, all “talking cures.” Putting feelings into words allows for tension-regulation. As psychoanalyst Anny Katan noted: “Verbalization leads to the integrating process, which, in turn, results in reality testing…if the child would verbalize his feelings, he would learn to delay action” (1961).

It is this tension-regulation and capacity to verbalize feelings which lead to excellent interpersonal skills. People with such skills know their own feelings, have options about how and when to express these feelings, and are not plagued by out of control behaviors.

Spanking and Hitting
Any discussion of anger should include the issue of hitting children, and all the other euphemisms used: spanking, swatting, shaking, pinching, grabbing, and the like. We discussed physical punishment in detail in the April 2014 Newsletter, but mention should be made here in the context of distress and anger.

Any hitting of a child is misguided.

Why? Because hitting elicits precisely the affects one does not want to in a child: distress, anger, fear, shame and disgust. Fear, in particular, is a very toxic affect. These affects inhibit the positive affects one wants to promote: interest and enjoyment. Remember interest is responsible for our learning and exploratory activities. Fear will inhibit this capacity.

There are always better alternatives. Hitting leads to an “identification with the aggressor,” i.e. the child models himself and his behavior after the hitting parent. Hitting leads to no new information, other than something is wrong and violence is an acceptable response. Hitting results in poor regulation of tension and introduces a model of impulsivity. While hitting may gain the short-term compliance of the child, the long-term costs of hitting are not worth it.

With children (and adults), one wants always to label the feelings with words. One also wants to put words to actions, that is, use words instead of actions. The reason for this is to allow the brain to use its remarkable capacity for symbolic thinking. Putting words to feelings and actions is especially important for enhancing the transition of the preverbal to the verbal symbolic world of the child.

If the child can verbalize feelings, s/he achieves greater tension-regulation, self-soothing, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills. Hitting does just the opposite. It is an action, a sadistic action, which accentuates action over words, fear and rage over curiosity and learning, impulsivity over tension-regulation.

References for Interested Readers

Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188

Good News of the Month
 Estonia is the 43rd country to prohibit physical punishment in all settings.
 (Child population in 2012 of approximately 241,600.)

More Good News of the Month
 Nicaragua is the 44th country to prohibit phsycial punishment in all settings (April 2015).
 (Child population in 2012 of approximately 2,398,700.)
Good News Summary
The following 44 countries have now banned physical punishment in all settings:

Albania, Denmark, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Argentina, Estonia, Luxembourg, South Sudan, Austria, Finland, Malta, Spain, Bolivia, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil, Greece, New Zealand, TFYR Macedonia, Bulgaria, Honduras, Nicaragua, Togo, Cabo Verde, Hungary, Norway, Tunisia, Congo Republic, Iceland, Poland, Turkmenistan, Costa Rica,  Israel, Portugal, Ukraine, Croatia, Kenya, Republic of the Moldova, Uruguay, Cyprus, Latvia, Romania, and Venezuela.

And regarding physical punishment … an anecdote from a frequent visitor to Sweden, one of the first countries to ban physical punishment in all settings:

“In three trips to Sweden we did not see a single crying, acting-out child or parents haranguing or threatening. The children all looked happy and alert, and their parents were attentive, playful and responsive. Quite a positive culture shock for us, coming from 30-years living in (a city in the South), where to some people spanking/beating your kid is a ‘God-ordained right.’”


In the United States, no states have banned physical punishment in all settings.

There are 31 states which prohibit physical punishment in schools.

There are 19 states which still permit physical punishment in schools:

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Loiuisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.

Study of the Month

Reich SM et al (2012).Using baby books to change new mothers’ attitudes about corporal punishment. Child Abuse & Neglect 36: 108-117.
This is another important study which shows that parents’ acceptance of physical punishment can be reduced through educational efforts, in this case educational baby books.

About Dr. Paul Holinger 
Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and a founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy.  His focus is on infant and child development. Dr. Holinger is also the author of the acclaimed book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.