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Why Do People Have Repressed Anger?

Healthy anger expression helps us set boundaries and assert rights.

Key points

  • People’s habitual way of dealing with anger falls into one of two sets of patterns—externalising it or internalising it.
  • As people who repress anger divert their anger toward themselves, they often suffer from depression, anxiety, and somatisation.
  • When a person represses anger, they may find that many of their other desirable feelings also get numbed out.

Anger is a natural emotion and has to be processed in one way or the other. Normally, people’s habitual way of dealing with anger falls into one of two sets of patterns—externalising it or internalising it.

When these patterns are held in a rigid way or used excessively, there can be detrimental health consequences.

Internalised anger is also known as repressed anger, and it can take different forms. In this article, we will discuss what causes people to repress anger.

When people think of anger, externalised forms of anger often come to mind—someone shouting, hitting something, or acting in an aggressive way. Therefore, many people mistakenly equate anger with aggression. However, being angry does not have to mean someone lashes out.

Externalised anger is not always unhealthy. Healthy expression of anger can help us set boundaries, assert our rights and protect ourselves. People who do not internalise or repress their anger know it when they feel it. Once they have expressed their anger, either through speech or behaviours, the feeling leaves their system. It does not get stuck in the body, remain stuck, or fester. For people who repress their anger, however, the opposite happens.

Repressed Anger and Not Being Able to Get Angry

People who internalise anger hold it within their bodies and psyche. They may direct anger toward themselves and get aggressive toward themselves. They may carry all responsibilities for any conflicts in relationships, blame themselves excessively, and do not assert themselves even when they should. As they divert their anger toward themselves, they often suffer from depression, anxiety, and somatisation (emotions turning into bodily pain or physical ailments).

The problem is that, although it is unconscious, it takes a lot of energy to suppress and re-divert anger. Therefore, people with repressed anger may find that they rarely feel angry, but experience chronic tiredness.

Another problem is that on the flip side of anger are positive human feelings such as love, excitement, and passion. When a person suppresses anger, they may find many of their other desirable feelings get numbed out too. They find it difficult to get excited or passionate; they may also be disconnected from their own needs and desires.

A young person can also hold repressed anger. When they do, they may have coping mechanisms such as self-harming, selective mutism, or restrictive eating. There is no channel for them to express how they feel, and they could not afford to express anger toward their parents who can’t tolerate it. The only way to cope, therefore, is to blame themselves for feeling angry. When these children grow up, they are more prone to suffering from disorders related to internalisation, such as quiet borderline personality disorder or chronic depression.

Another well-known fact about repressed anger is that it can cause physical strain on our bodies. Holding back anger creates inner tension, which can then cause a wide range of psychosomatic ailments, such as indigestion, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, frequent migraines, and even cancer.

Reasons for Repressed Anger

People do not choose to repress their anger voluntarily. While their innate temperaments play a role ("nature" factors), it is normally the result of a person’s childhood experiences ("nurture" factors) and social/cultural conditioning. One may have learned to repress their anger because, as a child, they were discouraged, punished, shamed, silenced, or ignored when they tried to express themselves.

We live in a culture that reinforces the idea that children should be "good girls" and "good boys." Our parents, alongside teachers and other institutions, are keen to mould us for compliance and obedience. Whenever we tried to express our anger, perhaps by screaming and throwing things, the grown-ups were quick to shut us down.

There could be multiple reasons why parents would punish a child for an expression as natural as anger. Some parents have low self-esteem and tend to take things personally. When their children are upset, they take it as a criticism of themselves not having done a good job. Consciously or not, they would react in a defensive way and criticise their children for being the way they are.

Some parents attach their ego to parenting. When their children show signs of frustration or throw a tantrum in public, they see it as something that reflects on them. Therefore, they do not allow their children to cry or complain about anything. The family narrative might be that "good boys or girls don’t get angry."

Some parents are not psychologically mature or developed enough to have integrated their shadow sides (which means they deny some parts of themselves). When they do not allow themselves to be angry or see it as a bad thing, they cannot tolerate seeing it in others, let alone in their children.

Some people have depressed and vulnerable parents. Their deeply fragile parents have, in so many ways—through their tears and frequent breakdowns—let their child know they couldn’t take on any more mental load, let alone the child’s anger.

Some people have aggressive, violent, and unpredictable parents, and they know better than to add anger to anger.

Some people have a difficult, bullying, or even psychopathic sibling, who would undoubtedly punish them with physical and verbal violence if they ever dare to compete with them for attention.

In many cases, parents mean well and try their best, but they are dealing with poverty, illness, or constant crises so they may not have energy to pay attention to how the child feels.

Many parents don’t mean to silence their children, but they don’t know what to do with their own anger other than to act as though everything is fine. They may be terrified of conflicts or hold the moral or religious belief that anger is wrong. They would rather placate others while bottling up resentment. As a result, no one has ever modeled healthy assertiveness to the child or told them what it means to use anger in a healthy way.

Some parents threaten to abandon the child when they act out of anger. With the looming threat of being disowned by the only people they depend on, these children have no choice but to shove all angry feelings to the deepest, unconscious corner of their psyche. Back then, they could not afford to let anger threaten their relationships with their caregivers. But, for many of them, even as adults, the fear of anger continues to linger. The message ingrained in them is that anger would lead to enormous conflict and even the end of a relationship.

Another consequence of having repressed anger is that a person can transfer their original fear of abandonment and the need to placate their parents to people in their lives now. All authority figures that come into their lives, be it their boss, mentor, or pastor, become people they are deeply afraid of offending. Even with friends, peers, colleagues, and random strangers, they dare not speak up when their lines are crossed. They turn to blaming themselves, bottling up bitterness, or simply withdrawing.

Reclaiming Your Right to Anger

Although our tendency to repress anger may find its root deep in the past, we do have the ability and freedom now to reclaim our right to feel and express this natural emotion. Anger is not bad; it serves an important function and often carries a message we need to hear.

The journey starts from the realisation that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, and suppressing an emotion does not mean it will disappear.

Expressing your anger does not mean becoming aggressive or acting out. In fact, the more you can healthily use your anger as assertiveness, the less likely it is for you to become aggressive.

Perhaps you can use anger to motivate yourself into doing something that would better the life of yourself and others. For example, if someone has repeatedly hurt you, use anger as information; it is telling you that you need to reinstate your boundaries firmly and clearly. If someone has betrayed you, you may vow to always treat yourself better than the way they treat you.

With practice, you can become good at identifying anger and knowing its underlying reason. Then, you can use anger as a driving force to help you protect yourself and speak up for yourself. You can use anger to get in touch with your emotional needs and get them met. On the other side of anger are passion, actions, and protection. Once you have learned to harness the gifts of anger, you would have a new ally that helps you live a more fulfilling life.

I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight…I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence.
–Thich Nhat Hanh

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