Understanding anger and rage in relationships

The definition of anger is 'an emotional response provoked by a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility'. What leaps out at me here is 'emotional response'. Something is happening - in the present – and it is provoking a feeling. This may be connected to what is actually happening or a ripple of something from the past. But nevertheless, anger just like every other emotion is a response in our body and mind.

“If the heartbeat is a vital sign of physical life, anger is the vital sign of emotional life.” – Sue Parker-Hall

Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking it makes it so”. He is of course talking about the quality of our thinking, which for example can tell us that anger is a ‘bad thing’. How many children are told this by their parents? Or grow up in a home where anger is suppressed completely, not allowed, frowned upon?

The spoken (and sometimes unspoken) message is that if you are angry or feel anger and anger is bad, well that must make you a bad person right? Wrong.

Anger is not a power issue or a desire to dominate someone else. It’s not a sign of bad behaviour in children or adults. It is completely natural for a child or adult to feel anger in certain circumstances. This is why the punishment of anger or negative judgement of anger is so unhelpful and sets up the idea that anger = bad.

Is any of this sounding familiar to you? Could you have heard these types of messages growing up and, if so, might they have become part of your own internal, critical self-talk? If the answer is yes, becoming consciously aware of this is the first step on the road to developing a new, healthier way of relating to yourself. The next step is to focus on a positive, more empathic belief system about anger and its function.

Woman sitting on bed looking angry

If we develop a more empathic understanding of anger, it helps us to look underneath what is presented to us. Anger has often been described as a lid on top of other emotions such as sadness, grief and loss, shame, guilt etc. Imagine a red-faced, angry child who is shouting at you at the top of their voice. How would you respond? Would you shout louder in order to be heard? Would you admonish the child for his/her show of anger? Or would you be able to take a deep breath, pause and look beyond the angry outburst to what else might be happening in this moment? Is he/she sad? Frustrated? Feeling out of control?

How expressing anger can be helpful

  1. Anger is essential for enabling us to become who we are meant to be – a unique individual – and ensuring we maintain a healthy sense of self (who we are, what is important to us, our values etc).
  2. Anger can provide physical or emotional protection when our boundaries are crossed.
  3. Anger can provide energy for the word ‘no!’ where needed.
  4. Anger is an important part of the cycle of grief and helps us to move towards acceptance of the loss.
  5. Anger can be an antidote for depression as it requires expression of emotions rather than suppression. It is a natural release of energy and so helps to maintain physical – as well as emotional and mental health.
  6. Anger can be a driving force to get things done when needed. It can provide the stamina, motivation and drive needed to achieve or stand up for something we care passionately about.
  7. Anger can act as a warning sign - signalling an unmet need – allowing us to address it.
  8. Anger can be a catalyst and provide the required energy to learn something new/ make a decision/ make a change, simply because anger requires attention.

Having read the above, how are you now feeling about anger? Is it sounding more understandable? I hope so because it’s a warning sign in a way. Just like pain in the body is a warning that all is not well (and we should take notice), our emotions signal to us that we are having a response to something in our environment, within our relationships and/or within our internal world.

The more we can develop the capacity to tune into and listen to what our emotions and our bodies are telling us (without judging them), the more easily we will be able to navigate the ups and downs of life, instead of getting stuck with the difficult, painful or uncomfortable feelings such as anger, sadness, guilt, shame etc. Nobody wants to feel these emotions but by pushing them down or not acknowledging them or blaming or hurting others because we are hurting, is never helpful.

Woman throwing books on bed

We all want to feel happy, joyful and at ease but that’s not how life works. It is constantly throwing challenges our way but if we can develop the mindset that these challenges provide an opportunity for us to grow as individuals, we are able to find the positive in even the darkest of experiences.

As human beings in relationships, we need certain things. We need to be seen and heard; for our feelings and experiences to be acknowledged and reflected back to us. This is how we learn to experience ourselves. We need to tell our stories and express ourselves and to be held and contained within a safe, trusting relationship. We need to identify – through empathy - the underlying need beneath the anger. When these relational needs are met, anger can be processed in a healthy way, self-esteem grows and relationships become more intimate (safe).

When these relational meets are not met, it is not safe and so we will inevitably enter into survival mode in order to protect our vulnerability – either flight, fight or freeze. When this happens, anger becomes distorted and transforms into something else. Here are a few examples:

  • Flight (underexpression of anger) can show up in relationships as running away or withdrawing, sulking, rationalising, depression, saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’, moaning, self-criticism, illness, being sexually submissive.
  • Fight (overexpression of anger) can show up in relationships as raised voices/ shouting/ verbal abuse, aggression, physical or sexual violence, picking a fight, sarcasm, taking it out on others, road rage – and at its most extreme - murder or damage of property etc.
  • Freeze (non-expression of anger) can lead to a nervous breakdown or crisis at work or in relationships, hospitalisation, denial, “I don’t do anger”, immobilised, apathy, boredom, sexual inactivity.

It’s also important to understand that there is a difference between anger and rage. And, that there is more than one type of rage. If anger is a natural emotional response to some sort of stimulus, rage is a defence mechanism triggered when a person is unable to process their life experiences. 

Understanding rage

To develop a more empathic understanding of rage, we need to understand that at the heart of rage difficulties lies historical trauma (neglect or abuse) or a recent trauma (or sometimes both). 

Trauma is the Greek word for ‘wounding’. Imagine for a moment, a wound. Some wounds heal and leave scar tissue and, by its very nature, scar tissue is thick and has no feeling in it, it doesn’t grow. Other wounds don’t heal and every time they are touched or opened up, they really hurt.

Grief is a good example of this kind of wound, it never fully heals. So, the trauma is not really about what happened to you (as in an accident or abuse, severe injury or harm). Many people are not traumatised in this way. The trauma comes more from the wound of your needs not being met in your development. That you were not seen, heard or acknowledged for who you are. You were not understood or held when you needed to be. And so you had to develop a way to survive this environment that you couldn’t trust to meet your needs, which meant protecting yourself – emotionally - via fight, flight or freeze.

There may be a learned capacity to manipulate others in order to get your needs met. Trauma most commonly comes from relational misalignments that leave a wound on the psyche and in the body. We cannot separate the psyche (Greek word for ‘soul’) and the soma (body) because together they contain the history of our emotional lives, our histories and our physiology.

Woman with head in hands

Two distinct types of rage

Hot rage can be described as a whole load of different feelings trying to get out at once. A bit like a volcano. This can lead to a high level of arousal or anxiety and a need to obliterate or destroy others; especially those who are different (think racism, sexism, homophobia etc).

Individuals with hot rage often create symbiotic relationships where they become entangled or enmeshed with their partners. This is all driven by fear of losing control - or ultimately fear of losing their own sense of self within the relationship. Self-harming; feeling fiercely critical of self/ others; verbal abuse; violence or sexual abuse are other aspects of hot rage in relationships.

Cold rage can be described as the laying down or calcification of life experience that cannot be processed. This one is more like an iceberg. It can lead to depression, a low level of arousal, lacking in energy; feeling nothing/ numbness and detachment.

Individuals may cut someone or an experience off and have an inability or refusal to engage in certain relationships. They demonstrate an inability to allow others to have an impact; wanting to get rid of or running away from another. Again this is all driven by fear, hence the survival modes kick in. Cold rage can also lead to sexual abuse and learning difficulties.

If you recognise yourself or someone close to you in what you have been reading, the good news is that there is a way to heal the wounds of anger or rage, which can have a devastating impact on relationships, both with others and with the self.

Healing from anger and rage

What is needed first and foremost, is to get into a relationship with oneself. To learn to process and integrate life’s experiences; tell untold stories; feel and express feelings.

And ultimately, to understand that it is not about ‘what is wrong with me?’ so much as ‘what happened to me?’ This is the path to healing the wounds of the past and transforming your experience in the present.

You will begin to feel more reconnection to yourself and this will help you to feel more connected to others and create more intimate relationships; you will be able to process the grief for the previous separation from self which often manifests as low self-esteem or self-worth. You will create the ability to be more in the present moment which will bring the capacity to feel all emotions in response to your experience including love, joy, passion and of course, anger!

You will develop a healthy body and mind that allows your experiences and emotions to flow through you and not become stuck or bogged down in anxiety or depression. Who wouldn’t want that?

Flow

Let it flow
Wash over you
Cleanse and nourish you
Whatever the emotion

Embrace it
Not repel it

Or it will jar
And become stuck
Within you

To fight it
Or become attached to it
Will restrict your capacity
To live a wonderful life

Sarah Freed

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB25

Written by Sarah Freed, Specialist in Relationships, Anxiety, Depression and Loss

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB25

Sarah Freed is an experienced therapist and poet. Based just outside Cambridge, she works with individuals and couples using talking therapy and creative arts therapy with the aim of empowering people to live more loving, fulfilling lives.

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