How Disavowed Anger Contributes to Suffering
Anger that is denied doesn't go away. It demands our attention.
Posted April 6, 2019
A large portion of my clinical practice has been devoted to individuals who want help with anger management. They seek strategies to address the negative impact of destructive anger in their relationships, at work, and in their daily life in general. Many are referred by a partner, a supervisor or the courts, while others are self-referred.
At the same time, a huge portion of my practice involves individuals who have sought my help, not because of anger, but rather due to anxiety, depression, relationship issues and self-esteem. However, in the process of our work together, it often becomes apparent that they also suffer due to issues related anger. They rarely describe acting out their anger. Rather, these are individuals who experience much emotional suffering due to their fear of experiencing and/or expressing anger. They can best be considered “anger deniers”.
Denial is a defense mechanism–a way of protecting ourselves from acknowledging parts of ourselves that are inconsistent with how we wish to view ourselves. It is considered a more primitive defense mechanism as it is used early on in our development. The child who appears with chocolate frosting all over his face and yet denies touching the cake–is an example of denial.
As an anger denier we experience tremendous discomfort, even shame regarding our anger. Experiencing it can be powerfully inconsistent with how we wish to view ourselves. The slightest arousal of anger may then be experienced as a powerful threat. One resolution for dealing with this threat is to deny, suppress or minimize such feelings. And through this process, we can preserve a more positive self-image. As such, with and without full awareness, we may disavow our anger in order to preserve our self-image As such, we inherently fear conflict, due to both their fear of experiencing anger as well as becoming the target of anger.
As with the avoidance of other negative feelings, such disavowal may stem from a variety of experiences. Growing up in a family in which anger was never expressed, being punished for anger or observing consequences when a sibling was angry, are just a few of the ways we might learn to disavow our anger. Our family, teachers, culture, religion, extended family, community and the media may further contribute to our comfort or discomfort with anger
Anger deniers fail to recognize the price they pay for the disavowal of their anger. Anger doesn’t necessarily disappear when it is denied, suppressed or minimized. Rather, because anger stems from a perceived sense of threat, it leads to behaviors that may in the short-term feel protective, but in the long-term engender increased suffering. And because anger can be so intensely uncomfortable, it can contribute to other emotional difficulties that can serve to keep it out of awareness.Anger denial may contribute to anxiety, depression, passive-aggressive behavior, displacing of anger and even addictions.
Anxiety may serve as a reaction to disavowed anger
Anxiety can have many roots. But it can occur as a reaction to the intense discomfort surrounding the emerging into awareness of disavowed anger. Anxiety may become the dominant emotional state, fueled by anger arousal and its potential for shame and/or fears of abandonment.
For instance, Melissa, 28 years old, sought counseling regarding increased anxiety she had experienced for several months following her mother’s early death due to cancer.
Melissa was the older of two children, with a sister who experienced both developmental and physical challenges. Consequently, their parents devoted much more time and energy with her sister than with Melissa. And while they frequently praised Melissa for being a patient and caring sister, they often apologized and stated, “We know you understand.” In response, Melissa always stated that she did in fact understand.
Always eager to please them, she just assumed the role of caretaker to her sister, and prided herself for her maturity and her capacity to be nurturing. Only over time, did she recognize increased sadness about the attention she had missed. These interactions left her hungry for approval, not only from her parents, but also in most of her adult relationships. Driven by this desire, she learned to focus her attention predominantly on the needs and desires of others rather than consider her own.
In treatment, Melissa reported that she had increasingly felt invisible in her relationships–with her friends as well as with her boyfriend. She indicated that, “I’m most often the listener and my friends know I always give good advice. And after all, I feel good to help them. But I’ve come to realize they rarely inquire about my feelings. I don’t know. Maybe they assume I’m strong and don’t need to talk about my concerns.”
Her mother’s passing left Melissa anxious as well as confused about her feelings. She reported her anxiety as episodic—often triggered by thoughts of her mother as well as when time with her friends.
It gradually became apparent that, while Melissa was well aware of an ongoing sadness about the attention she missed out on, she had not fully acknowledged her anger about it. She had had difficulty reconciling her intellectual understanding of her sister’s situation with her anger toward her parents about their lack of consideration. And she felt selfish, with accompanying shame, when she experienced anger with a sister who, through no fault of her own, had to endure so much suffering. Her mother’s passing seemed to finalize the reality that she would never get from her the kind of caring she so strongly wished for as a child.
Depression as a consequence of denied anger
Many individuals who seek counseling for depression feel powerless, pessimistic and helpless.They often feel they do not deserve to be happy, to lead a fulfilling life, of to put themselves first when making choices about how to live their lives. They often neglect themselves to the point that they are disconnected with their needs and desires. Unacknowledged anger fuels this predisposition. When extreme, the unacknowledged anger they experience toward others or a given situation may become self-directed, fueling an ongoing sense of inadequacy and feeling “less than”.
This is often the case for individuals who have minimized anger about experiences of early childhood. Emotional and physical abuse and neglect invariably lead a child to feel overwhelmed with confusion. How can a child find the support and nurturance from a parent who is the source of their suffering? These experiences lead to a sense of not being good enough, shame for feelings of anger, confusion, and a sense of powerlessness. But early experiences do not have to be severe in order to contribute to disavowed anger.
Edwin, aged 34, sought counseling to address ongoing moderate depression that he had experienced for several years. He described feeling this way for several years. The precipitating event that brought him into therapy was the increased distance he felt from his wife.
Edwin reported that he had always deferred to his wife when making most decisions in their relationship. He responded in this manner, whether regarding the choice of a meal, a movie, or a restaurant, as well as how much time to spend together and when and if to have physical intimacy. He reported that his depressive seemed to increase following the birth of his child, two years previously.
Edwin felt displaced and ignored, a reaction that many new fathers often face when they are no longer the center of their wife’s attention. Some of these reactions may be viewed as consistent with what has increasingly been described as “male post-partum depression”. However, having routinely deferred his needs and desires, his son’s birth only further intensified his feeling ignored and isolated. In fact, he acknowledged that since the child’s birth they no longer had had physical intimacy.
Edwin had never had a model for being assertive. His father was passive in the relationship with his mother. And while his mother seemed more dominant at home, he observed her to be fairly passive in her relationships outside of the house. Although Edwin had vowed not to be like them, he habitually failed to acknowledge his own needs and desires in his relationships. Consequently, his pattern of renouncing them only further contributed to his quickness to defer decision-making. His conflict avoidance only further increased his sense of isolation and powerlessness.
Passive-aggression as an outgrowth of denied anger
Some individuals who are anger deniers may gradually channel their anger in passive-aggressive ways. They may forget to follow through on a promise to their spouse or even at work. They may neglect to send a birthday card to a partner, send it days after the actual birthday or even forget the birthday.
Passive-aggression may also entail silent treatment. This may last for minutes, hours, days or even months and years as a reaction to conflict in a personal relationship.
In a work setting, passive-aggressiveness may be reflected in the inconsistent acknowledgement of a person’s presence, a refusal to pass on essential information to a colleague, or silent treatment in a committee meeting.
Subtle insults may also reflect passive-aggression. For example, a man might tell his wife that the minestrone soup she made was really good–but that he’ll never forget the minestrone soup he had at the Italian restaurant they went to several months previously.
Passive aggression may be reflected in low-level irritability, a withdrawal of “presence” marked by an inability to engage with a positive mood, laugh at a joke, or initiate spending time together.
Procrastination may also become an expression of anger denial. The failure to fix that faucet at home, complete an assignment at work or even prepare one’s taxes may be, in part, a form of passive-aggression.
Displacement of anger
Some individuals may experience anger, but disavow the anger they experience with a specific person. Fearful of recognizing their anger toward that individual, they may instead direct it elsewhere. When doing so, they engage in using the defense mechanism of displacement.
For example, some individuals who want to hide negative feelings toward a parent may even tend to idealize their parents–praising them as the most loving of parents. I’ve often witnessed this disavowal of anger by individuals who have been challenged in reconciling having very positive feelings toward a parent while also having anger with them. Without awareness, they may then redirect their anger toward others.
This may be the case, for example, when an individual is quick to become angry toward authority, but fail to recognize his anger with a parent. This is reflected by certain clients with whom I have worked who described going to a bar with the intention to have a fight with someone.
Displaced anger may be underlie bullying and even the anger and hate associated with racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia. This type of disavowed anger may even contribute to radicalization around a religion or an ideology.
Disavowed anger and addiction
Addictions provide a powerful avoidance of many emotions, including anger. These may include the use of alcohol and drugs, food and even physical exercise. It is no surprise that many individuals who work at giving up their addictions feel flooded by their emotions. This makes perfect sense, as the addiction served to protect them from acknowledging such emotions. As such, developing new strategies for dealing with these emotions is an essential component of treatment in any addictions programs.
Anger is a natural emotion, but we pay a huge price when we deny, minimize or ignore it. By doing so we turn attention away from more fully recognizing our internal landscape. Through this process, we become less connected with ourselves–less aware of our desires, needs and what moves us in general. Additionally, disavowal of such anger saps our energy and undermines our capacity to be empathic with our own suffering and that of others. It entails a denial of our humanity, thus making us less available to genuinely recognize the humanity of others.
All of our feelings are messages. When listened to with openness, curiosity and compassion we become more fully aware of our desires, our likes and our dislikes. Cultivating the acceptance of our feelings helps us to integrate even those feelings that we disavowed. And through this process we become connected with our inner landscape and more open to living a more richly fulfilling life.