Chapter OneTHE CRY BEHIND THE ANGER
THROUGH THE YEARS, as I have counseled with hundreds of people trying
to make sense of their anger, I have learned one thing. There is always
something more that feeds the anger than what is observed on the surface.
Angry people may appear strong, willful, or certain, but be assured that
beneath the veneer are fear and loneliness and insecurity and pain. Especially,
there is pain. Whether they admit it or not, angry people are hurt
people, and they have somehow come to believe that they can resolve their
own pain by inflicting pain upon others. Their reasoning is usually subconscious;
nonetheless, each time anger is misapplied, it is a reflection of
a deep wound that longs to be healed.
As I work with individuals trying to overcome anger's harmful effects,
I recognize that they will remain trapped inside their own anger if they do
not learn to peer deeply inside their souls to explore the factors that give
impetus to their anger. Yes, they will need to learn techniques, if you will,
that would represent an improved means of addressing frustration, and
they can certainly be expected to learn the difference between healthy and
unhealthy forms of anger. They need to recognize, though, that a mere attempt
to adjust anger's manifestation without also digging into the matters
generating the pain produce superficial change at best.
To be released from the trap of anger, these persons need to identify the
cry behind the rage.
Exasperation was written all over Julie's face as she sat in my office with
her husband, Steve. "We've been married six years," she explained, "and
during that time I've hardly known a moment of peace. When we dated,
Steve had been a perfect gentleman. In fact, he was so nice to me and my
kids that it almost seemed too good to be true. Well, in the first month of
marriage I learned that it was too good to be true. This guy has a temper
like no one I know." Julie's face turned red and tears watered her eyes as
she tried to keep her composure.
"In our first few months of marriage, I learned that he had dozens of
do's and don'ts regarding the ways life should unfold. He had rules for
everything, and if I or one of my kids broke a rule, the floodgates of anger
would burst wide open." Julie went on to explain that Steve could curse
easily at her, calling her foul names and making wild accusations. Sometimes
he would slam doors, throw things, or punch his fist into a wall.
When driving his truck, he would tailgate motorists who drove too slowly
and he often made nasty remarks, even though it would do absolutely
nothing to move the traffic along more smoothly. Steve had never been
fired from his job as a plumbing contractor, but that was because he owned
the company. Through the years, he had worn out one employee after another
because he could be so moody and belligerent. Anger seemed to be
the defining feature of his personality.
When I asked Steve what he thought about the things being related by
Julie, he grinned and shrugged, "What can I say? She's right, I've got a
temper. But hey, don't most people? It's not like I beat her or anything like
that. Yeah, I could probably stand to lighten up a little, but it's not like I'm
some sort of criminal."
With that response, Julie heaved a great sigh. "He's impossible, and I
don't know if he'll ever get it! His anger is draining me, and I'm not able
to handle it much longer. If he's not careful, he's going to get his third divorce
because I'm not going to keep putting up with it, just like his first
two wives wouldn't."
In my counseling office, I encounter people like Steve who seem to retreat
toward anger like an old friend who is not really good for them but
is familiar. Despite many damaging experiences, they keep going back to
the familiar anger patterns because they know no other way to respond
when their world becomes problematic. Family members and friends may
plead with them to change tactics, but to no avail. Even after apologies
are offered and promises for improvement are made, the ugly forms of
anger predictably return. As illogical as it may be, it can seem to outside
observers that chronically angry people have a strong commitment to keeping
distasteful emotions alive. Certainly they have not made a commitment
toward better alternatives.
People like Steve, who have such a ready response of anger, seem to be
held captive by their emotional impulses. Though they may openly admit
that their anger produces very few positive results, they remain stuck in a
nonproductive cycle as if drawn to it like a magnet. This nonproductive
anger becomes a trap that keeps them caged inside a life of misery.
Let's acknowledge that no one is entirely free from anger. Whether we
want it to be part of our life experience or not, it is natural to each personality.
Sometimes we have little control over the possibility of anger
being experienced; it can appear quite unannounced. At times it can be
triggered by an immediate hurt or frustration, while at other times it is
provoked by a memory of past experience. When I counsel angry people, it
is not the experience of anger that concerns me; rather, I focus most powerfully
on what they do with the emotion and why it can so easily be used
As I continued to speak with Steve about his anger, I learned that this
problem had plagued him most of his life. Steve's own father had also
lived inside an anger trap. Easily agitated, the father was known for violent
outbursts that would seemingly arise from nowhere. "I remember as
a grade school boy," Steve recalled, "when my brother and I were bickering
in the back seat of the family's station wagon as we were traveling
on vacation. Without a word of warning, my dad pulled the car over to
the shoulder of the road, then he came around to my door. He opened it
with a jerk, yanked me out of the car, then he blistered my bottom hard.
My little brother started crying and my mother yelled at my dad for being
so abrasive, but none of that fazed him. He pushed me back into the car,
and still without saying a word, we drove on. That's the kind of guy he
was. He was mean and cold. I couldn't begin to count the number of times
he took out his anger like that toward either me or my brother."
I probed, "How did that harsh treatment affect you?"
Still trying to act nonchalant, Steve shrugged and said, "I hated it, but
I also got used to it. It got to the point where it didn't bother me anymore."
I did not buy that last statement for a second. Receiving such ill treatmentdid bother Steve, and it played a great role in the development of his
own adult anger. Throughout his teen years, then through his twenties,
thirties, and now his forties, Steve's anger played out in an almost nonstop
fashion. That anger did not arise from a vacuum. It had very deep roots
that were tied to the pain he never resolved as a boy who lived in fear of
his father's next outburst. For him to make improvements in his current
management of emotions, he would need to open his mind to great insight
and adjustment. Despite his statements to the contrary, I recognized that
Steve was a deeply wounded man, and the potency of his current anger
was a clear signal that he was not remotely coming to terms with his pain.
The Purpose of Anger
When I hear stories from angry people and those who live with angry
people, I learn that the triggering experiences for anger vary widely. Anger
may arise, for instance, if a family member speaks in a wrong tone of voice.
It is displayed when a coworker does not produce desired results. Anger
is experienced when traffic is unfriendly, when others are argumentative,
when bills pile up, when the dog relieves himself indoors, when someone
fails to do as promised, when another person is critical, when a child refuses
to mind, when one is feeling ignored.
In most of the instances that trigger anger, the emotion is likely to be
managed distastefully, usually in insulting, invalidating, or insensitive behavior.
That being the case, many will conclude that anger has no positive
function. It seems to be the response of a person who is mean-spirited or
who has low regard toward those provoking the response.
Anger, though, is not a one-dimensional emotion, and we need not
summarily dismiss it as all bad. Although it can certainly be used in an
unhealthy or unstable manner, it is not always wrong to feel angry. At the
heart of anger is a cry for respect. Though angry persons may not speak
these exact words, their emotion may reveal thoughts such as:
"You need to understand that I matter."
"I want to be held in high regard."
"I'm tired of feeling as though life is going to be one extended
"I deserve better treatment than what I am currently receiving."
"I'm not going to let you get away with ill treatment toward me."
"My opinions are as good as anyone else's. Pay attention to me!"
"Don't look down on me. That's offensive."
When people feel angry, it is a response to a perceived threat or invalidation.
The anger taps into a primary desire for self-preservation. In fact,
anger can be defined as the emotion of self-preservation. Specifically, angry
people wish to preserve personal worth, perceived needs, and heartfelt
convictions. Angry people want to feel that they have significance, and
they are distressed as they assume that others will not or cannot address
them in a way that reinforces personal significance.
Angry people, however, tend to do themselves no favors because the legitimate
message of self-preservation can be communicated so distastefully
that the receiver of the message hears nothing good. For instance, Steve described
to me how his anger could be triggered by Julie's occasional forgetfulness.
She might tell him that she would pick up his shirts at the dry
cleaner's, but at the end of the day when he asks about the shirts, he will
hear, "Oops, I forgot to get them." Likewise, he might ask her to purchase
a specific item when she goes grocery shopping, and she could easily pick
up a number of items-with the lone exception of the one he had requested.
Steve explained to me, "She's been forgetful so many times in our
marriage that I can no longer tolerate it. When is it going to occur to her
that she needs to be a person whose word can be trusted?"
Was Steve wrong to feel angry? Not necessarily. In fact, it would be reasonable
for him to speak openly with Julie about her forgetfulness. Instead
of addressing his convictions constructively, though, Steve's communication
style resembled a rocket launch. "What's the deal with you?" he would
shout. "Why can't you help me with one measly request?" Of course, Julie
never received such indignation well, meaning the legitimate portion of his
message would be completely lost.
People like Steve can learn to address anger constructively. For instance,
requests can be made for appropriate treatment without the request turning
into an opportunity to belittle or intimidate. Boundaries and stipulations
can be established even as the offending person is treated with
dignity. The experience of anger not only does not have to become a springboard
for foul treatment, it can actually prompt someone to stand up for
needs and convictions in a positive manner.
Those who are caught in the anger trap, however, have not learned to
approach anger constructively. Shackled by insecurity, fragile egotism,
shame, or distrust, their anger is so raw that it can be displayed in circumstances
that may not really warrant anger, and it is commonly displayed in
a manner that completely sabotages any possibility for relationship growth
The Deeper Issue
When people like Steve attempt to make sense of their anger, it is tempting
to focus merely on the immediate event that triggers the emotion. For
instance, Steve might blame his anger on Julie by saying, "If you had been
more responsible, I wouldn't be feeling so tense." Or perhaps he might
say, "How else am I supposed to respond when one of the kids talks to
me in that smart-aleck tone of voice?" He would not be entirely wrong
to link the anger to the immediate circumstance, but in doing so, he could
easily ignore the deeper issue.
Angry people are hurting, fragile people. In most cases, they are carrying
shame that has gone unresolved for years, perhaps decades. Though
the anger may seemingly be a reaction, for instance, to someone's current
lack of cooperation, it is also a response that can be traced to pain and
rejection in key relationships from years gone by. Though most angry people
do not put it in these words, they have concluded that the world is a
hostile, often unfriendly place where people cannot fully be trusted. This
perception is most commonly formed in the childhood years and expanded
during the adult years.
For years, I have met with hundreds of people who attend my anger
workshops. As we explore the reasons for the buildup of anger and the
options for managing it, I attempt to put their habits into a broad perspective.
"How many of you," I ask, "grew up with at least one parent
who had problems with anger?" Close to 100 percent of the workshop
participants raise their hands. At that point, I emphasize how their current
anger is a continuation of the hurt they experienced early in life due
to exposure to messages of criticism, condescension, or invalidation. The
anger that seemingly is a response to a current frustration is actually being
fed by a root system that is drawing upon memories of rejection.
No one was born to become bitterly angry. Our Creator gave each of
us life for the purpose of becoming both a recipient and a giver of love.
Anger arises from the painful discovery that love is remiss, that judgment,
rejection, or abandonment seems more sure. As experiences of antilove
mount, the spirit becomes pessimistic, resulting in a sort of free-floating
anger that represents a yearning to return to the love that was originally
intended by the Creator. In this sense, anger would be considered good,
if we could but respond to its promptings constructively. Many, however,
use their anger to respond to rejection with rejection, to enmity with enmity,
to hatred with hatred. When this occurs often enough, the commitment
to goodness is supplanted by persistently dark moods that eventually
hold the spirit captive.
If you have had a history of disappointment or relationship friction,
you may subconsciously look for "evidence" that perpetuates your pessimistic
belief about life. For instance, Steve could recall one episode after
another from his childhood when his father would speak belligerently to
him. His dad had a quick temper, and the slightest deviation from his preferences
could bring a loud and sharp rebuke.