How Is Your Anger Best Seen as Retaliation?

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What, in essence, leads you—really, anyone—to get angry? Consider some possibilities:

You . . .

  • Evaluate something as unfair to you;
  • Experience your boundaries as being violated;
  • Feel disappointed, distrusted, dishonored, unappreciated, disrespected, insulted, demeaned, disregarded or dismissed (and that’s just a sampling of negative reactions); or
  • Believe you’re been taken advantage of, cheated, tricked, or gaslighted.

So is there a common core that characterizes these various provocations? What I’d like to suggest here is that at the deepest root of all the perceived affronts that make you mad is the fear you’re not good enough. In the nanosecond before you react with anger, your expectations or, on a more fundamental level, your self-image has taken a hit. And that’s why I view anger as instinctive—as how, outwardly, we’re inclined to act (as part of some ancient survival program) to fend off threats to our inner security.

When we regard another as accusing or attacking us, we’re compelled to suppress these uncomfortably disturbing feelings of anxiety or shame. And we do this defensively (though it projects as offensive), by vehemently hurling this felt blame back on them. In that sense, all anger is reactive: a knee-jerk response to what immediately (though generally unconsciously) feels threatening to you. If there’s an emotion that can be seen as debasing the golden rule, surely it’s anger. For here, kindness, compassion, and fellow feeling is perverted by the motive of self-righteous revenge.

In the moment you react angrily toward another, you’re protesting—or retaliating—against how you’ve just been made to feel. It can’t be overemphasized that this reaction exists totally independent of what may have been the other person’s intentions. For what drives your anger is the notion that someone (perhaps most commonly, a close family member) is purposely acting against you, thereby exposing your vulnerabilities. And in this regard, your anger is best understood as the single, most powerful defense against such provoked vulnerability.

It may seem an overstatement but I can’t think of an instance where anger couldn’t be comprehended as retaliative. You’re getting back at something or someone that, presumably, is totally oblivious and non-caring about your needs or desires. Doubtless, we’re all susceptible to such frustrating experiences, which can range from a seemingly “stuck” red light that’s keeping you from getting to work on time; to a parking ticket you didn’t feel you deserved; to a person who—just before you could get your hands on it—grabs that one remaining clearance item you’d set your sights on (and. of course, no rain checks are available!).

It hardly matters whether the adversarial force interfering with your wants is actually malicious. As soon as you attribute that entity as purposely operating against you, your angry reaction will be almost instantaneous—unless, that is, you’re intimidated by this outside source. But other than that, you’ll react antagonistically, for taking negative things personally is what anger is all about. Or, put somewhat differently, whenever it feels as though you’re being undermined by another (whether or not that person’s behavior meaningfully relates to you, or your ideals), you’ll react with hostility. From your viewpoint, you’re being deprived of something important, if only an acknowledgment that you’re okay, or good enough.

Such a sense of deprivation, it should be added, can pertain to just about anything— from not getting another’s approval or validation (which you may have needed and thought you’d earned), to another’s getting the promotion you felt belonged to you. And in all these instances, what lies beneath your anger is feeling you’ve been aggressed against, even though in many (if not most) instances such an interpretation is arbitrary, exaggerated, or downright irrational.

Why are the above points so crucial? Simply that once you can look at the outside world more objectively and interpret differently the things that first appear to be directed at you, your angry reactions will lessen—or not be provoked in the first place. In many of my previous writings, I’ve stressed that virtually all your emotions begin with cognitive appraisals, whether you’re conscious of them or not. If you assess a situation as dangerous, you’ll experience fear. Evaluate it as hopeless, you’ll get depressed. And if you regard circumstances as unfair, or perceive another as undeservedly denigrating you, you’ll flash with anger. (And, frankly, the safer you feel in doing so, the angrier you’ll get.)

Again, your anger automatically serves to protect you from anything you experience as personally menacing. So if, however accidentally, someone is bringing to the surface unresolved insecurities or self-doubts from your past, the emotional distress linked to such deeply felt provocations can vanish once—in retaliation—you turn against the other person responsible for initiating your upset. As I noted in my very first post on anger, this emotion, as ironic as it may seem, can actually be understood as a last-ditch attempt at self-soothing. And that even includes cursing at a protracted red light that’s seen (malignantly) as “forcing” you to be late for work.

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If, historically, you’ve had a problem controlling your anger, your ultimate solution should be fairly obvious. But that won’t make it any easier to execute. In any emotionally aroused moment, you’ll struggle to implement a more rational, even-minded response. For once your buttons are pushed, you’ll act reflexively.

So what you’ll need to learn (and maybe overlearn) is how to identify what more vulnerable emotion your highly reactive, non-vulnerable anger is protecting. Once you’re able to calm yourself down, consider what perceived indignity triggered your anger. Did you feel incompetent? ignored? belittled? worthless? abandoned? If so, then these are the underlying issues you need to be willing to confront—and, of course, resolve once and for all. Otherwise, whatever residual insecurities your anger may be protecting you from will continue to exist—and, over and over, require your anger to keep them buried.

So, for example, say your partner makes you mad (and, strictly speaking, they really can’t do that on their own—independent, that is, of the motives you’re attributing to them). As a result of your agitation, you can’t resist mouthing off to them. What do you think are the odds that such emotionally acting-out anger is likely to help your relationship?

I employ the phrase “emotionally acting out” to sharply contrast it with “emotional expression.” For the latter response would disclose the more authentic pain or disappointment hiding just behind your defensive anger, which is expressly designed to rescue you from this inner hurt—keep it, that is, “under wraps.” Rather than admitting to the other person their emotional power over you and requesting they be more considerate of your soft spots, your anger drives you to focus on what’s wrong, bad, or culpable about them. Desperately maintaining a posture—or better, illusion—of strength, it blames the person triggering your discomfiting emotion rather than having the courage to simply come out and “own” it.

And if I seem to be almost personifying the emotion of anger, I’ll add that when anger takes hold of you (i.e., against your better, more adult judgment), it has a “personality” all its own, overthrowing your more customary self-restraint. Its sole aim is to invalidate the person who just invalidated you.

So, are you willing to identify and explore the more hurtful, “haunting” feelings lurking behind your defensive (and self-validating) anger? If you can foster the real prowess to express this more vulnerable side of you, you’re likely to get a much warmer, understanding and sympathetic response from your partner. Remember, consciously at least, your goal isn’t really to make them feel bad or to start World War III. Or, to get them to retaliate themselves with their own (self-protective) anger. It’s to make them more sensitive to your feelings, so in the future they’ll be more aware of how their words or behavior affects you.

The reason that just venting your anger toward another person rarely works is that it’s hurtful, or scary, to them. It makes them feel “beat up.” And if their own retaliatory anger is provoked, conflict between the two of you can escalate in seconds—as you accidentally collude in sabotaging the relationship. Regrettably, when your anger becomes your go-to defense against experiencing and communicating emotional vulnerabilities, such masking of your real feelings can only increase the intimacy-killing distance between the two of you.

. . . And what you and the other person need most is the emotional safety that creates closeness—not the ongoing interpersonal strife that inevitably ends in alienation.

NOTE: I’ve written some 15 posts on anger for Psychology Today. Here are just a few that closely complement this one and are somewhat more solution-oriented:  “What Your Anger May Be Hiding,” “A Powerful Two-Step Process to Get Rid of Unwanted Anger,”  “Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear,” and “The Power to Be Vulnerable” (Parts 1, 2 & 3).

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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