Unexpressed anger destroys relationships and when acted out, rarely produces the desirable result. When turned against oneself, it causes depression and anxiety.
Most people think of anger as a negative emotion and try to expel or suppress it. The result can be disastrous. Because anger results from a rupture of one’s sense of self and security, efforts to exorcise it only cause chaotic relationships and produce self-inflicted psychic wounds.
We often forget that as people we are profoundly different. We interpret behavior in terms of our own belief system and in the context of our own definitions of language and expression. When we “listen”, we tend to interpret and filter the other’s experience as though it were our own. Instead of conscious listening and inquiry, we assume we are aware of the other’s experience. We forget that our perspective is ours and ours alone. We can’t assume we understand what others are saying without careful questioning. Since we assume our perspectives represent “the truth”, any evidence to the contrary leaves us unsteady and defensive. Depending on our personalities, we may lash out and place blame or we may turn our feelings against the self, leaving us feeling rejected and insecure.
When I work with couples, I often see acted out the dynamics of blame, hurt, insecurity, and misunderstanding. This invariably destroys trust and reduces mutual empathy. Each misunderstanding exacerbates the damage such that the slightest wound leads to accusations, blame, and anger. A button is pushed, the partner reacts, more buttons are pushed, until this pattern defines the way a couple communicates. As this unconscious reactivity is played out and becomes ingrained in the relationship, it becomes progressively more difficult to reframe; healing the wounds requires greater and greater effort and attention. We associate this kind of breakdown with couples, but it can come to play in virtually any kind of relationships.
When hurt and angry, we are often compelled to blame and lash out or to internalize and feel insecure and rejected. Being human, we attribute our feelings to another when in fact they are our own. Would it not be illuminating to examine these feelings in light of one’s own past? ? Often we assume the hurt is coming from the others’ insensitivity or lack of caring. Although this may be in fact the case, most often what hurts us is a rupture from our past that gets activated and leads to misinterpreting the other’s meaning and intent.
Walking down the street, we may simmer with hostility at the perceived obliviousness or self-serving behavior of others. But if we examine this anger, it is most often the result of feeling helpless to control our own environment. Impatience is often misplaced anger that, in fact, would be better directed at another object, the actual cause of the frustration.
People become depressed or anxious when they have unexpressed rage that’s turned in on themselves. All of this provokes feelings of hopelessness and leaves the individual without motivation and control. While it’s human to be angry and human to try to deny anger, it is also possible to acknowledge anger and explore its origins through the exploration of the self and the understanding of others.
Sex, or especially the lack of it, is often a source of blame and recrimination in couple relationships. For the therapist, breaking this cycle of mutual blame may feel herculean. When couples can no longer communicate needs and hurts, sexual intimacy suffers and they lose the ability to empathize with their partner. One partner may feel rejected and not capable of empathizing with their partner’s problems with intimacy. As feelings of rejection slowly build, they express themselves as blame, either outwardly or kept to one’s self and expressed passive-aggressively. It is less threatening to be angry at what one doesn’t get than to express feelings of vulnerability, rejection and need.
I worked with a couple who have had only sporadic sex for many years. One partner felt rejected and expressed his hurt by verbally attacking his partner and accusing him of not being physical enough. The anger alienated the partner, who grew increasingly resentful – the anger expressed directly and passive-aggressively in tern exacerbating the the lack of intimacy. The angry rejected partner’s incessant blaming pushed the other away, whereas had he expressed his hurt and described his feelings of rejection, he would have drawn his partner towards him. In session, I had to continually reframe the “blaming partner’s” anger as an expression of deep insecurity and of feelings of rejection and of hurt. As the couple was able to access their underlying feelings — fear of intimacy in one partner and fear of rejection in the other — both were able to work through their resentment. As resentment waned, each member of the couple began to be present for the other and to gradually empathize with the other’s feelings and needs.
I once spent four years working with a patient who continually railed against the world and everyone in it. In session, he raged constantly and complained bitterly about the stupidity and insensitivity that surrounded him. He had very painful memories of continual childhood emotional abuse. I encouraged him to express his anger but as I began to explore the origins of his rage, he would turn it toward me. He wanted to express his anger but was unwilling to probe more deeply to his hurt and feelings of worthlessness. Whatever interpretation or intervention I put forth, or no matter how much validation and empathy I provided, he just wanted to express his rage and have it heard. But having it heard over two 2-year periods did nothing to alleviate his existential discomfort and never drew him to examine his pain. He never got past his anger and left treatment much as he started.
While we need to let out our anger, if we don’t explore its source, it will continue to feed itself and inhibit growth and deeper understanding. Blame inhibits understanding and repressing anger causes misdirected rage and depression. Anger is an emotion that must be acknowledged but whose acknowledgment must also lead to understanding and empathy.