Who, Me? Angry?!

In how many ways do we express anger and in how many more ways do we deny that we feel anger at all? Anger is binged; it is purged, eroticized, drunken, and driven, smiled away, snorted, smoked, stolen, and gambled. It is exercised, cried over and about, laughed away, raged (taken to great extremes—fanaticized), and even revenged. Some individuals who act out their anger in these ways know that anger may be at its core, but many more, if not most, might deny that anger (or its close ally—shame) is at the route of their behaviors albeit their addictions.

Unfortunately, anger that is denied or rejected has more ominous implications for us simply because that which we do not know exists makes it that much harder to change. In this case, it is harder to see or identify our anger if it is parading as our behaviors hidden from introspective view.

When we are angry we have a physical reaction such as a rush of adrenaline followed by an increased heart rate and/or blood pressure. We consciously or unconsciously experience a tightening of our muscles that is a biologically programmed response known as the “fight or flight” response. Anger is protection. It can become a catalyst for change or to correct injustices.

But, it can also be driven down and inward only to resurface in the form of a multitude of behaviors and addictions. Most importantly, if we’ve only known anger as a rageful behavior, then we will avoid feeling angry at all costs because to know anger is to experience rage; or so we have come to believe. Anger is often like the air in the room; a distinctive and intangible presence—invisible yet enveloping. It is not until anger is illuminated that we notice its existence.

Many a client has come to my office agitated or angry yet resolute that they are not angry. Elaine is one such individual. At 42 years-old she struggled with binge eating; panic attacks and a gnawing sense of despair. On this particular day she presented with pursed lips and a broad, squinty smile. “When I’m not working I turn into this person who does nothing—I mean nothing except eat and sleep! On those days, I can’t control my eating and apathetic mood.” She reported feeling a little tense in our initial session but nonetheless happy to be there. I would have taken her words at face value had her affect not been visibly undermined by her angry and agitated mood.

Elaine went on to explain her failed attempts to control her eating. On the surface Elaine was experiencing bouts of utter exhaustion which were punctuated by binging and apathetic mood. For Elaine this cycle of exhaustion, eating and apathy became inexplicable by reason or rationale.

When I asked Elaine what she was feeling in the moment she stated, “I feel tired but I feel nothing—nothing at all!” I went on to ask her what her mood may have been prior to her last cycle of exhaustion and binge eating. She repeated the words she had just spoken only this time with vehemence. “I feel tired but I felt nothing—nothing at all!” I assured Elaine that she was indeed feeling something considering that she was becoming more agitated as she spoke. My words may not have been welcome feedback but they were, nonetheless, correct.

It was not “nothing” that Elaine was feeling when she binged on food or lay listlessly on the couch on her days off. “Nothing” is not what she felt when a sick and agitated patient verbally provoked her at work. However, “nothing” is akin to how Elaine came to process anger since growing up in a violent family system would not allow for her or anyone’s expression of self.

Elaine hadn’t yet tuned in to her persistent, underlying anger that sat waiting to spring at the slightest provocation. In her initial session she verbalized that she got irritated with others but denied that she was an angry person. “My father raged when I was young and I swore that I would never be like him.” According to Elaine, she didn’t rage and she was right; she didn’t at least not outwardly. But nor did she realize that her unmitigating anger permeated her very being. By the time Elaine reached adulthood her anger was expressed as rage, albeit inwardly driven. It was what fed her binges on food and fueled her panic attacks. It turned inward to become her depression, anxiety, and despair.

How anger becomes a “feared” or rejected emotion for us varies and has much to do with how anger was acknowledged or rejected; externalized or internalized in one’s childhood and family of origin.

Like many areas of our lives, the emotion of anger is affected and influenced by a number of issues: family systems, our role in the family, cultural messages (covert or overt), and childhood abuse. The effects of childhood abuse will vary according to the nature and severity of the abuse, by whom we were abused, the presence or lack of other nurturing caregivers, and our innate coping skills and ability to adapt. Without doubt, experiencing enraged anger can be at the core of more complex psychological and physical injury that can result in a fundamental change to our character and personality. But, in its less abusive form anger can still elicit strong feelings of being unlovable or worthless.

How we process (internalize) anger and its close cousin, shame, depends upon other variables. However, if we come to experience anger as abusive we are likely to reject that emotion along with our child-self in a maladaptive attempt to restore inner psychological calm and balance. That rejected child-self that was on the receiving end of the rage or abuse tends not to remain submissive or invisible for long.

Indirect or passive-aggressive behaviors that “white wash” anger manifest as an “acceptable” means of self-expression that may include bingeing or purging food, using drugs or alcohol, and engaging in acts of self-sabotage. One may also adopt destructive, high-risk behaviors as a means of expression that includes high-speed driving, extreme sports, and high risk financial dealings for example.

“I’m always calm and level headed” or “I don’t get angry because I’m not an angry person,” were Elaine’s mantras during the early days of therapy. She was proud of herself for having a voice and being self expressive but Elaine came to understand that her self sabotaging cycle of binging and apathy were thinly disguised acts of inwardly driven anger turned rageful. For Elaine, her growth came when she began to acknowledge and process her father’s violent abuse. His anger was shaming and nothing short of abusive on many levels and Elaine learned that she internalized his rage and reenacted it only now it was abuse of self.

So, over time Elaine learned how to set boundaries and stand up for herself.

Like Elaine, most individuals can process and heal from their wounding and begin to utilize their own emotions such as anger in a healthier less self destructive manner. As is always the case, anger is controllable; rage is not!