An Intimate Conversation with Anger: “But she knows I’d never hurt her!”

(Image is court-crimson-king from musicmaniauk.com)

We human beings experience a wide palette of angry feelings, sensations and behaviors. Have you ever known frustration anger, righteous anger, jealousy anger, resentment anger, sexual anger, helpless rage, fear anger, impatient anger, unworthiness anger, self-diminishment anger (can’t remember, can’t climb stairs, can’t lift the table), unfairness anger, derisive anger, group anger?

When speaking about complex emotions we often use single words, like ‘anger,’ to describe a constellation of aspects that express our unique experience. Of course, each of our experiences of anger occur at a certain time and place. Each experience is embedded within a matrix of confluent variables that influence that experience—how well we have slept, how sober we are, momentary or chronic stressors. These variables also include the reservoir of painful experiences from our past. Sometimes, our most deeply painful experiences seem to have a common theme, such as arousing the fear of abandonment or rejection, or of reiterating traumatic betrayal. Sometimes, the concurrent pressures of our present circumstances–interpersonal, environmental, economic, and otherwise—overwhelm us and we can longer contain this surfeit of emotion.

Anger shares with other feelings, an atmospheric readout on how we interpret the impacts of our interactions with others as well as the trajectory of our current circumstances into the future. For example, when we assume that our angry interaction with our spouse predicts only future angry interactions.

Because feelings energize us, for better or worse, they tend to motivate action. Angry feelings can motivate actions that cause harm, to us as well as to others, even when angry expressions are “only verbal.” Although we utilize differentiating concepts like ‘verbal’ and ‘physical,’ in our actual experience with angry exchanges, anything verbal is really a subset of what we call physical. The tone, volume, pressure, proximity, and other “hits” of angry verbal expressions are, and produce, physical, bodily changes in ourselves and in the recipients of our outbursts.

There are many useful approaches to taming the lion, anger. Anger management strategies range from deeper therapeutic approaches that delve its origins and function to those that strategically utilize behavioral methods. Some approaches utilize the application of a 12-step model, where anger, like an addiction, is out of control. Some approaches relate stress to the expression of anger and utilize methods to develop the management of stress in productive ways. Some approaches emphasize learning assertiveness training and communication, to eliminate unproductive aggressiveness. Mindfulness strategies, when employed on a regular basis—meditation and yoga, or therapeutic writing for example—tend to calm down the nervous system and increase the capacity for acceptance of life’s slings and arrows. Other bodily approaches help to increase one’s awareness of precursor sensations that will inevitably build toward an angry outburst so that they can be headed off at the pass. Even more powerful somatic approaches work directly to unlock body armoring, holding and breathing patterns, thus freeing up possibilities for different kinds of emotional experiences. Cognitive behavior therapies help to identify irrational thoughts or narratives that tend to evoke angry feelings. ACT emphasizes behaving in counterintuitive ways that override angry feelings. Cultural and gender sensitivity can also play a healing role. Men, even today in the US, are often encouraged to keep a lid on “soft” emotions so that anger, a more “masculine” emotion, becomes the vehicle for expressing sadness, frustration, disappointment and other feelings. Angry expressions and how they are tolerated or interpreted, may also differ by country, ethnic group, religion, and other parts of self-identity.

This essay enters the discussion from an empathy training perspective and focuses on the relational aspects of anger expression. While one can take out anger on objects or on oneself when alone, the most obvious and ubiquitous need to manage anger occurs because of its interpersonal impact. In fact, understanding the impact of our anger on others helps us to consider the impact on the relationship we have with ourselves.
Emotions move us, razz us; make us gorgeously perturbed humans. What a gift to feel so intensely and passionately. And yet the heat of emotions can burn so brightly as to escape containment. Our frustration, disappointment and anger can lead us to take destructive rather than corrective actions. Most great gifts, such as our emotional intensity, come with the need for great responsibility.

Jay had a wife and two daughters. After serving in the army as a medic, and performing life-saving measures in a war zone that would have been reserved for only doctors in a hospital stateside, he felt frustrated with his civilian job as a paramedic. His boss frequently shot down his ideas and his natural command of situations, even though he had received awards and acknowledgements for his great service as an emergency responder. Not only did his medical experience serve him well, but he had a sympathetic, straightforward way in dealing with families, especially when there was a severe injury or fatality.

Often Jay would do a double shift. His sense of identity, coupled with the responsibility of being the major provider for his family, reinforced his working long hours. When he got home, his stress and irritability immediately converted to annoyance, even anger, with his wife and daughters. The second he walked in, if there was anything out of place—dishes not cleared, toys on the floor, homework not done, etc.—he would yell and make angry gestures, often huffing off to his room to shower and cool off. Several beers later he would want some companionship, but by then his wife tried to avoid him and tended to protect the children by hustling them into baths and bedtime.
Finally, his wife Cindy said, “I can’t do it anymore. This is not living. This is not a marriage. Not a family. We’re afraid of you. We dread every time you walk in the door.” Jay was shocked. Absolutely shocked. How could he, someone so good with other people be the person his wife and young daughters feared? It didn’t make sense to him.”
I asked Jay to suggest an image for how it felt to come home after a long and particularly frustrating shift. He said, “It stinks. It’s like carrying a big bag of sh. . on my back.” I suggested he literally imagine hauling a huge heavy sack of manure into his house. And further, imagine dumping it out just as he saw his wife and daughters.
The two most prominent rationalizations for yelling, screaming, and insulting someone that I hear are: these expressions were provoked or deserved, and that they cause no bodily harm because they are verbal.

Jay believed that his wife and children should have accomplished things in the time frame he saw as fit and believed his anger and criticism justified. He also admitted to feeling some relief when he unloaded on them. “Just venting some steam” didn’t seem like a big deal to Jay. After a shower he had “gotten over the anger and forgiven” these infractions, which he could see as small, so why weren’t his wife and daughters feeling equally relieved?

To Jay’s credit, he had no intention of losing his family, and the critical interaction with Cindy, and her mandate that he take steps to change his behavior brought him into therapy. When we work on our own anger management, it does not matter whether someone else deserves or provokes our wrath. This is completely irrelevant. The reasons to manage anger have to do with the benefits of feeling in control of one’s behavior, of meeting one’s standards for being a good, upstanding human who treats others with dignity and respect, regardless of how they treat us; and to be able to defuse or deescalate potentially harmful, even dangerous arguments or other interactions, interactions that will hurt others in multiple ways.

Self-respect, a sense of personal empowerment, and a sense of integrity partly derive from self-control. Emotional self-control involves the ability to feel our feelings, while considering if or how we wish to express them appropriately. Major problems result from such action-justifying thoughts like “others deserve” our wrath, or “made us act” aggressively. Laying the blame for our angry outbursts on others puts us in the judge and jury seat, first, and then in the role of punisher. It is difficult to draw limits on the harshness that seems justifiable based on our angry feelings. Can you hit someone but not maim them for life? Can you punch a hole through a wall but not demolish the house? Can you shove someone, but not down the stairs? You get the gist.
Paradoxically, the underside of blaming others for our angry outbursts disempowers us. Though we have judged others at fault, we also imply that we, like marionettes with strings, get easily pulled to act in ways we do not feel good about and would not otherwise want to initiate. “I didn’t want to hit him, but he wouldn’t listen. He made me do it.” To employ self-control in provocative situations means to have the highest personal agency and empowerment.

Like many people who get angry with family members and trivialize, or are unaware of the impact on them, Jay felt utter surprise that his wife truly feared him. He assumed that because he had “never laid a hand on her,” Cindy would know it could never happen. In Jay’s mind this granted her immunity from fearing him. Because Jay had been through highly traumatic experiences, as both a medic and as a paramedic, he did not see his own angry, but unpredictable outbursts as producing traumatic experiences for his wife and daughters at home.

When we yell, scream, insult, or threaten others with our voices, facial expressions, and gestures, we do indeed produce harmful physical, neurological, and psychological reactions in the recipient(s). The verbal and physical share more in common than do they differ when it comes to anger. And when expressions of anger erupt frequently, not to mention inconsistently, it can result in traumatization of the recipients.
Unfortunately, even when someone knows that their partner’s anger will not result in a broken bone, the more primitive wiring of the brain alerts the victim of angry outbursts to danger. The appearance of threat mobilizes protective mechanisms. The so-called flight, fight or freeze reactions of the brain and body all come into play, even when we supposedly “know” someone will not make overt body to body contact.

We human beings have a miraculous body and brain and every second of our lives, awake or asleep, our bodies and brains receive impressions. We receive sounds, sights, pressures, temperature altering influences, hormonal influences, health status influences, nutritional influences and so forth. Loud noises pierce the structures in the ears, angry faces terrorize the musculature as shoulders creep up around the head and stiffen and affect breathing patterns, speed up the heart and raise the blood pressure, affect the adrenal glands which start pumping out adrenalin–a stress and mobilizing hormone. When someone suffers the unfortunate impacts of multiple anger outbursts by someone else, they may turn hypervigilant, a term that describes what it feels like when one awaits the proverbial shoe dropping at any moment, even when things seem presently calm. Hypervigilance expresses a never-safe status.

We find it difficult to ignore potential threats. To ignore them often means shutting down the body and brain, numbing out, succumbing to deep depression with its consequent narratives of hopelessness and helplessness, or using drugs or alcohol to mask the pain.

Alternatively, we can learn to aggress in retaliation and by our personal expressions of aggression, imagine that this diminishes the likelihood of our being harmed. Whether one learns to numb, collapse, or aggress, the results cause bodily harm and diminish our capacity for trust, for joy, and for healthy exchanges about the situations or events that result in our feelings of anger toward others or theirs toward us.

Recently, a female client of mine who charged her ex-husband with rape, shared a court experience in which he said he believed he had the right to sex, whenever he wanted, because he was her husband. Although an ignorant view of another human being as property to be used regardless of consent, it illustrates the power of what we believe about the prerogatives of our roles in relationship. These beliefs directly lead to our notions of allowable behavior.

My approach to intervening with expressions of anger involves empathy training and an exploration of relational beliefs, that, at their core offer a central hub from which a person can gain skills and mastery over behavior that best represents their beliefs and/or their reevaluated beliefs.

Emotions, sensations and actions constellate and co-occur closely. But as concepts, and as manifestations, they differ. Mastery over our behavior requires the ability to separate what we feel from what we do. The word, ‘emotion,’ means ‘movement outward.’ Strong feelings highly motivate action. That means, in order to separate strong feelings from actions, we must be able to use most of our brain power at the same time. We must deploy our executive functions of logical thought—like thinking through the consequences of our actions before we do them—decision-making and asking ourselves whether our future action aligns with our notions of principle and purpose.

Taking ‘psychic distance’ is another phrase to describe the activation of brain power that serves to move us from inside the lion’s cage of anger to the outside, so we can survey the context in which our angry experience is embedded: fatigue, work stress, hurt feelings, built up frustration; as well as our, often incorrect interpretation of others’ intentions with regard to us.

When we think our feelings are justified—feelings are the barometers of how we interpret our interactions—then we too often feel justified in the actions generated by those feelings. It stands as a hallmark of maturity and self-mastery to do inquiry on our interpretations of the intentions and agendas of others. Our narratives and interpretations of why others do what they do, says more about us than about them. We each have our own lenses through which we see everything. If my green sun glasses are stuck to my face you might have a hard time convincing me that the “real” colors differ from what I see. But if we use our curiosity to ask questions, to find out what moves or matters to those with whom we find ourselves in conflict—when we try on their glasses–then the understanding generated often yields amazing results.

Jay found it fascinating and sad to think that angry outbursts do hurt other people, whether anger gets expressed as verbal or gestural or physical ventilation. These expressions always hurt other people, as well as potentially destroying objects that belong to them. These acts violate others emotionally, physiologically, and interpersonally.

Whether an angry person would or would not drown or break someone else’s body, the constant threat hovers like precursors to earthquakes or tornadoes. Everyone around that person goes on alert, using their radar powers to scan for signs of developing turmoil. Everyone feels untrusting and stressed. Hypervigilance exhausts them because they do not know what to expect.

Breaking or drowning someone’s object, say a phone, is a conscious or subconscious threat to someone’s actual body. Things we own are extensions of our bodies. The threat, when drowning or breaking someone’s object reads: “Watch out. I can take, break or drown your body just as readily as I can take, break or drown your things.”

Curiosity about others, and the understanding that generates, open the door for empathy. When we can retain our own wants and needs, while simultaneously finding compassion for the wants and needs of others, perhaps in conflict with ours at times, then we will also develop new skills for mediating issues.

In a recent question and answer talk with the writer and surgeon, Atule Gawande, author of “Being Mortal” and “The Checklist Manifesto,” he told a story about treating a prisoner who had swallowed a razor blade and done other self-harm just short of taking his own life. The man was verbally brutal to him and to other staff and Gwande found him not very likeable, though he proceeded to treat the man with best medical care. Finally, he said, “You seem very angry and like you don’t feel respected?” At this point the prisoner let down his guard a bit and said that was true. He had been in solitary confinement and felt treated less than humanely. From there the medical treatment went better and Gawande’s understanding allowed him to proceed without feeling so personally attacked and without feeling so much dislike for this individual.

In Gawande’s article for The New Yorker, “Curiosity and Equality,” he writes: “Regarding people as having lives of equal worth means recognizing each as having a common core of humanity. Without being open to their humanity, it is impossible to provide good care. . .To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone.”

In empathy training we must, as Gawande suggests, put on our curiosity hats and inquire about what matters to others with whom we find ourselves angry or in conflict. And we must refresh personal inquiry as to how we want to show up as human beings. What behaviors, what values, and what principles lie within our moral compass? What standards for ourselves do we employ in our dealings with others? What behaviors represent our best selves?

Today, the climate in our country, the USA, seems saturated with divisiveness and bifurcation, as if citizens’ basic needs and wants were so different as to constitute extreme polarities. Anger and fear continue to fuel outrageous acts of inhumanity. As Gawande says in the latter part of his article, “We are all capable of heroic and of evil things. No one and nothing that you encounter in your life and career will be simply heroic or evil. Virtue is a capacity. It can always be lost or gained. That potential is why all of our lives are of equal worth. . . We are not sufficiently described by the best thing we have ever done, nor are we sufficiently described by the worst thing we have ever done. We are all of it.”

After several sessions, Jay returned to share the good news that his relationship with Cindy had improved greatly. It even felt like a honeymoon. Although she had often told him he scared her, for the first time he took in the information and let her know that he truly understood. I utilize a concept of “Back listening,” a way of refreshing what complaints about ourselves we have heard but not heard in the past, and revisiting those with a curious mind and an open heart.

Jay had devised a plan for returning home from work through the back door and heading straight for the shower before entering the living room or kitchen, where he immediately gave everyone hugs. He found himself able to drink less and engage more. Cindy had prepared some of his favorite meals and given him more affection, which warmed up their relationship quite a bit. On occasion, when he did snap or found himself feeling frustrated, he apologized, and things resolved more quickly, without ongoing silences in the aftermath. He found himself thinking more ‘other-mindedly’—better predicting the impact his presentation would have on others. He even felt that his already excellent work as a paramedic improved to a point of confidence where he started to consider further education toward a nurse practitioner degree.
When we experience the personal power generated by having control over our actions, in conjunction with a profound belief in the power of understanding to help us resolve conflicts with others, then lots of things can seem possible.

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