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'It’s Happening Again!' A Potent Trigger for Intense Anger

How one knee-jerk judgment about an event can quickly intensify anger.

Javier sought help dealing with his anger, especially toward his children, a 5-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. While he was prone to become annoyed in the past, he had found himself increasingly irritated with them in recent months—evidenced by raising his voice and demeaning them.

Anger arousal is about experiencing some form of perceived threat. In addition, it’s a reaction and distraction to negative feelings—inner pain that might entail feelings such as shame, guilt, anxiety, powerlessness, rejection, or feelings of inadequacy.

Furthermore, much of anger is aroused by impulsive conclusions we make about an event, others or ourselves. This entails the knee-jerk meaning or judgment we form about the event or behaviors. Being impulsively created, they lack the benefit of a pause that allows for the consideration of alternative ways of interpreting the event. Rather, they are automatic and, as such, tend to increase the likelihood of negative feelings including anger.

Javier reported thinking, “They’re ignoring me” as one of the impulsive conclusions he made about them not listening to him. This led him to feel ignored and disrespected. With further reflection, he also recognized concluding that their behaviors implied that he wasn’t effective in parenting. As such, he felt inadequate and powerless.

And through further thought, Javier also recognized he had concluded that his wife also believed he didn’t know how to effectively parent. He consequently felt shame and embarrassment.

The negative feelings he experienced make perfect sense in light of these immediate conclusions about his children’s behavior. And yet, they do not fully account for the intensity of his feelings. Even Javier believed he had overreacted.

Source: Felix Pergande/123RF
Source: Felix Pergande/123RF

It required yet further exploration for Javier to better recognize one conclusion that very much contributed to the intensity of his anger. At a deeper level, he also told himself, “It’s happening again!”

The conclusion, “It’s happening again!” is one of the most potent triggers for overly intense anger. When this occurs, a cascade of negative feelings associated with this thought exacerbates our emotional reactions to a current triggering event. If we’re sensitized to have certain thoughts and feelings such as shame, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, or feeling powerless, ignored or betrayed—our emotional mind reaches into the past to the cumulative hurts associated with them—all percolating to the sense that “it’s happening again." And to the degree that we’ve not fully made peace with our past hurts, we are more likely to experience this rallying cry.

Such knee-jerk reactions may make perfect sense given our histories. Any tendency to repeatedly form this conclusion further strengthens our neuronal pathways to make it more likely they will spontaneously arise when a potentially triggering event occurs. In effect, our physiology is reacting not only to the current event but also to those from our recent and distant past.

Initially, Javier was puzzled. “How could I feel so inadequate at home when I own a company of 20 employees and rarely have problems with them?” It took him a while to recognize that although he had experienced great confidence in himself at work, he had no prior experience as a parent. In effect, it makes sense that he would feel inadequate to some degree, but it was his history that paved the way for an overreaction.

In taking time to reflect on his anger arousal, Javier came to recognize how a long history of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy impacted his current reactions to his children. Years of self-judgment made him hypersensitive to feeling inadequate, with sensitivity to feeling criticized throughout his life. This history also made him vulnerable to feel powerless, ignored, shame and disrespected.

The Challenge

Transforming destructive anger into healthy anger requires us to pause and reflect on our internal experiences that influence our anger. Identifying the negative feelings behind it and the conclusions we make are a meaningful component of this process. And so is our capacity to realize, in the moment, that our reaction may not be solely about the current triggering event.

Meeting this challenge requires reflection and attention that goes above and beyond simply controlling anger. It takes repeated self-observation regarding the distinct moments of anger arousal. In this way we can begin to more immediately recognize and acknowledge, in real time, that our reaction to a current situation includes those stemming from cumulative hurts.

This process involves acknowledging past hurts, honoring the feelings attached to them and perhaps mourning and grieving—work that is essential to move on from them. It involves being mindful to cultivate, in real time, new ways of thinking, forging new neuronal pathways reflecting different and less incendiary thoughts. Such work expands our capacity for considering conclusions beyond those we may instinctively make to potentially triggering events. This work is the antidote to mindlessly experiencing the inner dialogue, “It’s happening again.”