5 Things Your Anger Might Be Telling You
Anger, unchecked or unexpressed, can cause damage to our health, psyche and relationships. Anger can also motivate us, inspire us to action, and provide valuable insights into ourselves and relationships.
Your Past Wasn’t Perfect
Early years can have a significant impact on our coping mechanisms — or lack of them — and our relationships in the present day. A parent-child attachment style that is unpredictable, ambivalent or enmeshed may fuel anger in adult life. Nancy Simon, LCSW, has over 25 years of experience helping people address issues like anger, depression, substance use, relationship problems and trauma. She says that people sometimes act out anger in the way anger was acted out on them growing up or in a way that they witnessed it playing out. Simon says there tends to be a tradition of shame in families of individuals who have issues with anger. “One way people cover up shame is through rage,” she says. Simon says people with the above attachment styles may have trouble expressing, noticing and managing their anger.
Research supports this. One study found that people with a history of ambivalent attachment styles may have trouble controlling their anger. The same study found that people with avoidant attachment styles may be overly hostile and not recognize the signs that they’re angry. Another study found that men who assault their wives often have a history of fearful or insecure attachment styles.
You’re Avoiding Something
Anger is sometimes a cover for more vulnerable feelings. “Anger is typically a secondary emotion,” says Simon. “If you dig deeper, you usually find that the primary emotion is sadness, shame or something else.” For example, in couples’ therapy, a husband’s cognitive response to his wife coming home late may be to say that he is angry. But when he explores what underlies his anger, he may find that when she comes home late he feels lonely, abandoned or rejected.
If you weren’t provided the environment to develop healthy coping skills and experience emotions as natural and regular, anger can be a “catch all” for all kinds of difficult feelings that may feel shameful or uncomfortable. Early experiences might have sent the message that these more vulnerable emotions are “unsafe” or “unwelcomed.” You learn to build up armor against them, stuff them, and sometimes the result is chronic or inappropriate anger.
You’re at Risk for Depression
You might be very angry, but not realize it yet. There are many theories on the correlation between anger and depression. The notion that “depression is anger projected inward,” is a somewhat simplified concept that’s been expanded upon with new research. In addition to the role that genetics can play, a more contemporary view is that depression is a “depression” of the entire emotional regulatory system. Simon says that many people suppress their more vulnerable feeling of sadness, hurt, rejection, shame happiness and even joy by disappearing into depression or numbness. “It has been their only way to cope, and it works,” she says. “The child in them is too scared to go deeper.” People who are depressed may have trouble standing up for themselves, feeling worthy or mobilizing. If you’re depressed, the feelings you may be suppressing, such as anger, can quite literally weigh on you.
You’re at Risk for Addiction
Research shows that anger issues such as intermittent explosive disorder often co-occur with substance use disorders as well as mood and anxiety disorders. “Substance abusers have a lot of rage and a lot of shame,” says Simon. “‘I don’t fit in. There’s no one there for me. I’m bad,’ are some of the beliefs that may get tangled up in it [substance use].” She explains that similar to someone who reaches for a drink to numb emotional discomfort, people may often go straight to anger when feelings come up because anger is “easier.” The underlying issues and feelings that fuel your anger can also fuel addiction. If your only or most frequent emotion tends to be anger, you may be using it as a coping mechanism. You may also be using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism or be at risk for doing so in the future.
You’re … Well, Angry
Anger is often given a bad rap, but it is a normal and sometimes productive emotion. There are many legitimate reasons for anger. If you’re being emotionally or physically attacked, suffering an injustice, or other provocations, anger is natural and normal. It can inspire you to take care of yourself and others.
Is Your Anger a Problem? Now What?
It’s OK to feel angry now and again. Anger is a problem when it begins affecting your relationships, livelihood and mental and physical health. Many addiction and mental health treatment centers incorporate anger management as part of programming because of the strong tie between this emotion and substance abuse, withdrawal and some mental illnesses. If you’re struggling with anger and alcohol and drug use or suicidal thoughts, mental illness and legal issues, an intensive inpatient or outpatient treatment program could be beneficial.
Some people are able to manage anger issues with individual therapy and/or group therapy. In Simon’s private practice, she helps clients explore anger by having them pay attention to what is happening in their bodies when it comes up. Where do you feel anger? Is your stomach tied in knots? Is your jaw tight? Is there a color or texture to your anger? By paying attention to these types of qualities, the emotions that underlie anger can often find their voice. Simon teaches clients to make friends with their anger, journal about it, talk to it, begin to accept it instead of push it away. When given the space, anger can provide clues to information and blocks that are preventing you from living a more free, authentic and fulfilling life.
By Sara Schapmann