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I'll admit it's important to "get in touch"
with your anger. But, it's only the first step
in a much larger process. A process that
many people go off the deep end with --
because they forget the goal is to "work
through" and move beyond your anger,
not set up house there.
Spoken by a man whose
anger once controlled
his life ... Me
On this page:
What Causes Anger? | Your Anger vs. His | Anger and Violence | Anger and Self-Defense | Considerations About the Use of Anger | Effectiveness Over Emotions | Rest of Quote
Some people raise anger to the status of a papal indulgence.(1) In their minds, for a donation to the 'church of anger,' all of their sins will be forgiven. Any behavior committed or words spoken under its influence are excused ... or worse, justified because they were angry when they acted.
Other people lead lives ruled by anger. Their tantrums and rages are like an alcoholic on a binge. They use their outbursts as a form of internal pressure regulation. Once they blow up and relieve the pressure they can go on their merry way, calm and content until the next time the pressure builds up.
Still others are not so obvious about their anger, but take complex steps to strike out at others in ways that -- while anger based -- are not blatant or direct. This can be either passive aggressive or manipulative to get others to do their dirty work for them.
There are other people who use their anger as a foundation of self. Their essential definition of themselves revolves around their anger over some outrage. These people frequently lead lives that are not only selfish, but self-destructive.
There are many theories about the roots of anger. The working model we use is the one postulated by Dr. Les Carter in his The Anger Workbook. The model he presents is that anger is an emotional response based in preservation of:
1) Essential needs
3) Core beliefs
When these fundamental issues are threatened, anger is the common emotional response. It occurs in an attempt to protect them and by extension ourselves. Although simple, this is a very profound concept. A thumbnail explanation of each of these might help. What follows are our summation of Carter's ideas.
Essential needs is
what we perceive we need to survive and function.
Usually this is an outwardly oriented concept. Essential needs are
commonly perceived as " that which is mine." A threat to these is a
threat to one's lifestyle. For example, a parent finding a child playing with
matches in the house will get angry in large part due to the threat to
the house and all belongings. While essential needs are often things, this
concept also includes non-physical conditions that we have worked for
to create our lifestyle, such as employment, marital status and even the
status quo. Included in this category is physical well being ... which is
why after narrowly avoiding a car accident it is common to get angry.
Self-esteem is our concept of self value. Unfortunately,
it is largely
subjective and very mutable. Although many people consider their self-
esteem to be based on outside conditions, self-esteem is mostly an
internal issue. This explains the often whiplash and erratic nature of self-
esteem -- usually based on the mood of the person. Having said this,
when external events occur that we perceive threaten our status (or our
perceived status) the common reaction is anger because our concept of
self-value is threaten. Although this is an internal reaction, the anger is
usually directed at the external source of the stimuli we took as a threat
our self-status (2).
Preservation of core beliefs is both the most powerful
and at the same time
most vague of the three. It is basically protecting our internal construct of
what "Life is about." We all have an internal 'roadmap' we have created to
help guide us through life. Often it is this roadmap that guides us through
life, not necessarily the actual road. Core beliefs are not just what we
believe 'in,' it's what we believe the universe 'is' -- or should be. It
is how we define ourselves, the world AND the relationship between the
two. Recognize a key point, it doesn't matter if this definition is good or
bad, we will fight to preserve it. Although over-stated for the sake of
example, we can understand violations of our core beliefs being perceived
as threats to the order of the universe. We become angry at the universe
when it doesn't behave the way we expect it to or believe it should.
If you consider the implications of these three categories, you will see not only how flexible this idea is, but also how interrelated these three concepts are. These three issues can not only overlap, but work together to create a rising spiral of anger. A threat to your core beliefs also threatens your self-esteem (you have much invested in those beliefs) and your essential needs (what you think you need to survive).
Once you realize it's a means to protect these three things, then anger is no longer categorically a bad thing. There may be a legitimate threat to these things. And anger is necessary not only for our survival, but our expectations and ability to cope with life.
However, with some people, anger becomes a chronic condition. There is a continual cycle of reinforcing thoughts, behavior patterns and beliefs that are at odds with how the world works. As such, there are constant challenges to these three issues requiring constant acts of preservation. Yet these people steadfastly cling to lifestyles, mindsets and ideals that are at odds with the world, demanding that it, rather than they, change.
Face it, the world is bigger than you are. It is not going to conform to your expectations of how it should behave. Instead of accepting this, the idea enrages some people further. There also is good evidence to suggest that depression and anger are closely linked.
For our purposes, however, it is important to realize that anger is not a homogenized emotion. It can come in many different forms, behaviors and levels. What you consider to be acceptable behavior when angry is not necessarily the same behavior another person may engage in.
And that is where anger
and self-defense intersect.
Your Anger vs. His
Many people when faced with a threatening situation become angry. This is normal and perfectly understandable. And under normal circumstances it works ... reasonably well. However, it is not, necessarily the safest course of action when dealing with a violent person. In fact, it usually only makes matters worse.
When we say this many people wrongly assume we are trying to take away what they believe is their most important defense. We're not. What we are saying is trying to out do a violent person's anger with yours is the equivalent of bringing a rubber band to a gun fight.
The problem is that most people are not capable of the kind of explosive action a habitually violent person is capable of. It takes time to overcome the normal inhibitions against violence. While given enough provocation, anyone can become violent, this is usually a long, drawn out process of escalation, attempted compromise and threat display -- before any physical action is taken. And even then usually the initial attack is followed by more threat display (3). While it takes time to build up to this type of violence, it is still no where close to attacking someone with intent to kill or maim. That new level of violence is still further miles down the road.
Stop and consider what we just said. Odds are what you think of as 'violence,' is more the threat display stage that escalates into a blow or two. To you, that is the extreme. What we are saying is there exists an even greater extreme beyond that phase. "I was so angry I could have killed him" is hyperbole. In this extreme, you don't talk about it, you do it.
What the average person doesn't understand is exactly how fast a violent person can get to the further extreme. He does this by, in essence, skipping the middle part. Instead of yelling, screaming and making threat displays he immediately goes to throwing you a beating ... or worse. In his skewed perception, not killing you IS the middle stage. Beating you to a pulp is his version of a warning.
Imagine a violent person is a full pot of simmering water -- the slightest increase in heat will cause it to boil over. Let's for the sake of example say that your normal anger level is a half-full pot at a roiling boil. While you might be able to boil over -- if enough heat and extra water is added -- it will still take much longer.
The problem with this is that the violent person is already there. By the time you would be able to muster enough anger to become physically violent, a violent person -- if you are lucky -- will have beaten you to the ground. If you are unlucky, he will have pulled a gun and shot you. Violent people start out closer to boiling over because their pot is more full, and the water is already at a low boil. Your lesser anger, instead of intimidating him, fuels his.
Realize an important point, no matter how angry you are, a violent person has more anger and is willing not only to take it to greater extremes, but to do so much faster. And a criminal comes to a situation prepared to take it to this extreme.
This is why we advocate strategies that do not rely on
your anger as fuel. When dealing with a serious threat,
your anger isn't going to get you there fast enough
While not all anger results in violence and not all violence is based in anger, there is a direct connection.
The problem is that some people discover that they can get what they want by using violence. This perceived success becomes a self-reinforcing pattern. Violence (or the threat of it) becomes a preferred tool for achieving one's ends. The same goes for anger and other emotional outbursts. When it gets ugly is when all three are routinely used in conjuncture.
We use the term "perceived success" because, in fact, violence is a very limited tool ... as is anger. What the violent person does not realize is that, instead of expanding his options, violence contracts them.
To understand how this works, we can take a look at the following statement, "Just because your lifestyle takes up all of your time doesn't mean that is all there is to life." The deeper someone goes into anger and a violent lifestyle, the more restricted and narrower his (or her) world view becomes.
In tandem with this, more and more "doors" close to the person. Society does not tolerate violent people, and it tends to isolate them from the mainstream. Violent people are shunted into situations or like-minded social groups where their behavior is, if not tolerated, then at least accepted(4). In some cases violence is actively encouraged. In any event, the person is slowly isolated and ostracized from mainstream society
Usually this process of isolation is not obvious or immediate (although being sent to prison is rather obvious). It is instead a gradual expulsion from the mainstream and success. Promotions do not come at work (if these people can even hold jobs), nice people no longer socialize with them and lifestyle choices are limited. Often this gradual erosion of options is not obvious to the angry and violent person. Or, if it is, blame is attributed to external sources (e.g., the boss is out to get him, it was someone else's fault or society's prejudice is the source of his failure). Remember, anger is often the preservation of self-esteem and core beliefs, so is blame.
With this also comes another facet, anger is often used as a means to block empathy. Violence is horrible to commit. Intentionally hurting another human being extracts a terrible price psychologically, emotionally and spiritually on the person doing it. The closer you are and the more intense the experience, the stronger the resistance to doing it (See Dave Grossman's On Killing). That is why most people don't do it. This also is why people who take pleasure in it are looked upon with such revulsion by normal people. People who do not have empathy for the pain and suffering of others are considered sociopaths and are rejected by society. Even people whose violent actions benefit society (e.g., military, police and executioners) are looked upon with ambivalence by most members of that society.
While professionals are consciously able to temporarily shut down their empathy in order to achieve an end through use of force, anger is often the poor man's equivalent. Anger often acts as an emotional shield to the pain and hurt we are causing others -- especially during violence. Often anger is used as both an excuse and a way to overcome the inhibitions (both societal and personal) against violence. By excuse, we refer to the tendency to use anger -- and working themselves up -- as a means to give people permission to engage in behavior they know is wrong. The shielding aspect of anger from empathy has already been discussed. But this shield must be built up to protect the person from the empathic backlash of what he or she is doing.
Recognize that what we have just talked about are extremes. Most people never find themselves in a situation where their basic 'goodness' is overwhelmed by their anger, emotions or willingness to commit violence for gain. Whether this resistance to cross this line is based on inherent compassion and goodness or fear of getting caught doesn't matter. Most people don't cross this line. Those that do -- whether for good reason or bad -- are ostracized.
Still, there are people who live their lives basically 'high-centered' between their anger and committing physical violence. Even though they fear the consequences of violence their anger keeps them perpetually trapped near the borders of physical violence. Such people are usually verbally abusive, unnecessarily aggressive in a social context, socially inept, perpetually on guard against insult and perceived threat and often fantasize about committing physical violence. These people are almost constantly in a state conflict with other people in their lives ... usually over situations that they created through their words and actions. As such these people are almost always in a constant state of hypertension. It is not uncommon for these people to be looking for an excuse to "go off" on someone.
Furthermore, this type is often drawn to martial arts/women's self-defense/ "reality-based" self-defense/knife fighting organizations that reinforce their thinking. These programs promote the idea of a situation occurring where the person can justify unleashing this 'deadly rage' -- and in fact, train for it. Worse, many of these people are actually hoping they find themselves in such a situation. We say worse because while situations where they would be justified in this kind of explosive violence are rare, believing that the moment has finally come, they are far more likely to assault you in a parking lot over a fender bender.
The above is an example of the other way that anger can go wrong. Against a truly violent person it isn't enough, against everyone else, it is too much.
Remember the three sources of Anger?
Preservation of Essential Needs
Preservation of Self-Esteem
Preservation of Core Beliefs
It is the concept that you are 'preserving' these things that makes most people believe that what they are doing is self-defense. If it was threatened it's self-defense isn't it?
Sadly, often people's 'definition' of self-defense includes things like jumping up and down on someone's chest while he's laying on the floor. And then they are amazed when they are prosecuted ... because after all they were 'just defending themselves.'
No they weren't. That's because self-defense without limits is attacking. You don't get to do whatever you want because you are angry or afraid.
You consciously have to realize something that your anger won't. Self-defense is a legally defined term. That means what self-defense is and isn't, exists entirely outside what you think it means. More specifically your actions must conform to that standard, not the other way around.
Unfortunately anger isn't entirely an emotional state. It is a complex cocktail of neurological chemistry, different brain functions, impeded rational capability and perceptual distortion. In fact, it helps to think of an angry person as mildly insane. 2000 years ago, Horace wrote: Anger is momentary madness, so control your passion or it will control you.
The problem with much of what is promoted as self-defense, is that it fails to take into consideration the repercussions of this madness. And repercussion there will be -- win or lose. It is a dangerous fact that many programs encourage anger as a motivation for your self-defense. In solely focusing on 'winning' such programs actively encourage excessive aggression. The madness of anger doesn't recognize the legal restrictions of self-defense.
Once you realize that anger (or fear) doesn't give you carte blanche on use of force you are much more likely to be able to 'defend' yourself without crossing the line of being the aggressor. Which face it, the law doesn't care why you crossed the line, what is important is that you were no longer defending yourself and causing unwarranted harm to another human being.
Considerations About The Use of Anger
Another important thing to consider is criminal violence. While 99 percent of all physical violence is technically a crime, there is a marked difference between a fight between two angry people and a planned criminal assault.
In the former, the situation might escalate to physical violence.
With the latter, the criminal has come prepared to do violence to achieve his ends. He has already mentally prepared himself for committing violence. This means, at best, he is a thin hair away from exploding into violence. Recognize, crime is a process. He has assessed the likelihood of success, positioned himself to attack, planned his escape route, mentally prepared himself and -- in all probability -- armed himself. So by the time he commits himself to the crime, his ducks are already in a row for violence. As such an emotional attempt to impede him in achieving his goal can have dire consequences.
In such a situation, reacting with just anger is likely to get your head blown off. Simply stated, the criminals who commit violent crimes are themselves violent people. While this should be blatantly obvious the overwhelming majority of people who are shot by carjackers and robbers are people who believed they could stop a crime through anger and verbal resistance. (Take for example the NYC actress who's last words were "What are you going to do, shoot us?")
If a violent person is a nearly full pot that is always threatening to boil over, someone in the criminal process is a pot filled to the brim -- and any anger from you will only serve to turn the flame up all the way.
The bottom line is that a violent person is not a snotty busboy to be intimidated by your self-righteous anger. Nor is he a weakling whom your razor tongue is going to leave cowering and whimpering in a corner. He is not someone who is going to be "shown" not to mess with you through your emotional outbursts. He is definitely not someone who cares about your emotional well-being. In fact, the only emotional concerns he has are his own.
Think long and hard about what we just said. No matter how wrapped up in your emotions you are, the violent person is more so.
Remember Horace's comment about anger being temporary madness. That perfectly describes an angry and violent person. As angry as you may be, so is a violent person. And he is willing to physically enforce his anger. This isn't a contest of threat displays to warn the other person off (as are so many emotional outbursts). A violent person is speeding towards going physical. Unfortunately, most people are not capable of going from 0 to 60 with their anger in the time that it would save them from a beating. Remember, a violent person has learned that by going farther and faster up the anger scale, he can get what he wants. While you might be able to work yourself up to physical violence, he's got a massive head start.
Odds are you will lose that race.
Effectiveness Over Emotion
While it might sound like we are saying that you are helpless in the face of anger and violence -- that is not the case. What we are trying to point out is that your actions are your best chance of success, not your emotions.
When confronted by a violent person, don't try to use your anger as a bluff to intimidate him. When it comes to having temper tantrums, he's better at it. No matter how angry, self-righteous or outraged you are, he's got that too. And he's willing to break your jaw to prove it.
What makes the NNSD approach to personal safety unique is that we advocate using your brains to keep you from putting yourself in a situation where a person can use violence against you. Getting into such a situation with a violent person and then trying to dig yourself out through anger has a dismal track record.
So in regard to personal safety, let's look at what you can do to keep your anger from putting you in the hospital. In a larger context, let's look at how you can improve your life by understanding anger.
The rest of
the chapter quote:
The quote that started this page is part of a letter that Marc wrote to a man who was having a hard time with his anger. Marc, having once been a bundle of violent rage at the world gave this perspective:
I'll admit it's important to "get in touch" with your anger. But, it's only the first step in a much larger process. A process that many people go off the deep end with -- because they forget the goal is to "work through" and move beyond your anger, not set up house there.
Unfortunately, many people consider anger as a goal instead of recognizing it as a sign of something deeper that needs to be understood and changed in order to let go of the anger. Changing your zip code to a state of chronic anger doesn't make things better than being in denial about your anger. It just screws your life up in a totally different direction. For both good and bad, the direction of the process is determined by a question, "Okay, you're angry, now what?". Do you expect the entire world to change for you because you're angry? Do you think your anger is that powerful? That suddenly you're a wrathful god and all societies rules suddenly cease to exist for you because you're angry? Or are you just looking for revenge? And anger gives you an excuse to strike back at all the people who dared to offend you? I ask this because many people use their anger as the extra push to overcome inhibitions and justification for bad behavior. It's a means to give them permission to act in a way they know is wrong. In doing so "victims" often turn around and become victimizers. Or are you getting in touch with your anger so you can feel vindicated? How about superior? That you, being the "wronged" party, are somehow superior to those who wronged you?
These are some of the ways people can hijack the process of "working through their anger." If you're stalled here, ask yourself, what have you really accomplished by being angry? Have you changed anything inside yourself? Have you released the expectations, assumptions, beliefs and thought patterns that created that anger? The things that have kept you trapped there? Have you improved your quality of life by being angry? Have you fixed the problems? Gained new perspectives and resolved the issue? Or have you just given yourself permission to be pissed and told yourself that you are "right" about your anger? If you've done the latter, then you've not only reinforced the thought patterns and assumptions, that messed up your life in the first place, but you've also taken a step towards being an abuser. That's because those are the same rationalizations that they use. If that's what you are doing, you're still in the same dysfunctional loop --you're just playing a different role. Anger is real blaming others for its existence, but not real good at self analysis for its source. That's something you have to do. Just being angry isn't enough. You have to use anger as a road map back to those things needing change within yourself. Those things that are the source of your anger.
Return to top of page
1 The practice of the medieval Catholic church of "selling" salvation (guaranteed entrance to heaven) for a large enough donation (cash, land or service) to the church. This practice was one of the major philosophical differences that lead to the breaking away of Protestant sects during Europe's Reformation period. Return to text
2) Important Note: Although pop-psychology/self-help proponents tend to think of it in terms of raising and keeping self-esteem high, it can be either high or low. The person will 'fight' to preserve that status. Anger preserves self-esteem, not what level it is. In protecting one's self-esteem many people battle just a virulently to maintain low self-esteem as they do high. Return to text
3) For example, more screaming and yelling. Although the threat exists, there are no more physical attacks. In fact, it is arguable that the intent of the blow was not to cause injury, but to indicate how serious the striker was about his/her threat display. Return to Text
4) For example, a room full of violent people will not be shocked when violence breaks out. While they will react to it, it is not unexpected or unnerving to them. Return to Text
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