The Simple Truth about Anger
Suppressing angry feelings inevitably has destructive consequences.
Posted Oct 28, 2014
Feeling angry is a universal human phenomenon. It is as basic as feeling hungry, lonely, loving, or tired. —-Theodore Rubin
“A thought murder a day keeps the doctor away.” What this quote emphasizes is that feeling one’s angry thoughts is a healthy manifestation, whereas the denial or suppression of angry feelings has a pathological effect. In my experience as a clinician, I have observed that suppressing angry feelings inevitably has destructive consequences.
I postulate four major ill effects of bypassing the feeling of angry emotions. They are (1) developing psychosomatic symptoms; (2) turning the anger against oneself; (3) projecting anger outward onto others; and (4) acting out hostile, negative behaviors.
1. When we shy away from our angry emotions, they tend to become somaticized, causing varying degrees of harm to the body. Holding back angry feelings creates tension, and this stress reaction plays a part in a wide range of psychosomatic ailments, such as headaches, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. As reported by the College of Nursing, University of Tennessee: "Such low scores suggest suppression, repression, or restraint of anger. There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis."
2. When people internalize feelings of anger, it causes them to turn against themselves and become self-critical and self-hating. If this process reaches serious proportions, it plays a significant role in feelings of depression and worthlessness. It can lead to self-defeating, self-destructive, and at times, suicidal behaviors. Psychoanalysts have traditionally understood depression as being primarily due to anger directed against the self.
3. People who avoid or suppress anger frequently externalize their anger by disowning it in themselves and projecting it onto other people, thereby perceiving others as being angry or hostile. This causes them to experience the external environment as alien and dangerous. They then react to these perceived enemies with counter-aggression or paranoia, often triggering a dangerous downward spiral of progressive maladaptation and misery.
4. When people cannot tolerate angry emotions, they tend to act out their anger inappropriately. They find it difficult to control and are hurtful or abusive to themselves and others. Often, they act against their own best interests.
Those who stifle their anger are apt to express it indirectly through passive-aggression or by becoming withholding. Withholding behaviors, such as being forgetful, habitually late, procrastinating and otherwise provoking, alienate others; in particular, they create distance between partners in intimate relationships and bring about problems in the workplace. In general, passive-aggression is dysfunctional, drives people away, increases guilt feelings and has a bad overall effect on the perpetrator.
Lastly, when people find it difficult to acknowledge anger directly, they instead tend to justify the reasons for their anger, which leads to feeling misunderstood, victimized, righteously indignant or morally wronged. This often causes the anger and victimization to become obsessive, and the angry thoughts not only persist for long periods but build and eventually take their toll on one’s overall happiness and adjustment.
Anger is perhaps the most misunderstood of human emotions. There are many misconceptions about it. Some people perceive anger as bad or immoral and feel that becoming angry makes them a bad person. Others believe that anger is the opposite of love and feel that expressions of anger have no place in close, personal relationships or in the family. Another common, yet incorrect, belief is that being angry at someone implies that one is accusing that person of wrongdoing.
Anger is a natural and inevitable response to frustration or stress. The degree of anger is proportional to the degree of frustration experienced at the time, whether or not one’s feelings of anger are rational and appropriate to the situation or irrational and entirely inappropriate. As the Dalai Lama rightly noted, “If a human being never shows anger, then I think something’s wrong. He’s not right in the brain.”
In this regard, it is beneficial to understand that anger is a healthy emotion, and it is ideal to feel the emotion fully. Critical, vicious thoughts and attitudes are entirely acceptable, morally speaking, whereas actions must be judged on moral grounds, and even a sarcastic or superior tone or an insensitive act can be considered hurtful.
In my book, The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships, I emphasize that it is essential, in terms of our mental health and well-being, to give all of our feelings free reign in conscious awareness and experience, whereas, in relation to our actions, we must make a rational decision about how to express our anger that involves both moral concerns and reality issues.
I describe two salient points in relation to acting on our anger: Is it consistent with our values and would it be in our own best interest? Regarding the latter, it would be foolhardy, for example, for a person who values his or her job to blow up at the boss; instead, it would be more productive to simply acknowledge and feel the hostile feelings without acting them out.
For the most part, overreactive emotional responses in adults, including intense anger or rage, contain a primal element based on early experiences that were threatening or traumatic. Becoming sensitive to the types of situations that arouse overly strong reactions of anger is useful in making a distinction between present-day and primal emotions.
Whereas the anger in the current situation may be justified, the intensity is often not appropriate to the personal significance of the event. An awareness of the primal components of one’s anger not only helps defuse the level of anger but also allows time for rational self-reflection and a more thoughtful consideration of one’s thoughts and actions.
Bear in mind that it is crucial to be able to express anger, and at times it can have a remarkably positive effect in personal, vocational or political situations. It is generally best to state one’s anger directly and in a calm tone of voice, rather than in an angry or rageful manner. For example, saying “I felt angry at you when you did thus and so,” matter-of-factly is more effective than expressing it angrily, which will usually provoke an immediate angry retort. However, if you are further annoyed by the response to your anger, or it fails to achieve your purpose, you can always state things more strongly and forcefully. In general, this escalation should be gradual and controlled to achieve the best results.
In summary, when we deny or suppress hostile emotions, our anger is likely to be internalized, turned against our bodies or our selves, or externalized, distorting the world around us. In addition, we are more likely to lose control and act in ways that are detrimental or destructive to ourselves and to others.
The acceptance of anger and the ability to tolerate angry feelings brings anger under our control and regulation. Indeed, when men and women are able to experience angry feelings and are comfortable with them, they become stronger and more self-possessed. In addition, they tend to be more accepting of anger in their children and more likely to encourage their child’s movement towards positive self-expression, while discouraging passive-aggressive or manipulative behavior. In this way, they teach their children important lessons about anger management, such as when and how to express it, that are so critical in later life.
For all the reasons noted above, psychotherapists work hard to help their clients recognize, accept and fully experience their angry emotions and learn to express them when appropriate.
Read more from Dr. Robert Firestone at PsychAlive.org