Fists pounding a table?
Faces getting red?
These are some of the common associations to anger in our culture. Such displays of anger are more reflective of rage. Anger can be expressed without any of the over-the-top behaviors described above. The value of anger is that a person gets to know he is angry, understand why he is angry, and take a corrective course of action.
Why? We can’t summon healthy or ‘clean’ anger unless we can expect a decent reception for it. An angry man has learned that his angry protests will be acknowledged, respected, and responded to. He’s come to expect that others will want to understand why he’s angry and address that concern.
Other people are not so lucky. They have learned that anger is destructive. Getting angry feels lonely. Getting angry evokes a devastating retaliation from the audience. Or maybe anger means wounding the emotionally fragile audience. Maybe the audience gets defensive and labels the angered person as ‘crazy’ or ‘disturbed’. Now the person faces the bind of confirming their accusation if he gets angrier. The common theme is that anger weakens the bonds with others. If you learned any of these lessons then you may feel a crippling ambivalence when angry. On the one hand, you are angry but on the other you know that showing your anger usually makes you feel worse. Anger becomes fraught. It cannot feel clean, righteous nor goal-directed.
Most kids have the average predictable experience of their parents being there when needed. A frightened child reaches for his mother and she makes herself available to him. But, even the best parents can’t always be there for their scared kid. Occasional separation from a parent in a time of need is not the problem. What’s important is how they respond afterwards.
A kid’s natural reaction to his parent’s absence in a time of need is anger. “Where were you Mommy?!” is a common protest heard by children. Back in the 1950’s when the British psychologist John Bowlby was coming up with the theory of attachment, he saw such anger as healthy attempts to keep Mom near. The logic goes like this:
1) kids need to know that Mom or Dad will be there when needed,
2) if a kid needs a parent who’s not there, the kid gets very scared
3) so the kid does what he can to make sure his parent will be there.
When the parent loves the kid and generally wants to make him feel secure in the world, then the kid can get angry. The child’s anger reinforces the parent to stay near the child. Such anger can also serves to discourage future unavailability. As Bowlby himself put it:
In this kind of family, it’s easy to see how a kid learns to trust and use his anger in life. This is why I called an angry man – ‘lucky’.
Implicit in this scenario is the parent is able to and wants to be there for the child. A depressed parent may want to be there for a child but their inner turmoil can render them unable to do so. Or a parent may be capable of being there for the child but unwilling. That may seem unnatural – and it is – but it happens. Some parents abuse and reject their own children.
What’s a kid to do when a parent is absent when needed but the parent is not motivated to be there for the kid? When a kid faces a frightening situation and his parent is not there, he can’t just get angry.
A depressed parent may use the kid’s anger as a reason to feel even more depressed – thereby less available to the kid. The hostile parent will use the kid’s anger as a reason to punish, belittle, and/or hurt the child.
The kid must endure the frightening situation alone while muting his anger. Restoring a connection with a parent is not his goal. Dismantling his anger is now his goal.
One way children can suppress their anger at unavailable parents is by believing that they are undeserving of love. If a child believes he does not deserve his parents’ consistent availability, then he will have nothing to be angry about when a parent is absent. Problem “solved”(?).
The “solution” of believing oneself undeserving of love makes it hard to get angry later in life. Let’s say the kid who developed this belief about himself finds himself working for a supervisor who undermines him at work. The now adult feels angry at his supervisor for speaking over him at meetings. His anger will feel quite scary because it conflicts with this core belief he had to adopt about himself. And that core belief protected him from knowing how abandoned he was by his parents. If he knows how angry he is at his supervisor then he could act as if he deserves better treatment. This man may feel a surge of anxiety along with anger because of how threatening anger was to his survival growing up. Talk about ambivalence! The man wants his supervisor to stop belittling him but believes he does not deserve the kind of respect his anger is demanding.
This kind of scenario makes anger feel very disruptive and tense. There is so much conflict involved. It may seem like a lose-lose proposition to the ambivalently angry person.
The problem here is not anger. The problem is the underlying belief that one is underserving of love and thereby forbidden from anger. If this person can find a new relationship where he is taken seriously and cared about, then this belief can change.
Sometimes these beliefs get so embedded that it’s hard to take in new information from well-meaning others. Everything gets interpreted through the lens of being undeserving. To consider otherwise feels incoherent at best.
In these situations, therapy is usually the best approach. Therapy provides an experience where the focus is on the client. The client’s needs and ways they understand themselves and others are gently examined. If a therapist is properly attuned to the client then he can help disconfirm the client’s belief of being underserving of love. As this belief is debunked, clients recover their right to healthy assertive anger.