Anger: A Misunderstood Feeling

Curiosity may be most underappreciated, but anger may be most misunderstood.

Posted Feb 28, 2017

 "In the foundations of law, or mathematics, or science, or art, or child-rearing,… [the] issues constitute a polarity extending from the extreme left through a middle of the road position to the extreme right-wing position. The issues are simple enough. Is man the measure, an end in himself, an active, creative, thinking, desiring, loving force in nature? Or must man realize himself, attain his full stature only through struggle toward, participation in, conformity to a norm, a measure, an ideal essence basically prior to and independent of man?”

                                                     —Silvan Tomkins

“…anyone can get angry—that is easy…but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.”

                                                     — Aristotle, (The Nichomachean Ethics)


The past several months, we have been exploring the feeling of curiosity (aka interest or excitement). For an overview of how feelings work, please see the July 2016 Newsletter.

If curiosity, or interest, is the most underappreciated feeling, anger may be the most misunderstood.

But anger need not be so misunderstood. Two huge clues stand out. First, anger is one of the negative affects. Thus, like all negative affects, anger is an SOS signal. It simply says to mother, or father, or the environment in general, “Something is wrong here… please help!” 

Second, anger is excessive distress. 

As we described previously, any excessive stimulus—such as light or noise or pain—will cause the infant to change her facial and vocal expressions from distress to anger. If you're having trouble with your own anger or your child's or some other adult's anger, just think "too much distress." Anger is a quantitative concept: It is "too-muchness"; it is too much stimulation.

Anger is the final common pathway of all the negative affects.

Any excessive negative feeling—distress, fear, shame, and so on—will result in anger. Also, the interruption of interest will result in distress and, if excessive, anger.

The Origins of Anger

Let's start from the beginning. Anger is one of the nine universal, built-in feelings. It is one of the responses of stimulation. It can be seen early in the infant's life. Anger may show up as the "roar of rage," with the red face, mouth open in a cry, eyes clenched. Or, the baby's face may be marked by somewhat more subtle anger, with the eyebrows down, the eyes slit, the jaw clenched.

Again, anger is a quantitative issue. How does it help to consider anger as a quantitative issue, as excessive distress? Think of your infant or small child. When she is hungry or tired or sick, what happens? She gets cranky, irritable, angry. There is too much distress.

Or think of when you stub your toe. At first, as the sensation begins to register while the pain mounts, you feel distressed. As the pain continues to increase, you get angry. The common notion of someone being irritable or angry because they are "stressed out" is right on target: There is too much stress or stimulation. The words we use for this transition from distress to anger include irritable, cranky, snippy, annoyed.

Thus, there is a process of summation with anger, the straw that breaks the camel's back. Things may be going along reasonably well, but then one event after another after another begins to push the envelope toward anger. Any one of these issues might be easily handled; too many of them piled up lead to anger.

Anger is also what is known as a "contagious" affect—anger in one person seems to spread to another. How and why? How—probably because someone else's anger adds to your level of distress. Think of road rage, a car honking behind you. This increase in stimulation can feel like an attack, an assault, something personal.

Why contagious? Probably, from an evolutionary perspective, because anger in another person creates enough stimulation to mobilize the distress and anger to respond to a potential threat.

Various Aspects of Anger

Anger and symptoms

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 rechecking locks, lights, and so on. Clinical work shows us that fear of anger and loss of control are often behind these symptoms.

Anger also plays a role in people who tend to be more or less paranoid, that is, feeling that 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" the person: i.e., outside reality or inside feelings.

Regarding "outside," if one has been the childhood victim of chronic physical or verbal abuse, or a veteran who has become hyper-vigilant due to war trauma, these patterns can be embedded into the brain and create a sense of wariness and fear of harm by others. These people have learned to be wary. Their challenge may be to adapt to a current reality, which is more benign than their past reality.

With respect to "inside," anger, which 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." It is a reversal.

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 or its expression, the resulting fear can lead to a need to project angry feelings onto figures outside of oneself. 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.

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 when one is criticized/shamed/humiliated, 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 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 3-year-old has just begun 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 is, to the distress which led to the outburst.

"Learning" is another area ripe for a narcissistic injury. 

By definition, learning something means you did not know it before—and this 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, or assaulted—verbally or physically—it would be useful in some instances to have anger mobilized for defense or flight, with all the adrenaline 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.

Priority 1: The first order of business is to establish a sense of internal freedom with respect to anger—anger is a legitimate feeling, 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 the language, to verbally express the 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.

Priority 2: The second order of business deals with the expression of the anger.

In the infant, one sees the pure expression of the anger affect: the roar of anger or the jaw clenched, the red face, the eyebrows down and in, the eyes narrowed. 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," etc.

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 will discuss physical punishment in detail later, but mention should be made here in the context of distress and anger. The American Psychoanalytic Association’s Position Statement on Physical/Corporal Punishment discusses these issues in detail (2013).

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, and shame. Fear, in particular, is a very toxic affect. These affects inhibit the positive affects one wants to promote: interest and enjoyment. Remember that 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 the 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 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. 

Anny Katan again (1961): "Verbalization increases… the possibility of distinguishing between… fantasies… and reality… [V]erbalization 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." 

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.


Books of the Month

Z is for Zamboni: A Hockey Alphabet Author: Matt Napier Illustrator: Melanie Rose London, UK: Routledge, 2015 A fun book for the young hockey players in your family!

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed Jessica Lahey Harper Collins, 2015 A thoughtful book about young children through adolescence—focusing on eliciting from children (rather than imposing), experimentation, risk, and praise for effort.

10 Conversations You Must Have With Your Son Tim Hawkes Australia: Hachette Australia, 2014 This is a thoughtful and valuable book which deals with opening up dialogues with boys from preadolescence (9-11 years), through early adolescence (12-14 years), to late adolescence (15-18 years). The author, an educator from Austria, states his credentials “come from being a father whose failure has filled these pages with painful lessons. I have also had the pleasure of witnessing inspirational parenting by others and have listened to conversations that have stimulated and transformed a boy” (p. 2). Chapter titles include: Identity, Achievement, Sex, Money, and Health.

New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment George Hagman Routledge, 2016 This is a nice summary of the topic with various articles which suggest new perspectives.

The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money Ron Lieber Harper Collins Publishers, 2016 This is a rare book which thoughtfully delves into issues of parenting and financial knowledge.

When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You Kio Stark Simon & Schuster/TED, 2016 This is an interesting and thought-provoking book about the possibilities which can develop when one is courageous enough to chat with people one doesn’t know. Chapters include: Who Is a Stranger?, Fleeting Intimacy, A World Made of Strangers, and The Mechanics of Interaction.

APsaA Position Statement on Physical Punishment:  

Aristotle (Sachs J, 2002). Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Publishers, R. Pullins.

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

Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.