A Guide to Psychology and its Practice -- welcome to the «Anger» page.
It began with a simple drive to the airport. But, before long, she began to start criticizing his driving. He wasn’t aggressive enough; he wasn’t pushing past the speed limit; they would be late and it would be his fault. He, though, ever patient and peaceful, took it all silently.
They were hardly speaking by the time they arrived at the airport.
And then something strange happened.
She got out of the car in a huff and walked away. He just sat there, watching her. And he felt nothing. He had no urge to run after her. He didn’t care whether he ever saw her again or not.
Later, when he remembered this incident in psychotherapy for his depression, he broke into tears. His apathy that day shocked him.
When I suggested that he may have been angry with her, he protested, “But I love her. How can I be angry with her?”
Poor guy. Little did he understand love. And little did he understand anger.
Let’s face it—anger is a fact of life. Our world is filled with violence, hatred, war, and aggression. Psychologically, many theories of human development focus on the infant’s struggle with anger and frustration and the primitive fantasies of aggression, guilt, and reparation that result from these feelings. In essence, we grow up with anger right from the beginning of life.
The brilliant French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, taught that aggression results as a psychological defense Jacques Lacan against threats of fragmentation. That is, as infants, we are just a jumble of diverse biological processes over which we have no authority, and our first task in life is to develop a coherent identity which “pulls together” this fragmented confusion. This identity may give the appearance of a unified personality, but it really is just a psychological illusion that hides our essential human vulnerability and weakness. And so, when anything or anyone threatens us with the truth of our essential fragmentation, the quickest, easiest, and most common defense available—to hide the truth of our weakness and to give the illusion that we possess some sort of power—is aggression.
As a result, some persons will fly into a rage about almost anything. But some persons, like the man in the story above, don’t get any closer to anger than apathy. And yet apathy really is a veiled form of anger because, like all anger—as will be explained in the text that follows—apathy, even though it achieves its goal through passive indifference, ultimately wishes harm on another person.
So, given that anger is a human reality, what help can psychology offer in learning to cope with it?
The Starting Point:
Even though this might seem like an obviously simple point, many persons still have a deep reluctance to grasp it: Anger is a common human emotion. We all feel it. And we feel it more often than we like to admit.
But before going any further, we need to make a clear distinction between anger and feeling hurt or irritated.
We all feel hurt or irritated when someone or something obstructs our needs or desires. Anger, though, in its technical sense refers to the desire to “get even with”—that is, to take revenge on—the cause of the hurt.
For example, when another car suddenly cuts in front of your car on the road, adrenaline pumps into your bloodstream. Your heart rate jumps. Your blood pressure surges. These things, however, are just immediate fight-or-flight physiological responses to a perceived threat.
But then, as a psychological reaction to these immediate physical responses, indignation and animosity toward the other driver overrun your mind. You honk your horn. You give a dirty look. You scream a curse. And there you have it: anger. Anger, therefore, is the wish for harm or bad or evil to come upon someone or something that—in your eyes—has injured or obstructed you.
So the psychological process is clear and simple. If a person hurts you, then, in your anger, you want to hurt him back, just as you have been hurt.
Anger can also be expressed indirectly. If something like a traffic jam, for example, leaves you feeling tense and frustrated, then what do you do? Maybe you go home and find some petty thing out of order and then blow up, just to take out your frustration on your family. Or maybe you go to a bar, maneuver someone into offending you, and get into a fight. Either way you vent your frustrations at the traffic jam by hurting innocent persons—after first manipulating circumstances so that you can believe in your own mind that these persons have somehow hurt you and deserve to suffer for it.
Still, there is more to the story than this, because there is more to anger than meets the eye.
The truth is, anger may be a “natural”—that is, a commonly occurring—social reaction to hurt and insult, but being natural doesn’t make it good for us. Sure, “natural” foods are commonly advertised as being healthy and good for us. But poisons, for example, are also natural, and poisons, by definition, are deadly.
And so there are far better ways to cope with hurt and insult than with anger, because anger itself acts like a poison in your own heart that ultimately degrades the quality of your own life as much as it hurts the life of another person.
So the FIRST STEP in learning a healthy response to feelings of hurt and insult is simply to acknowledge that you’re hurt.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
For example, when you get angry you don’t really allow yourself to feel your inner vulnerability and hurt. All you can think about in the moment is your desire to get revenge, to defend your pride, to do something—anything—to create the feeling that you have power and importance. In essence, your outbursts of rage paradoxically hide your inner feelings of vulnerability, so you never recognize the hurt you’re feeling that triggers your hostile reaction. All the bitterness and hostility is a big puff of smoke, an emotional fraud. It hardens your heart toward others so that you can seal off your own emotional pain.
Years ago I became a very good marksman with a pistol. As I was learning to shoot, I would be told things like, “You’re flinching your wrist just before you pull the trigger.” But did this stop me from flinching my wrist? No, of course not, because at the beginning I didn’t have the experience to discern the subtle muscle actions in my wrist. How could I learn not to do something unless I had learned how it felt to do it? So, in order to shoot well, I had to train myself to feel the various tiny muscles of my hand and arm; once I felt them, I could then direct them.
Well, that was all many years ago, and I no longer have much use for guns, but I learned a good psychological lesson from it. How can you learn not to do something unless you understand quite clearly how it does feel to do it? How can you learn not to respond defensively to a feeling of vulnerability unless you understand quite clearly how it does feel to be vulnerable? If you are always hiding your hurt feelings behind a protective show of bitter curses (or guns) you will never catch on to the concept of enlightened emotional restraint.
Or you might feel hurt by someone emotionally close to you, and, out of fear that your immediate impulse to hurt that person in return will cause you to lose that person’s “love,” you suppress the awareness of your honest inner experiences. If you do this often enough you can end up convincing yourself that everything is fine and peaceful. In this case the hurt becomes anger anyway, only it becomes unconscious anger: you remain hurt while the desire to hurt the other person gets pushed into your unconscious where it stews in bitter resentment. And so, in reality, you are just deceiving yourself and defiling your relationships when you deny that you have anything to feel hurt about. And before you know it you’re wondering why you’re so depressed. Depression, after all, is often “anger turned inwards”—that is, you end up despising yourself because you feel guilty for unconsciously wanting to hurt someone else.
In Western psychology, acceptance of every person’s unique emotional experiences is commonplace, but many non-Western cultures place a high value on social conformity. As a way to ensure a child’s survival in such a culture, families teach children that all expressions of anger are forbidden and shameful. And to accomplish this, parents, along with the rest of society in general, tend to suppress all recognition of individual emotions.
Hurt feelings in response to slight or insult, however, are universally human. If these feelings are suppressed in any culture to the point that they never become recognized or named, they can fuel the ugly cultural darknesses of prejudice, hatred, paranoia, child abuse, domestic violence, drug addictions—and all other dark psychological poisons that defile real love—as well as depression itself, which, sadly, can also feel shameful.
It’s ironic, then, that a healthy response to feelings of hurt and insult actually leads to compassion and peace, while the suppression of emotions, in trying to protect the surface peace, only leads to a psychological undercurrent of suspicion and cruelty. That’s why people who become social “doormats” and let others walk all over them, rather than admit that they feel hurt about anything, usually have quite a lot of resentment and “dirt” underneath their appearance of welcome.
So the SECOND STEP in learning a healthy response to feelings of hurt and insult is to follow the hurt back into its roots in the past to all those times and circumstances when you felt the same way.
You need to do this because any insult in the present is magnified by similar insults from the past. Failure to recognize old insults only makes the current insult seem far larger than it really is.
This entire process is a bit like what happens when an insect stings you and you feel a pain way out of proportion to the size of the stinger. First you simply recognize that it hurts. Then you have to explore the wound to find the stinger. The stinger represents the insult that hurts you, digging out the stinger represents the psychological task of realizing how this one insult pierces deep into your self-esteem, and the venom which spreads into the surrounding tissues represents the way unconscious resentment about all sorts of old emotional injuries from the past continues to poison you even in the present.
Having acknowledged the wound and explored it, you will be ready for the healing process to begin. But, for healing to take place, you must be careful to avoid anything that irritates, rather than soothes, the wound.
Therefore, the THIRD STEP in learning a healthy response to feelings of hurt and insult is to avoid the popular response to feelings of hurt and insult.
So let’s move on to discover just what this popular response to feelings of hurt and insult might be.
The Popular Response:
Revenge and Violence
Why do we have such a hard time recognizing our feelings of vulnerability and hurt when we are insulted?
Well, go back to that image of that car cutting in front of you. Your heart will be pounding, but, if you’re like most persons, you won’t be consciously aware of it. Your first conscious reaction will probably be to mutter—or yell—a curse.
And then what?
Well, it all sinks down into the unconscious where fantasies (that is, fleeting mental images, often only subliminally perceived) wage their private wars of revenge.
I once had to sit through a Rambo movie with some family members. There he was with those half-asleep Italian eyes, his muscles twitching, taking the insults. “Oh, oh!” they said. “He’s getting angry. Don’t make Rambo get angry!” they all gloated. And then they were slapping themselves and cheering as he hefted his huge machine gun and took aim.
And this is what our culture teaches us—through ready-made fantasies in movies, television, music, popular literature, and advertising, and acted out in politics, sports, and even in our legal system—about responding to insult.
Revenge permeates our culture because it permeates the human unconscious. Revenge, therefore, is what we most commonly experience in our unconscious fantasies when we become frustrated.
It could be the intellectual frustration of knowing that others are missing the point. It could be the social irritation of having to tolerate rude behavior. It could be the humiliating insult of not having our expectations fulfilled. It could be the traumatic insult of childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. But insult it is, and we feel the urge to pick up weapons—whether physical (i.e., guns and bombs) or verbal (i.e., sarcasm and curses)—and turn them on others.
Often, these urges to get revenge break out of the unconscious into the real world and become real events such as terrorism, school violence, or suicide.
Or, in our deepest hurt and frustration, we will turn those weapons on ourselves as a form of self-sabotage. This self-sabotage brings with it the unconscious satisfaction of inflicting guilt on those around us—that is, we secretly hope that our self-inflicted suffering will “say” to others, “Look what you made me do to myself!” In this case, our frustrations can stay within us as silent guilt-inducing fantasies lurking behind our social injuries.
Many persons have such deep anger at their parents that they unconsciously desire to keep themselves dysfunctional as a way to get back at their parents. Thus they can have the satisfaction of hurting their parents by saying, under their breath, “Look what a mess I am! It’s all your fault!”
Therefore, regardless of whether it’s expressed as overt social aggression or silent self-sabotage, the “popular” response to insult is revenge. Thus all anger is, at its core, a dark and cruel wish for harm to come upon the person who hurt you.
Yes, we can even direct our anger at things. If a tool breaks right in the middle of an important task, leaving us feeling frustrated and helpless, we will smash the tool onto the floor and curse it. We “know” that damaging the tool won’t fix anything, so why do we act with such aggression? Well, in “hurting” the tool—whether symbolically (with curses) or physically—we receive the satisfaction of feeling more powerful than something else. It’s as if we are thinking, in our unconscious logic, “My plans have been frustrated, and my pride has been injured, but if I can damage something—anything—then look how powerful I am!”
This explains why there is so much actual violence in the world. Despite our common sentimental claims about the value of peace, our culture teaches us by daily example that insult merits immediate revenge.
Thus, many persons blindly follow the path of violence—and in so doing, they “get angry” to avoid feeling the hurt that holds the acknowledgment of their own vulnerability.
This also explains why many persons are so afraid to acknowledge any awareness of their own anger. They have a good sense of where their unconscious wants to take them, and they can’t bear the thought of “killing” someone close to them when they feel hurt. So they will stifle everything, right from the beginning; the hurt leads to anger, all right, but they just deny they feel anything, and so they drive the anger deep into the unconscious. They present themselves to the world as calm and level-headed persons who would never even hurt a fly.
Have you ever seen a child, hurt by something said or done, blurt out, “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” and then run to her room and throw herself, sobbing, on her bed? And then, when the tears dry, nothing is ever said again about the words of her outburst. Maybe her mother or her father will come in and comfort her, or maybe her sister or brother will just start playing with her again, but those words—“I hate you, I wish you were dead”—just get swept off into some dark corner of forgotten memories to collect cobwebs of guilt.
Well, this is the sort of thing I’m talking about when I mention wanting to “kill” someone. It’s a subtle thing—not the plot of an egregious crime. It’s the confused experience of childlike hurt and anger.
So remember that just as wanting to “kill” someone is not necessarily a desire to commit an actual crime, a fantasy of revenge is not necessarily a desire to inflict actual hostility. Sometimes it is just a silent mental wish to see someone get paid back, a wish to feel the satisfaction of knowing that the one who causes hurt will get hurt in the end. And sometimes revenge is just a desire to keep your mouth shut when you might be able to redress a wrong. Again, it’s all very subtle with roots deep in childhood insecurity.
In fact, the proof of all this can be found in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder where a person who feels overwhelmingly ashamed of these fantasies of revenge will construct elaborate rituals to neutralize—or undo—these “bad” thoughts.
It’s similar to Lady Macbeth, in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, crying, “Out, damned spot!”as she tries compulsively to rub the stain of Duncan’s murder from her hands.
The Fourth Step
OK. So we all suffer insult, and we all feel hurt, and we all tend to sink into fantasies of revenge. Some of us then “get angry” and violently act out the fantasies in real life. And some of us just push everything out of awareness and pretend we are “nice” persons. So what honest alternative is there?
Well, you can get up the courage to explore the human psyche a bit more deeply than most persons want to go and discover something about human nature. Something ugly.
You will discover a concept about human psychology that theology and religion have for ages called sin. I won’t offer a theological definition of sin here, but a secular, philosophical understanding of the concept could describe it as a sort of infatuation with the vanity of your personal desires and a reliance on social prestige or power to defeat or destroy anyone or anything that stands in the way of your getting what you want. Or, to say it more simply, most people are narcissistically preoccupied with their immediate desires and have little, if any, altruistic awareness of anyone or anything else around them. Psychologically, this behavior allows you to feel good about yourself (that is, to feel strong and “in control”) by using, hurting, or neglecting someone else. Sin therefore leads you away from true love and compassion, and it sends you right into all the predicaments of self-indulgence. Sin really does hurt others because sin defiles love.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder refers to a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.
But, in its more universal sense, narcissism can be found at the core of almost all psychological dysfunction, for it represents the way we all, like the Greek god Narcissus himself, can “fall in love” with ourselves to hide our own inadequacy and consequently treat others like objects to make ourselves feel strong and competent.
Now, if you understand this psychological fact about human nature—that everyone is drawn away from essential human goodness by a need to avoid feeling weak or foolish—then you have a new way to cope with your feelings of hurt and to overcome your “natural,” hostile slide into anger.
Instead of taking all insults personally, you can realize that every insult derives from that universal tendency in human nature toward selfish, inconsiderate behavior. Given this ugly reality, no cache of guns or bombs or witty insults or curses can be sufficient to eradicate its evil effects from the world, so revenge becomes futile. The only sane response to insult is deep sorrow for all of humanity and compassion for the misguided person who gets caught up in the “popular” way of behaving.
Therefore, the FOURTH STEP in learning a healthy response to feelings of hurt and insult is forgiveness.
To forgive someone means that you consciously make the decision to set aside any desire to see a person hurt because of the hurt he or she caused you, and instead you wish that the person will recognize his or her hurtful behavior, feel sorrow for it, and learn to be a more considerate person.
This, too, like the first step, is not as easy as it sounds.
For the truth of the matter is that you cannot forgive someone until you have fully felt the pain he or she has caused you.
Pushing the pain into your unconscious, as described earlier, only makes forgiveness impossible because, as unconscious anger, the dark wish to harm the person who hurt you remains alive but out of sight.
And, with your animosity kept out of sight, it’s all too easy to present yourself as a “nice” person when, deep inside, you really remain an angry “victim.”
Those who know true love act with confidence, straightforwardness, and honesty, whereas those who present themselves as nice are often merely hiding the depths of their anger behind a show of smiling appeasement.
For example, many persons who, for one reason or another, seek psychotherapy, would likely endorse the statement, “I am a forgiving person.” And they will resist any attempt to explore their unconscious associations for hidden angry feelings toward their parents, for example, saying that such exploration is just “parent bashing.”
But psychotherapy really has nothing to do with blaming others.
In order to live honestly and take full responsibility for your own life, you have to learn in psychotherapy to put your hurt and anger onto the “table” in front of you so you can examine your emotions consciously. And then, when it has been brought to the surface and acknowledged, it can be swept away in forgiveness. But, until this work has been done thoroughly, the statement “I am a forgiving person” is just an illusion.
And the illusion is shown for what it is when many unsuspecting persons say, “OK. I’ve talked about my traumas. I’ve forgiven everyone. It’s all on the table. But I’m still miserable. What’s wrong?” It’s as if, after having made what seems to be a simple act of forgiveness, they walk past that “table” and say, “What’s that odd smell?” And then, as they look more closely, and admit to all the things they have been hiding from themselves, they find an ugly, moldy mass of unconscious anger that has been growing secretly underneath the table. So that, too, has to be examined.
For example, after exploring their childhood memories, some persons will say that they feel sad or lonely but do not feel any anger at their parents. In these cases, the anger can be recognized not through the emotion of rage but through specific behaviors of hate.
Hatred for authority can be expressed through criminal activity; political protest and terrorism; abortion; shoplifting; speeding; being late for appointments; living in clutter or filth; etc.
Hatred for the self can be expressed through the self-sabotage of one’s potential such as by chronic procrastination; the inability to support oneself by working; overdependence on others; substance abuse; obesity; codependence (such as marrying an alcoholic); emotional disability; etc.
But whether the end result be hatred for authority or hatred for yourself, the underlying cause is anger at your parents, because of their failures in love.
Questions and Answers:
More about psychotherapy and anger at parents
And then, when everything has been brought to light, real forgiveness can be possible.
To forgive means simply that you refuse to keep hating someone. In practical terms, this refusal to hate is a conscious decision, from the depths of your heart, to give up your desire to feel the satisfaction of knowing that the one who caused your hurt will get hurt in the end. Notice here that the silent, secret desire for satisfaction keeps unconscious anger alive and growing and prevents genuine forgiveness.
There are also many persons who deny the concept of “sin.” Psychologically, this denial serves the defense of protecting these persons from the recognition of the ugly parts of their own unconscious. They just refuse to admit that they are fully capable of inflicting their own harmful wishes on another person.
Some popular teachings advocate forgiveness while also denying the reality of sin, saying that all insult lies in our own perceptions and that in effect we are all totally free of what we did because “nothing really happened.” Ironically, the proof of the reality of sin emerges from within these very groups who deny it, for they are torn by internal factions that are not only judgmental of each other but also bitterly refuse to forgive one another. They may not believe in sin, but it is breeding right under their noses.
So beware. There is no escaping the psychological effects of injury and anger; either you can face up to all of your unconscious anger and learn real forgiveness, or you can let the deadly poison of revenge become your ugly destiny.
“What about national defense?” you might ask. “How can forgiveness and the need for self-defense be reconciled?” Well, I’m not about to try to tinker with national defense strategy, whether through commentary or through protest. Psychology concerns the individual, and forgiveness is an individual act. And for that matter, peace is also a matter of individual will, not of politics. No government can order you to love, and no government can order you to hate. So ultimately you have to live—and die—with the destiny of your own conscience.
In all of this, there is only one truth: If you want to change the world, begin by changing yourself. If you want the world to be more fair, treat the world fairly even when you are treated unfairly. If you want the world to be more kind, treat the world with kindness and return a blessing for every insult. Show the world by your good actions—not by empty protest or violence—that you are willing to live according to what you profess to believe.
According to the principles of geometry, an infinite number of lines can be drawn through a single point. To define any one particular line, two points are needed.
The same sort of principle applies to psychology. The experience of one trauma does not tell you much about your unconscious, because any explanation is as good as any other. If you are raped once, or you get in a car crash, no one has a right to point at you and say, “You did this wrong,” or “You did that wrong.” It’s simply impossible to deduce anything psychological from one event.
But if the trauma is repeated, then you have two points to define a line which can be tracked back into the past and projected into the future. This is the time to sit up and take notice, because if you don’t, there will likely be a third time. And maybe others again, until you start to look at your life and ask yourself what is going on.
This concept of psychological repetition, however, has nothing to do with naturally recurring cycles. If your neighbor wakes you up early every morning when he goes to work, for example, you might feel angry, but this isn’t “victim” anger.
Repetition refers to an unconscious process by which you essentially lead yourself into trouble over and over. For some dark, unknown reason, you so despise yourself that you continually put yourself at risk. And the failure to accept that this unconscious process has you trapped in its clutches leads to “victim” anger.
As trauma after trauma batters you, you will begin to say, “Why me? This isn’t fair!” You will blame anyone who gets in your way. You will feel victimized by the world. You might even become a psychological terrorist. But because you can’t look at your responsibility in what is happening, you will develop a “victim” mentality, and you will have fallen into “victim” anger.
A careful distinction must be made here in regard to “naturally” repeated child abuse and repetition. When a child is abused, it cannot be claimed that the child has any responsibility for the abuse. Violence is always the responsibility of the perpetrator, and, when violence is repeated, the perpetrator is at fault. This repeated abuse is therefore not a result of the child’s unconscious desires.
But there is a psychodynamic process called Identification with the Aggressor in which the abused child, in trying to make sense of something essentially senseless, comes to believe that the abuse must somehow be justified, and the child will therefore unconsciously seek to befriend, and even imitate, the abuser. With this dynamic in place, blame and anger toward the abuser becomes turned toward the self, thus beginning the repetition of an unconscious, self-inflicted abuse.
In fact, scientific research has shown that adults who were sexually abused as children tend to have a high risk for being sexually assaulted (e.g., rape) as adults. Moreover, the research shows that adults who are sexually assaulted and who were also abused as children tend to have even lower levels of mental health functioning than those persons who were sexually abused as children but never sexually assaulted as adults.
So what’s going on here? Well, it’s largely a matter of misdirected blame. Here’s how it works, in common-sense language:
As a result of abuse, the child experiences painful fear and hatred of the abuser(s).
But because the child feels essentially powerless to stop the abuse or to convince anyone to help, the child begins to perceive the whole world as “unfair.”
The child blames the world for being unfair, and, at the same time, begins to blame himself or herself for not being “good enough” to put up a successful fight against the world.
The child learns that blaming the world does not provide any immediate gratification, and that punishing the world is not an easy task, but that blaming the self—and punishing the self—can provide immediate and controlled satisfaction.
But because this self-destructive behavior is unconsciously directed against the world, not the self, the child cannot see, let alone accept consciously, that he or she is now causing most of his or her own pain.
And so the child grows into an adult who harbors an aching bitterness against the world for its unpunished abuses. But at every disappointment he or she will find some convenient, secret means of self-sabotage—and will then feel justified in saying, “Look what they did to me! It’s not fair!”
And what strange satisfaction maintains all this self-destruction? Well, it’s the satisfaction of unconsciously hoping to show the world how wrong it is. Like Hamlet holding a mirror up to his mother, the person trapped in victim anger will hold up his own destruction as “evidence” that, he hopes, will condemn the world.
Thus you might hear someone saying, “So what if I get cancer from smoking? Maybe it will serve them right. Then they will see how much I had to suffer.” And so this unfortunate life will end, just like Hamlet, cluttered with death and destruction.
But unlike a martyr, who lays down his or her life out of pure love, this self-destruction has its deep motivation in bitterness and hatred, and an obstinate rejection of forgiveness.
When dealing with the “victim” anger of repetition, therefore, your only hope is to first resolve the repetition that traps you. You can’t forgive others if the real problem is yourself. How can you accept the ugly part of human nature if you can’t see it in yourself and if you can’t accept your personal responsibility for constantly placing yourself at risk? If you don’t recognize the repetition, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men—and all the anger management classes in the world—won’t save you from your own unconscious efforts to destroy yourself as you remain locked in the dark identity of being a “victim.”
Remember that anger, being an emotion, is not something you can ever “get rid of.” As long as you are alive there will be times when you are insulted and feel hurt. And, as long as there are times when you feel hurt, you will be pulled down into unconscious fantasies of revenge.
But once you notice that you feel hurt you have a choice. You don’t have to accept blindly the unconscious slide into revenge.
On the one hand, you don’t have to “get angry.” That is, you don’t have to become abusive or violent. If you tell yourself, “Yes, I hurt. But it is not so much another person as human nature itself hurting me, and there’s nothing I can do about it, except refuse to return hurt for hurt, sin for sin,” then you can feel compassion for the person who hurt you, and you can be forgiving.
Violence, after all, is nothing more than a fear of love. And when you fear love, where do you turn? To pride. The pride of your own self-defense.
There’s a great secret here that philosophers have known for ages. And it’s a secret only because it’s so obvious that no one bothers to notice it. Consider the nature of water, a weak and lowly substance that flows freely around all obstacles. If you live a life of the same “humility” as water, even the jaws of hell cannot bite into you. But the more solid you become in the pride of your own strength to avenge yourself against insult, the more those jaws have to grasp onto—and once they have you, you can’t fight free, no matter how many bandoliers you have draped over your shoulders.
So the more you let go of your “identity”—the more you die to yourself in perfect humility—the less you have to defend; and the less you have to defend, the less reason you have for anger.
On the other hand, all of this does not preclude the possibility that there may be times when you have to stand up—to defend yourself or to defend others—and say something about the ugliness that everyone wants to ignore or deny. To be quiet—to stifle your feeling offended—is also a fear of love and a slide into revenge.
In these situations—whether in your family, among friends, or at work—when you experience feelings about anything, you need only express those feelings openly.
The key to all this, however, is that you speak up as soon as you feel the first inkling of injury—and this means that you have to be very good at recognizing the feeling of hurt in the first place. You must speak up well before the hurt turns to anger and has a chance to build into anything destructive. You don’t have to understand why you’re feeling what you’re feeling in the moment; just communicate what you’re feeling in the moment.
When you do speak up, keep in mind an important psychological-social fact: You cannot control the behavior of others.
Therefore, resist saying things such as, “What’s wrong with you?” or “How could you be so insensitive?” or “You shouldn’t do that!” Talk like this derives from a frustration that the other person is not doing what you want him to do, and it does two things, both unproductive to peace and harmony: it causes stress that raises your blood pressure, and it makes the other person resistant and hostile.
So, when you feel the urge to say something, ask yourself what you want to happen as a result.
If your answer is anything like, “I want her to . . .” then you probably have the wrong motive.
But if your answer is more like, “I just want to clear my conscience. What she does thereafter is up to her,” then you are probably on the right track.
Many persons do not like to hear the “truth” about themselves, and they will often try to defend themselves by going on the attack. They might accuse you of being judgmental, for example, even if you keep your statements focused on you own feelings.
“It really hurts me to hear you break promises. Children need to trust their parents, and your not keeping your promises will most likely make your children insecure and rebellious.”
“Don’t be judgmental! Who are you to tell me how to raise my children?”
But remember: it’s not judgmental to state the facts in such a way that you avoid telling the other person what you want him to do. You speak up for the sake of your conscience, because you believe something is not right; what the other person does with the information is up to him.
A lot of anger, therefore, can come back at you for being blunt and honest, and you might feel the urge to back down.
But in keeping your mouth shut you will be trapped in the vindictive satisfaction of watching others suffer in their own misbehavior. So, if you resist the pull to shrink back, then you will find freedom. You will discover a part of yourself which you can trust to guide you through disputes without injuring yourself or others—because you will be motivated not with unconscious anger and revenge to defend your identity but with love for the good of others.
So there you have it. Someone insults you, you feel the pain, you speak up if necessary, and you forgive. Still, after all this, you might be feeling some lingering emotional arousal. What do you do? Just let that last bit of hurt melt into deep sorrow for the entire world.
Finally, note that even though you can be forgiving about hurts and insults, this does not automatically mean that you are also reconciled with the person who hurt you. Reconciliation requires that the other person (a) recognize the very real injury inflicted on you and consequently (b) repent that injury and make reparation to you.
The religious concept of “praying for your enemies” can therefore be expressed psychologically as simply hoping that the person who injured you will ultimately recognize his or her destructive behavior and repent it—as opposed to your wishing for that person’s destruction and thereby preventing any hope of reconciliation. Saint Teresa of Avila once had a vision of hell; the place was so horrifying, she said, that she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemies. Think about that.
Throughout the world, various cultures have their own specific terms to describe “unhealthy” responses to anger. Below are some of these culture-bound syndromes as described in the DSM-IV.
amok, in Malaysia, is precipitated by a perceived slight or insult and refers to a period of brooding followed by an outburst of violent or aggressive behavior. Similar patterns are found in Laos, Philippines, Polynesia (cafard or cathard), Papua New Guinea, Puerto Rico (mal de pelea), and among the Navajo (iich’aa).
bilis & colera (or muina), among Latinos, describe syndromes whose underlying cause is considered to be anger or rage. Symptoms can include tension, headache, screaming, trembling, stomach disturbances, and even chronic fatigue.
hwa-byung is a Korean syndrome attributed to a suppression of anger. Its symptoms can include insomnia, fatigue, panic, fear of impending death, indigestion, labored breathing, and generalized aches and pains.
These syndromes illustrate one basic point: no matter what language you speak, unless you also understand the language of forgiveness, anger will lead you straight into psychopathology.
Many of the persons who need help with anger management have no interest in the psychodynamics of anger, and they are put off by anything suggestive of philosophy or religion. So, because anger is such a large problem in the world today, here is some advice about anger management, reduced to its most basic simplicity.
Venting anger does not work. Even though it might give some immediate satisfaction, venting anger (called catharsis)—whether by yelling obscenities, making obscene gestures, honking the horn of your car, throwing or breaking things, or screaming insults—does nothing to dispel anger. More often than not, it actually pumps up your emotional arousal and may even prolong it.
So, as I say above, recognize the feeling of anger, but don’t act on it. Instead, do the following.
Cool down. Remember the old, stereotypical advice about counting to ten before saying or doing anything when you first feel hurt? Well, it’s still good advice. That’s because the first reaction to hurt is purely physiological: you receive a rush of adrenaline to prepare you to take action in real danger. But when the hurt comes from an event that poses only a short-term threat—such as when a car cuts in front of you—or threatens your pride far more than your life and safety, then all that adrenaline surging through your body isn’t serving any meaningful purpose.
If you’re prone to violence, then walk away from the provocation as soon as you feel the pressure building.
In most cases, simply taking a few moments to practice some simple relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, can allow your sympathetic nervous system’s arousal to calm down and dissipate by itself. Deep, slow breathing is an automatic physiological effect of being at peace, so when you deliberately take slow, deep breaths you are indirectly telling your body that all danger has now passed; as a consequence, your body will stop producing adrenaline and your arousal will cease.
Just don’t use this cooling off period to dwell on negative thoughts or you will make matters even worse. In fact, this leads to the next step.
Challenge your negative thoughts. The way we think has a lot to do with the way we feel, so changing your thoughts from a hateful, negative orientation to a calm, positive orientation becomes essential in managing feelings of hurt and insult.
NEGATIVE: “[Expletive!] What a piece of [expletive] junk! Now we’re going to be [expletive] late!”
POSITIVE: “OK. It’s a flat tire. There was nothing we could have done to prevent it. Let’s forget about being on time and just see about getting the tire changed. One thing at a time.”
Or look for a rational explanation:
IRRATIONAL: “[Expletive!] What a [expletive] jerk! He knew this was an important [expletive] meeting! So why is he [expletive] late?”
RATIONAL: “Maybe there was a traffic accident. Maybe they had a flat tire. Who knows? We’ll find out in due time.”
Ask yourself what you’re really feeling. Many persons have such a limited knowledge of their emotional life that they tend to lump everything together into anger. But, if you look closely, you might find that behind the anger are more pertinent feelings, such as disappointment, sadness, fear, and so on.
Click on the link for a list of emotions that can help you identify
what you are actually experiencing.
Flow around the obstacle. Most persons feel frustrated when someone or something obstructs them in some way. And most persons respond to the feeling of frustration by immediately wanting the satisfaction of forcing the “obstacle” to get out of the way—or, if it won’t move, to curse it and insult it.
The healthy response to frustration, however, requires a different psychological attitude than satisfaction.
When feeling frustrated, sit back, relax, and wait. Say to yourself the following:
“As things develop, I will, through listening to guidance from my unconscious, adapt to changing circumstances and grow with them.”
“I may not get what I want when I want it; I trust that things will work out in their own good time, for my ultimate benefit, as long as I remain calm and peaceful.”
“I may not get what I want at all, and yet, in remaining calm and attentive, I may discover something else that I need even more than what I thought I wanted.”
Look at things from the other person’s perspective. Have you ever casually stepped off the curb to cross a street when a driver turning the corner almost hits you? It can be enough to make you swear and bang on his car, right? Now imagine yourself as a driver, in a new neighborhood, a bit confused, traffic everywhere. You stop at a corner, about to turn right. You look all around, left, right, left again. It looks clear. You start to move. And then—where did he come from?! A pedestrian just stepped right in front of you and you barely saw him!
So, think about it. Which person is in the “wrong”—the driver of the car or the pedestrian? Hmm . . . maybe both? It depends on whether you’re in the car or out of it, doesn’t it?
And that’s the point about perspective. Although some persons are truly selfish and inconsiderate, sometimes a person is simply distracted or confused, not maliciously trying to get in your way. Looking at the “other side” is called empathy, and it can go a long way to calming yourself down, keeping the peace, and fostering simple courtesy.
By the way, when persons have difficulty understanding emotions and therefore lack the capacity for empathy, it’s called alexithymia.
Ask questions—that is, when the situation involves someone you know and with whom you have a continuing relationship. Once you understand how to do it, it can be relatively simple to forgive a stranger because you don’t even have to say anything. But you have an added responsibility when someone you know hurts you. You must ask questions that get to the psychological cause of the problem; if you don’t ask, then the hurt will keep repeating itself, and before long you will become seriously depressed.
Avoid accusatory questions (“So, you’re late again! You’re seeing someone else, aren’t you?”). Ask open-ended questions that can’t be brushed off with a simple Yes or No, and let them be non-judgmental questions that bring out true emotions. Here are a few examples:
“What’s bothering you?”
“What do you need?”
“What are you disappointed about?”
“What are you worried about?”
“What do you want?”
“How can I help?”
Consider the alternatives. Well, besides the practical alternative of prison, with its loss of freedom, there is only one psychological alternative to managing feelings of hurt and insult in a healthy manner: illness. Medical research and psychoanalytic theory have long recognized that chronic hostility and anger, whether unrecognized, suppressed, or vented in rage, can be causative factors in asthma, autoimmune dysfunction, coronary artery disease, cysts, depression, headaches, heart attacks, high blood pressure, insomnia, intestinal disorders, low back pain, sexual dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoia, and ulcers.
Perhaps you might want to think of anger as just a lot of hot AIR.
That initial “rush” in response to an insult is adrenaline. Nothing but adrenaline.
Identify what is really happening, how much of a threat it really is, and why it is happening.
Choose a reaction that is compassionate and fair, rather than fall headlong into hostility and revenge.
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What’s this about?
1. Jacques Lacan, “Aggressivity in psychoanalysis.” In Écrits: A selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), pp. 8–29.
2. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene I.
3. In ancient times, the term victim referred to an animal offered in sacrifice. But in popular modern usage, the term victim refers to someone who (a) loses something against his will or (b) is cheated or duped. Thus, when we lose our possessions in a flood, for example, or are attacked by a robber, we are, in being called a “victim,” imputed feelings of victimization.
4. Maker, A. H., Kemmelmeier, M., & Peterson, C. (2001). Child sexual abuse, peer sexual abuse, and sexual assault in adulthood: A multi-risk model of revictimization. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14, 351–368.
5. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV.
6. St. Teresa of Avila, “The Book of Her Life.” In The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume Two, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1980). See ch. 32, no. 6:
“From this experience [the vision of hell] also flow the great impulses to help souls and the extraordinary pain that is caused me by the many that are condemned. . . . It seems certain to me that in order to free one alone from such appalling torments I would suffer many deaths very willingly.”
7. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, Appendix I.
8. Geen R.G., Stonner D., & Shope G.L. (1975) The facilitation of aggression by aggression: evidence against the catharsis hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(4):721-6.
Mallick, S. K. & McCandless, B. R. (1966). A study of catharsis aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4.
Tavris, C. (1984). Feeling angry? Letting off steam may not help. Nursing Life, 4(5):59-61.
Lacan Related Papers provides links to numerous Lacan-related papers.
The Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis in the San Francisco Bay area, offers training in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
The San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies provides lectures and information about Lacanian psychoanalysis.
St. Teresa of Avila:
TERESA DE AVILA
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Depression and Suicide
Identity and Loneliness
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Spirituality and Psychology
Terrorism and Psychology