In numerous previous posts, I have gone into extensive length in discussing anger. For most of us, anger is such an uncomfortable emotion, that we have found elegant solutions to manage it, tolerate it, and push it away from our awareness. Unfortunately these defensive maneuvers, although at one time may have worked, often create more pain and suffering than benefit for us. Let’s take a look at the three most common strategies that people typically have found to manage anger along with the negative consequences that result from these strategies.
The first and most common strategy is called deflection. This is the typical “kick the dog” when you’re angry strategy. In other words, this is when we focus our anger on someone else, rather than the actual source of the anger, because this other entity is either more vulnerable in some way or just plainly a more easy target. So, for example, if a boss or supervisor has enraged the individual, it is far easier to take out the anger at home with one’s family, which is usually a captive audience, rather than deal with direct conflict at work, which may have unknown and terrifying consequences. When we are angry at someone and we have no idea why, it may be helpful to take a look at deflection as a potential culprit.
Second is projection. If it is too uncomfortable for us to tolerate the anger, we may project it unto another person, which means that instead of being aware of our anger, we instead believe that someone is angry at us. In essence, the end result of projection in this situation is the uneasy feeling of paranoia– thinking that people are angry at us or out to get us without any concrete evidence in support of this belief.
Finally, we have introjection, in which instead of turning our anger at its source, we turn the anger inward at our own selves. Often, we may experience this inwardly turned anger as guilt– instead of blaming others (anger), we instead blame ourselves (guilt).
The most important thing to understand about these psychological processes is that they exist because, at the core, the individual is unable to tolerate the direct experience of staying present with the feeling of one’s own anger. So, in this example, all of these psychological difficulties, ranging from paranoia to guilt, directly stem from discomfort with anger. This discomfort can originate in several ways.
We may have, for example, been modeled unhealthy displays of anger by our family of origin. In this scenario, as children we may have seen our parents use anger in destructive and abusive ways, emotional or physical, which left us feeling terrified of the consequences of the expression of anger. As a result, we may have never learned healthy displays of anger in which we saw it used in constructive and appropriate forms of conflict resolution. In this way, we can develop what I would consider to be a phobia of anger. The consequence of this is we are so afraid of conflict that we cannot manage to stand up for ourselves, have inappropriate and weak boundaries, and experience volcanic eruptions of rage when the anger has built up to unmanageable intensity, all because we never learned to discharge anger appropriately. We may not even realize how angry we are until it is too late due to the aforementioned defense strategies listed above.
When I see couples in treatment, inevitably one or both individuals is struggling with the emotion of anger. These relationships may experience periods where one or both partners are raging, because they do not have the tools to get their needs met through engaging in appropriate conflict. As a result, this intense fear of conflict leads to bigger blowouts down the line. Often, personal boundaries may have become so blurred that the members of the couple find themselves struggling just to regain a sense of personal autonomy. These situations all arise in part due to an inability to tolerate and manage anger.
Individually, unresolved anger leads to emotions such as fear (paranoia) and guilt that are antithetical to sexual expression. Yes, both fear and guilt can be sexualized, but most individuals struggling with these negative affects find that they are inhibitory rather than disinhibitory. For more on how guilt undermines sexual functioning, take a look at this article. In summation, the inability to tolerate the affect of anger leads to numerous other emotional, relational and sexual disturbances. In these situations, one of my tasks as a therapist is to help my client to learn to gradually tolerate more and more of the direct experience of their anger so that they can reduce the intensity of their fear and finally achieve freedom from the toxicity of this particular pernicious affect phobia.