When asked to share why he was attending my class, James exclaimed, “I was court referred because I was involved in a fight. I know I have a short fuse. It’s just a part of who I am. I’m angry at work, with my girlfriend and everywhere in between. But I really want to keep my girlfriend. ”
Like many participants who have sought my help with anger management education–whether self-referred or referred by others–James was prone to chronic anger arousal, not just as an emotional periodic reaction to a specific triggering event, but as a part of his on-going identity. And, like others who report issues with chronic anger, James described his anger as if it chose him–as the victim of his anger–and not as if he had the free agency to choose it.
Anger is a natural emotion that can empower us to work to find constructive means to satisfy our wants and needs. On the other hand, those with chronic anger have embraced an identity that is a formula for disempowerment. They are disposed to see the world through a filter constricted by their anger. Their anger reflects a more deeply ingrained tendency, one that is reactive and minimally influenced by thought and self-reflection. It’s this narrowed vision, coupled with the rigidity of their reaction. that contributes to diminished empowerment–and saps their capacity to genuinely satisfy their wants and needs.
Chronic anger has many faces. James, for example, reported looking for a fight when intoxicated. He had randomly identified someone in a bar to insult. They exchanged blows and he was quickly escorted out of the bar. James described waiting outside for a few minutes but then once again initiated a fight– this time randomly picking someone who was exiting the bar. It was this incident that led to his arrest and referral to my class.
Chronic anger is similarly reflected in the numerous angry comments on the Internet, statements of opinion that are predominantly expressions of anger rather than rational argument. Such anger impairs the capacity to be civil, open, understanding or compassionate. It is a cataract that clouds our vision to the possibilities of looking for and noticing the positive in others and in ourselves–even when we have disagreements.
Chronic anger is anger that is most often pervasive, evidenced in the work place, in relationships and in daily life. It reflects an on-going proneness to become angry as well as a general attitude of hostility. Most frequently, it derives from wounds–hurt that individuals have not been able to move past, often having its roots in earlier emotional or physical abuse or neglect. Or, it might originate with threats to or losses regarding relationships, health, finances, employment, or socio-economic status.
While some individuals have a clear awareness of their hurts, others may fail to associate them with their anger. These are often individuals who have denied or minimized the impact of their earlier experiences–sometimes due to guilt and shame regarding them. All too often they may have blamed themselves in an effort to hide from their real anger and confusion regarding such events. Nevertheless, the severity of their wounds may then contribute to hypersensitivity to experience feeling maltreated.
With and without awareness, some of us may embrace chronic anger as psychological armor intended to protect ourselves from suffering. For example chronic can help us dodge the anxiety of self-reflection required to forge an identity. It can serve to avoid the tension of asking ourselves questions such as, “Who am I?” “What is my purpose?” and “What gives me meaning?” or “What is in my long-term best interest?” Unless we answer these questions in a conscious manner, we become subject to a “script” and guidelines we’ve internalized about life. Consequently, such anger can be a major distraction and reprieve from self-reflection essential for forming a more resilient and complex personality–one that truly resonates with who we are and who we wish to become.
Our failure to answer these questions leaves us reactive. In the extreme, it may be part of a “negative identity, a term coined by noted psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, describing those who adopt an identity that is in opposition to what is expected of them. Lacking a real sense of their likes, dislikes and desires, their default is to react. They may also assume this identity when they believe the roles their parents and society expect them to fulfill are unattainable. This stance is reflected in the attitude “I don’t know who I wish to be, but I certainly don’t want to be like you. “
For others, embracing chronic anger rests on the avoidance of taking responsibility for their life. It’s often easier to blame others or circumstances for a current situation–and by doing so, renounce all of our power to help alter our situation. Even when others have truly contributed to their pain, embracing chronic anger may serve to protect them from the hard work of identifying alternative courses of action.
Holding on to anger is often rooted by the need to protect ourselves from being hurt again. Chronic anger forms a mindset of hyper-vigilance to being threatened, one that leaves us continually on guard. It includes a predisposition to believe that others are out to hurt us, or that we shouldn’t trust anyone. This mindset may inhibit fully emotionally investing and sharing at a deeper level. Additionally, this lack of trust strengthens our quickness to avoid closeness and contributes to the failure to forgive others and ourselves.
By embracing chronic anger we can ward off the pain of grieving and mourning– really recognizing and accepting the pain behind the hurt–a process that is essential for letting go of our wounds. This inability to let go of the past can freeze us in time and lead us to envision having little choice or opportunity for things to change. As such, it forces us to focus on the past in a way that shades our perception of the future.
In all of these circumstances chronic anger can paralyze us. Chronic anger, which promotes a sense of disempowerment, only furthers chronic anger. It may support the use of drugs or alcohol as well as blaming and hating others for our misery. Or, it might both fuel and be a symptom of depression, especially when it is also self-directed. And like depression, chronic anger carries with it the pessimism regarding the future, a perspective that inhibits taking chances and making a commitment to a choice than might even create a better future. Chronic anger may make us unable to envision a future without it, a future that includes greater happiness, meaning and fulfillment. As such, chronic anger may both contribute to as well as be impacted by depression.
Just as procrastination protects us against the tension of engagement in a specific task, chronic anger freezes us in time through its distraction. This was reflected in statements made by James regarding his tendency to avoid practicing new skills for anger management. “Yeah. I guess I’m angry that I have to practice these skills while and others don’t have to “. And even later when he recognized that earlier wounds contributed to his anger, he stated “They had it easy. They most likely didn’t go through what I went through.”
And chronic anger as identity most often underlies the hatred of the “other”, those who may be different than us. It rests on the belief that my happiness can’t be achieved because of their presence or even their existence. This rigidity of identity gives far too much power to others and robs us of our own.
When we hold onto chronic anger we fail to identify what we truly need. Only when we pause to reflect on our anger can we identify a key desire that has been threatened or thwarted. It may be the desire for trust, security, safety or respect. And yet, holding onto anger further undermines the possibility of these desires being satisfied.
Life is difficult. It is not fair. It just is. Veterans who have lost a limb–but then engage in sports or have a successful career–powerfully exemplify the capacity for moving on in spite of losses. Their stories most often reveal their awareness of choice. “I could have just started drinking, but I decided I’m really the same person–just without a leg.” Or “Sure, I isolated myself for awhile. But I realized I was depriving myself of life. And while I couldn’t do all that I could previously do, I knew I had to move past my loss and anger.”
Psychoanalyst Rollo May wrote Love and Will,a critical perspective regarding psychoanalysis. It was his premise that in spite of all of the talking and all of the awareness, real change requires the strengthening of our “will”, however we do so. Whether we rely on faith, a memory of feeling empowered by taking a chance, or we force ourselves to envision some reward in the future–change demands some action in the face of discomfort. It demands that we transcend what we experience in order to change our experience. It calls for being future focused in our thoughts and behavior.
James was sufficiently motivated to maintain his relationship. Consequently, he continued to explore his anger and ways to move past it. Through counseling that involved self-reflection and learning new skills, he allowed himself to mourn and grieve and ultimately make peace with his wounds. Throughout this process he cultivated a self-compassionate voice that acknowledged his pain and suffering. At the same he learned to ask himself, like the most nurturing parent, “What is in my best interest? What canI do nowto improve your situation?” By repeatedly answering these questions he learned to cultivate an identity that was increasingly open, curious and empowered–one that transcended his long-held belief that “I am who I am. “