Why am I so angry?
Anger is a healthy bodily reaction to threat. When we’re angry, our body is flooded with hormones like adrenaline which help us to manage the danger by fighting it off or running away. At times of risk, this is a very appropriate way to feel, and it usually passes as soon as the threat has gone, to be replaced with feelings of relief. Sometimes, though, people appear and feel angry when they are perfectly safe. This can be a learned behaviour which begins at an early age.
Children need help to manage their anger; the ‘terrible twos’ are all about learning to recognise threat as opposed to unfairness or pain. They have to go through the terrible twos phase in order to distinguish what is actually a threat and to learn ways to manage their feelings. Unfortunately, many people don’t realise that the management of emotions isn’t just about suppressing them, but about recognising them and expressing them safely. For them, anger is often seen not as an emotion which inevitably occurs from time to time, but as a character trait. People say things such as:
- “The red mist just descends, and then I explode”
- “I’m just an angry person”
- “I’m a very placid person, but when I blow I really blow!”
These comments seem to reflect a belief that anger is not controllable, and that it’s just there in some people and not in others. So, because they usually see these ways of being as something they can’t change, they can get into hot water with relationships at work, at home, and when driving. Some people do go to anger management classes to try to deal with their intrinsic anger, but these often don’t work in the long term. This is usually because there is a different emotion underneath the anger which isn’t being expressed.
Unexpressed feelings hidden by anger sometimes develop when all toddler emotion has been treated in the same way - as angry rebellion which needs to be quashed. In fact, it’s important for adults to try to work out why a child is behaving ‘badly’. Adults often mistake feelings such as fear, pain, sadness, unfairness - or just a need to connect - as anger. If they can acknowledge what the child is actually feeling, and make them feel safe, the child usually calms down.
Sometimes, the behaviour escalates quickly, and the child needs to be distracted before it’s possible to work out what’s upsetting them. This only works if adults believe that children don’t set out to be ‘naughty’ – they’re just responding to the intense emotion they’re feeling or, if older, experimenting with ways of being which may help to keep them safe or calm them. Sometimes, negative behaviour engages adults. If a child needs to know that there’s someone in charge, this does the job even if they get into trouble as a result.
Sometimes adults ignore what they see as naughty or angry behaviour as a way of making clear that it’s not acceptable. Often, children do then stop the behaviour, because they learn there’s no point to it, and adults feel a lesson has been learned. However, this doesn’t stop them from feeling extremely upset underneath, feelings they’ll often suppress until they can do so no longer, and then, when they blow, everyone knows.
Keep calm and carry on
If your motto is “keep calm and carry on”, if you feel you don’t need help from other people or that you are better off alone, you probably come from a family where emotion wasn’t encouraged. We live in a country which values the idea of having a stiff upper lip and keeping our feelings to ourselves, so that means a lot of us are like this. Instead of showing anger, some of us become very compliant people-pleasers to avoid having to express unpleasant feelings which are dismissed or criticised rather than recognised and soothed.
Children can’t soothe themselves. They need adult help to learn how to do this, to explain the emotion they’re experiencing, and to work out how worried they should be by it. If their feelings are just treated as unwelcome anger, and ignored, misunderstood or even punished, they grow up only understanding the emotion of anger, which becomes the only emotion they can ‘do’. Other emotions may even be mistaken for anger, or it may be felt as acceptable while other emotions are not.
People are rarely aware they’re replacing other emotions with anger; they just feel ‘angry’. Sometimes someone will shout or show fierce anger when they’re in danger of feeling something that’s ‘not allowed’, is very uncomfortable, or even painful. If they’re scary enough, the other person will stop ‘going on’.
It’s possible to tell if anger is real or standing in for another emotion. Real anger is hot and wet - the person cries, their nose runs, they have loads of saliva and they may accidentally spit. This real anger passes relatively quickly, and the person moves on to a different feeling – grief, sadness, frustration or vulnerability, for instance. They may even feel apologetic.
Stand-in anger is cold and dry. While the person may be red in the face and a bit tearful, the nose and mouth aren’t producing much. The person can also stay angry for hours, even days. They probably feel genuinely wronged, but they have no way of expressing how that feels or managing their feelings appropriately.
For some people who feel they’ve been let down over and over again, there is a constant low-level readiness to bite. When adults repeatedly misread a child or young person, their self-esteem plummets so that they long for love and connection but can’t cope with it, or believe it’s real when it comes. Bickering and blame may be easier for them to manage than love and affirmation, so relationships become characterised by disappointment and accusation. Because the love they long for is so hard to believe in or bear, people who are affected in this way often choose partners who find it extremely difficult to show positive emotion, praise or love. They also use stand-in anger, which may be triggered by any angry claims of being wronged. Such couples work well together, as their rage-filled dynamic means they never have to show their true feelings, needs or vulnerabilities - but they are locked in a toxic stand-off.
The way to start changing this is to notice what’s happening in your body. If you regularly scan your body from top to toe, you will start to notice how it is to be calm and when emotion is beginning to affect you. Once you’re able to spot changes in your body, you stand some chance of stopping anger from developing, either by distracting yourself or walking away. As you get better at body spotting, you can learn to also notice what you’re thinking and doing when the body changes happen. In other words, you start to notice both the triggers to the feelings and their effects. Once this happens, you may be able to recognise what emotion other than anger is actually affecting you.
If you find yourself blaming someone else for the way you’re feeling, consider whether your emotion is so unwelcome that you have to make it someone else’s. For instance, someone who gets very ‘angry’ when they have difficulty putting flat pack furniture together may actually be experiencing feelings of inadequacy, especially if they’ve been told they’re ‘stupid’ or ‘useless’ at some time in the past. Because this feeling is so nasty, they blame those around them for distracting them, their partner for picking the wrong furniture, or complain angrily about anything else that’s handy. As it would suggest need, they can’t ask for help in interpreting the instructions or holding awkward parts together. So, though feelings of inadequacy and need are what’s underlying their anger, no one - including the person who has them - would ever know.
It’s not easy to stop using stand-in anger, but it can be done. Body scanning is a great start, and counselling to allow expression of hidden feelings can be invaluable. Eventually, people are able to recognise and head off their anger, express real feelings and soothe themselves with effective analysis of what’s happening to them and calming self-talk. That’s a lot less troubling in the long run.