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Gordon Livingston
Gordon S Livingston M.D.

It Is Easier to Be Angry Than Sad

With victimhood comes all sorts of prerogatives.

Key points

  • It is very difficult when one is being attacked to respond reasonably, whereas kindness shifts the emotional tone of the environment.
  • Some consider fear and sadness to be weaknesses and cannot tolerate them for long.
  • Anger can be used as a substitute for a sense of loss or powerlessness.

It is a standard assumption of pop psychology that the open expression of anger in all areas of our lives, but especially in therapy, is to be encouraged. We wouldn't want people suppressing feelings, after all. Everyone knows how unhelpful, even unhealthy, that can be. So do you have a grievance? Let's hear it. Mad at someone? Let him know about it. If he doesn't like it, that's his problem.

This is especially true in couples therapy, where people come in with the idea that somehow expressing unrestrained anger of the sort that is manifest in many bad marriages will "clear the air" and pave the way for reconciliation.

Anger begets anger

Fact: Anger begets anger. It is very difficult when one is being attacked to respond reasonably.

When I inquire about the way people habitually communicate with each other (and often with their children), what I hear are stories of repetitive conflict in which each person feels a continual need to defend themselves (and we all know the best defense is a good offense). Usually, these battles begin with criticism.

I am amazed at how easily and unthinkingly people assume that to live with someone is to be both the target and source of critical comments. "He always leaves his dirty dishes on the counter." Or, "She never gets the oil changed in her car." Or, "The kids just drop their stuff all over the house." And when these things happen, the offended party is not slow to point them out, commonly with intense irritation and frequent use of "always" and "never" for emphasis.

So I ask them, "What would your lives be like if neither of you criticized or gave orders to the other person?" This question is guaranteed to produce skeptical looks all around as if I had just asked them to stop breathing or never brush their teeth again. What on earth is he talking about? If I didn't point out her mistakes and lack of consideration, I'd be defenseless. The dishes will pile up indefinitely, the oil will never be changed again, and the house will sink into chaos.

Kindness begets kindness

Here's my argument: If an agreement can be reached to withhold criticism, the emotional tone of the house shifts. The relationship changes from one in which the primary task is keeping score of the other person's transgressions to a cooperative enterprise in which each member of the family has an investment in maintaining enough order that things can be found and guests entertained. What are eliminated are the passive-aggressive behaviors that represent the defensive response of people who feel powerless and aggrieved. Kindness begets kindness.

Patterns of criticism and anger

This, of course, sounds a lot easier than it turns out to be in practice. What is at work here is the power of habit. Most people grew up in homes in which they were socialized by their parents through the use of "discipline" and criticism. (Alternatively, they were overindulged and never learned the meaning of responsibility.)

This sort of upbringing suggests that, left to their own devices, children are agents of disorder and defiance. When speaking about their balky offspring, parents frequently say, "He just doesn't listen!" or, "No matter how many times I tell her, she can't seem to understand the importance of hard work and good grades."

These are the assumptions that promote criticism and anger as the normal way to relate to those closest to us. By the time people come to see me, they usually have a sense that something is wrong with how they habitually interact. Changing these patterns is another matter.

Anger covers up sadness and fear

What I see in relationships that are not working is a mutual sadness. This person whom we expected to love forever now annoys us. (If they bore us, that's even worse, but let's stick with anger for the moment.) So behind the power struggles and hostility that are the most evident signs of our discontent lies the profound sadness of failed expectations. This is not what we thought we were signing up for.

Was there ever a time when too little expression of anger constituted a big problem? If so, that time is definitely not now. The country is at war; we worry about road rage; our entertainment presents us with endless images of violence; our favorite spectator sports involve car crashes or men knocking other men senseless. Our national history, indeed the history of the world, is one of unremitting conflict, much of it over what deity to worship.

We have of late been reminded of the relationship of fear and anger by the threats, chants, and placards of the "Tea Party" demonstrations against health reform. Before dismissing them as uninformed rednecks, reflect for a moment on where we have seen these faces before: in the angry mobs that opposed school integration and other civil rights for African-Americans in the '60s. They feel their country changing before their eyes, becoming more diverse. They are told that they, European-Americans, will, in a few years, be in the minority. Any sign of progress toward that day is profoundly frightening for them. So they are livid. They are buying guns as never before and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "nativist extremist" groups have increased in number by 80% since President Obama was elected. Such is the power of fear channeled into anger. Richard Nixon explained this to us many years ago: "People react to fear, not love. They don't teach that in Sunday school but it's true."

In fact, it seems to me that just behind the anger that is so evident and often encouraged, in our lives, are two emotions that are much harder to express: fear and sadness. Both of these very common feelings are seen as weaknesses and are hard to tolerate for long. One way to escape them is to get mad and allocate blame. If we can find a target, we can indulge our outrage and assign responsibility for our misery to someone else. Now we are a victim.

With victimhood comes all sorts of prerogatives

With victimhood comes all sorts of prerogatives, the most important of which is the reassurance that what has happened to us is not our fault. We are issued a license to complain (and often a public platform from which to do so).

I remember when I found out as an adult that I had been adopted. (My parents had failed to tell me this salient fact.) Amid the identity confusion and apprehension that accompanied this shocking revelation was a perverse satisfaction that, after years as a privileged white male, I was now a member of an aggrieved minority group: adult adoptees. I began to publicly complain about the legal barriers to finding out who my birth parents were; I railed against the injustice of being denied my family medical history; I tried (unsuccessfully) to get my state legislature to open adoption records to adults searching for birth parents; I was outraged that newspapers that covered this story persisted in referring to us as "adopted children." I was angry.

Finally, I tired of the struggle and, like many adoptees before and since, searched on my own and found my birth mother. Later, I came to feel that the difficult process that this entailed made our reunion that much sweeter for both of us. She knew what I had had to go through to find her, and the search gave me time to both reflect on why I was doing this and deal with the sadness of the long-ago abandonment that required it. But I cannot deny the satisfaction of feeling like an oppressed minority, for a little while at least.

So, the next time you're feeling outraged about something, especially if the target of your anger is someone in your life to whom you long to be closer, ask yourself if this feeling may not be a substitute for some sense of loss or powerlessness. Ask yourself further if there might not be something you can do that will begin to transform the situation. If you cannot change the people around you, you can at least have the satisfaction of surprising them.

About the Author
Gordon Livingston

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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