Embracing Chronic Anger: A Prescription for Disempowerment

Embracing Chronic Anger: A Prescription for Disempowerment

by Bernard Golden
Asking us to consider whether chronic anger is or is not a choice, psychotherapist Bernard Golden shares his clinical expertise with a chronically angry client.

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“I’ve had a problem with anger all of my life… at work, in my relationships and everywhere in between. I was court referred because I assaulted a guy at a bar when I was drunk. That’s how I got this (pointing to the cast on his left wrist). I also took a class five years ago because I had slapped my wife. But she dropped the charges. In the past ten years, I’ve been married twice. I know my anger contributed to my divorces and I really don’t want to lose my current girlfriend.”

Anger Chose Him

Keith, a participant in one of my anger management classes, introduced himself in a deep, resonant voice. As an anger management specialist, I have offered these classes for over thirty years, with participants who have been self-referred as well as referred by their workplace, partners, friends and the courts. They have included individuals from various socio-economic levels, including professionals, blue-collar workers and students ranging in age from eighteen to seventy-five years old. Surprisingly, Keith became increasingly candid throughout the first session.

“You know, there are times I feel like maybe I was just born being angry. My father had a lot of anger too. So did his father. Maybe it’s just in my genes.” Keith described a life of chronic anger–anger that was frequent and pervasive, evidenced in his workplace, personal relationships and daily life. It entailed anger arousal not just as a situational reaction to a specific triggering event, but reflective of a general predisposition to hostility. Chronic anger encompasses “trait” versus “state” anger, which is more situational and short-lived. And like others who report issues with chronic anger,
Keith described his anger as if it chose him
Keith described his anger as if it chose him, as if he was the victim of his anger and did not have free agency to choose it.

Keith, like others with chronic anger, views the world through a filter constricted by his anger. This filter inhibits self-reflection and access to more rational thought. And, like others with chronic anger, his narrowed vision, along with the rigidity of his reactions, saps his capacity to genuinely satisfy his desires and needs.

It appeared that disappointment in his life, coupled with an increased curiosity about his anger, enhanced his motivation for further exploration. The most recent arrest and being almost 40 years old also provided an impetus for his seeking help. As I later learned, he was also dealing with his father’s death two years before. Keith seemed increasingly committed to his desire to change, reflected in his active participation in the class as well as his request for individual therapy upon completing the course.

Keith, like others who exhibit chronic anger, appeared to embrace it as a core aspect of his identity. Chronic anger became a major aspect of his inner sense of sameness and continuity over time.

A Word on Identity

Consciously cultivating our identity requires that we answer the following questions:
“Who am I?” “What is my purpose?” “What kind of individual do I wish to be?” “What gives me meaning?”

Many of us fail to ask these questions of ourselves. Absent such reflection, we may subsequently become subject to a “script”, one that is defined for us by others. This script becomes the blueprint for the structure of our lives. It provides the guidelines for how we live, informing habits in how to think, feel and behave. And each time we practice these habits, we reinforce the connections in our neuronal pathways in ways that only increase our propensity for them. For this reason, it may require some life-altering event to prompt us to more fully examine what we are doing.

The self-reflection required to address these questions pits us against our fears, our sense of self-worth, and our difficulties in making decisions and choices and committing ourselves to them. Such reflection also moves us to address barriers we create regarding the opinions of others—those voiced by others as well as those we hear from the imaginary audience in our minds. It is then understandable that we may seek distraction from engaging in this daunting task–through our work, the immediate demands of our daily lives, our relationships and even our addictions. Embracing chronic anger as a major component of our identity may yet be another form of bypassing this intensely difficult challenge.

Chronic Anger

Anger, a natural emotion, stems from a perceived threat to our physical or mental well-being. Additionally, it’s a reaction to and distraction from uncomfortable negative feelings that precede it–feelings such as shame, guilt, rejection, powerlessness, inadequacy or devaluation. I’ve come to view anger, like other symptoms we may encounter, as originating from an initial impulse of self-compassion–an attempt to alleviate our suffering. Such anger hijacks our attention away from our our internal landscape and in effect offers us a temporary reprieve from enduring the intense suffering caused by these more uncomfortable feelings.

When managed in a healthy manner, we’re able to pause to take the time that is essential for understanding our anger–whether regarding our feelings behind it, our expectations or our key desires and needs. Anger can empower us to seek constructive ways to satisfy our desires and needs. It can fuel healthy assertiveness that moves us to act in ways consistent with who we are and who we wish to become.

I’ve come to view anger, like other symptoms we may encounter, as originating from an initial impulse of self-compassion
By contrast, destructive anger moves us further away from satisfying our core desires and needs. It can lead to poor work performance, a stalled career, relational conflict, social isolation, depression, excessive guilt or shame and even the loss of one’s freedom. Additionally, extensive research shows that anger can contribute to illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure and even back pain.

Chronic anger is one form of destructive anger. For some of us, such anger serves as psychological armor, intended to protect us from the sting of our inner pain. Such anger can be viewed as a form of “experiential avoidance,” as described by Stephen Hayes, and involves the suppression, minimization and denial of our feelings.

It is against the lack of a solid identity that individuals with chronic anger may be characterized as embodying a “negative identity,” described by Erik Erikson as an identity in opposition to what is expected of them. Lacking self-awareness and the self-reflection essential for such awareness, their default is to react. They may gravitate toward this resolution when they believe the roles their parents and society expect them to fulfill are unattainable. The psychological underpinning of this stance is reflected in the attitude “I don’t know whom I wish to be, but I certainly don’t want to be like you.”

Unfortunately for Keith and others, embracing chronic anger was a formula for disempowerment that only strengthened the tendency for anger arousal. And for Keith, like others with chronic anger, it appeared to be an outgrowth of aspects very much consistent with a negative identity.

Chronic anger has many forms. It’s reflected by the quickness to experience anger in daily life, in one’s relationships and especially with authority. Chronic anger appears in the numerous 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 with others and ourselves.
It is a cataract that clouds our vision to the possibilities of looking for and noticing the positive in others and in ourselves
It is a cataract that clouds our vision to the possibilities of looking for and noticing the positive in others and in ourselves.

Chronic anger promotes disempowerment, which only furthers the propensity for anger. It undermines taking responsibility for our own lives. In doing so, it constricts the range of possibilities and minimizes the freedom for personal evolution and life fulfillment. It’s so much easier to blame others or circumstances for a difficult or painful situation and by doing so, renounce all our power to help alter our situation. In the process, however, we only further bolster our sense of victimhood. Even when others have truly contributed to our pain, embracing chronic anger may serve to protect us from the hard work of identifying and choosing alternative courses of action.

It then makes sense that individuals with chronic anger may resort to drug or alcohol use, or blame or hate others for their own misery. Certainly, such anger might foster or be a symptom of depression, especially when it is self-directed.

Furthermore, this vicious cycle of chronic anger and disempowerment fuels pessimism that inherently diminishes the capacity to envision a future without anger–a future that holds greater happiness, meaning and fulfillment. And, further, it undermines the capacity to develop an identity marked by greater individuation and resilience.

Like so many symptoms we observe in our clinical work, chronic anger is most often rooted in wounds–deeply felt hurt and trauma that have not been fully acknowledged. It is often a reaction to emotional or physical abuse, neglect, or loss. And while some studies suggest a genetic influence, as with much of personality, nurture helps determine whether these genetic predispositions are expressed. And while such anger may also originate with experiences in adulthood, being prone to chronic anger further strengthens it as a go-to reaction.

All too often, childhood trauma forms the underpinning of chronic anger. It may lead to a global sense of shame and accompanying feelings of inadequacy about oneself. This sense of shame is often the overriding and paralyzing feeling that creates a block to trusting one’s own thoughts, feelings or actions. These feelings then further weaken the capacity to engage in thoughts and behavior that would be essential for a more authentic choice in creating and living one’s identity.

The Case of Keith

Keith shared a history of physical abuse, occasionally being slapped or paddled by his father for his “bad” behavior. Like others with issues surrounding anger, he tended to minimize and deny the impact of these earlier experiences. And in doing so, he cut himself off from the range of feelings that surround such abuse. Unfortunately, a child in pain needs compassion and empathy from a caring parent but is unable to obtain it when a parent is the cause of that pain.

Keith learned to ignore his suffering by blaming himself for how he was treated. He experienced shame regarding his behavior but, more importantly, and without awareness, he experienced tremendous shame regarding the slightest surfacing of anger toward his father. As such, Keith, like others with early wounds, could describe the circumstances of early wounds as a matter of fact, but was unable to regard them as wounds–let alone be more fully in touch with the underlying emotions associated with them. “It didn’t hurt that much.” “I think I deserved it.” “That was how most parents disciplined their kids.” “I certainly wouldn’t call it abuse.”

a child in pain needs compassion and empathy from a caring parent but is unable to obtain it when a parent is the cause of that pain.
Like others who have experienced such abuse and like many with chronic anger, these are just a few of the ways that Keith protected himself from experiencing his hurt and anger. This fear of experiencing anger with his father simply continued into his adulthood. Consequently, Keith had little awareness of how his earlier interactions and related wounds influenced his anger. “My father was a marine. He was always intensely demanding and perfectionistic. He constantly interrogated me, questioning me to justify myself, why I thought this or why I did that. He had little patience for pain or for a difference of opinion.”

Keith also revealed that if anything, he was angry with himself for not measuring up. This conclusion further informed his sense of shame and inadequacy. It’s important to note that, for Keith and others like him, chronic anger served as a powerful distraction from anger that was originally self-directed. While his father was perfectionistic and highly critical, his mother was distant and not available to help protect him or validate his pain. “She was quite anxious, quiet in general, and maybe depressed, I’m not sure. I know she was fearful of my dad. She always avoided conflicts and disappeared when they arose.”

Keith’s reported that his mother was closer with his younger sister who was rarely the target of his father’s anger. His ambivalent feelings toward his mother would only later become more apparent. His parents were divorced when he was in middle school and his father remarried within a year. Only then did Keith experience some relief, as his father became preoccupied with his new wife and stepchildren.

Keith reported that during this time, he experienced a growing distance from his parents and a sense of disorientation regarding his future. He described himself as kind of “floating” throughout high school. His tendency to be angry with teachers competed with any academic interest and, subsequently, his motivation to do well in school. Lacking a more solid connection with himself, he was unable to emotionally invest either academically or in his relationships.

Like others with chronic anger, Keith was especially sensitive to criticism in many situations
Like others with chronic anger, Keith was especially sensitive to criticism in many situations, especially those involving authority. Clearly, his early interactions left him with an increased sensitivity for perceiving threat. As he candidly admitted, his tendency toward conflicts with authority undermined his ability to succeed in school and work and his capacity to maintain friendships. “I really wasn’t motivated in school and only did the minimum to get by. I spent most of my time playing video games, hanging out with friends, and I smoked marijuana often, beginning in my freshman year.”

Keith went to college for two years, primarily because he had no idea what he wanted to do, and his father had promised to pay the tuition for the first two years. His motivation and focus hadn’t changed during this time. While he occasionally dated, his quickness to have conflicts interfered with his developing any ongoing relationships. Unlike Keith, there are certainly individuals with chronic anger who are motivated to achieve, both academically and in their pursuit of a career. For some, the full impact of their anger may not surface until they are more involved in relationships, whether personal or work related.

Keith quit school after two years and his father suggested that he join him in a property management business, but Keith knew he could never work with him. Instead, he became a realtor, primarily motivated by his belief that he could make easy money with minimal effort. Within a year, he realized that he had little patience for dealing with the clients. After that he held a variety of jobs. He gravitated toward working with computers and by the time he enlisted in my anger management class, he had been working for several years in IT.

Keith also indicated a growing anger in recent years regarding the government. He complained a great deal, even commented on the Internet, but never demonstrated his anger in more aggressive ways. He didn’t consider himself an activist but he found himself also spending a good amount of time online, following the angry chatter of various groups.

Facing the Demon

Keith represents a small fraction of men with chronic anger who ultimately seek help for their anger. I view the courageous decision to seek therapy, although prompted by pain, as stemming from self-compassion–a desire to alleviate one’s pain. And while Keith had learned to renounce his need for such compassion, he sought help when he more fully recognized how anger contributed to his suffering.

Keith had grown to view the need for compassion as reflecting weakness and as threatening to his masculinity. He had learned to believe that being a “real” man involved cultivating an identity devoid of needing such compassion. However, ignoring his need for compassion further undermined his capacity to be more fully present with his feelings, in general, as well as with his underlying desires.

Keith had grown to view the need for compassion as reflecting weakness and as threatening to his masculinity
When we are truly compassionate and connected with ourselves, we know how we feel, recognize our key desires, and feel anchored in an identity that provides stability with flexibility to be open to both our thoughts and feelings. By contrast, the lack of such compassion and self-reflection can make us vulnerable to self-doubt. Keith’s lack of access to his feelings reduced his capacity to notice or be compassionate to the pain reported by his partners. This is very much consistent with individuals with chronic anger and was reflected in Keith’s description of a recent anger episode with his girlfriend.

“She’s always criticizing me. She’s always telling me that I don’t care for her–like I can’t do anything right. The other day she described a conflict she had with her supervisor. After listening, I told her that maybe her supervisor was right. I mean–based on what she told me–I could see his point of view.” It became evident that Keith was more concerned with facts than with feelings. His focus on facts competed with his capacity to be empathic with his girlfriend. Understandably, validating the supervisor’s criticism was experienced by his girlfriend as a demonstration of his empathy–with the supervisor. The argument escalated with Keith cursing and demeaning her. It ended by his leaving the house for a few hours, an evening of silence upon his return and then, the next day, gradually resuming their relationship as usual.

Consistent with his experiences in past relationships, if he couldn’t “fix” his partners’ problems, he would soon experience an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. In effect, in his personal interactions, Keith re-experienced the feelings of inadequacy as well as his self-doubts triggered in his earlier interactions with his father. Additionally, he carried into his relationship the anger he had also experienced toward his mother for her lack of availability.

The tendency to be vulnerable and to feel controlled is part of the fallout of not living a life grounded in self-connection
The tendency to be vulnerable and to feel controlled is part of the fallout of not living a life grounded in self-connection. A more mature identity allows us to hear opinions that stand in opposition to our own, living a life based on an identity of anger leads to hypervigilance to protect ourselves from self-doubt and feeling influenced by others. Others’ opinions may be experienced as threatening and viewed as overbearing and controlling. It is then no surprise that individuals with chronic anger feel isolated. And it is equally understandable how such anger promotes distrust that only strengthens the avoidance of genuine intimacy.

Keith had embraced this perspective for much of his life. The more he reacted to others in this manner, the more he cultivated his sense of victimhood and, in turn, had become more prone to anger arousal. His flight from responsibility was similarly reflected in our work together, most poignantly in his initial hesitation to actually practice the skills essential for cultivating healthy anger.

Part of my approach is to have clients complete an anger log, a structured journal that helps them review an anger-provoking episode and their thoughts and feelings related to such events. The log specifically asks them to identify feelings that immediately precede their anger, the knee-jerk conclusions they make about the event, expectations they may have held before the event occurred, body sensations and key desires that feel threatened by the event.

I advocate completing the log to review as many events as possible. Doing so promotes emotional intelligence not only regarding the reviewed event, but also fosters increased mindfulness to reactions for future events. Furthermore, completing the form helps to foster emotional awareness of one’s unique “hot buttons”–personal sensitivities regarding specific desires and the past experiences that intensify their current reactions. And, as always,
I emphasize that overly intense anger most often is a residual reaction to events of early wounds
I emphasize that overly intense anger most often is a residual reaction to events of early wounds. This is poignantly highlighted when I help them recognize that “It’s happening again!” is just one of their immediate responses to a triggering event. “At that distinct moment, it is as if your emotional brain is recalling all past hurts that are in any way similar to what you are currently experiencing. This is the power of global thinking and feeling.”

I emphasized with Keith that our global emotional mind has nothing to do with our age, intelligence or even our more rational thought. It is a part of us that, without our awareness, may override our rational mind as it impacts our thinking and behavior. Completing the log serves to offer psychological distance to the experience and fosters the cultivation of the “observing self” or “witness.” This strengthens one’s ability to not feel overwhelmed by such thoughts and feelings.

Keith repeatedly did not accept this recommendation. I suggested that it would be beneficial to understand what interfered with his completing the logs. I asked if he experienced my suggested assignments as controlling. His knee-jerk response was to deny this but after a pause he then admitted, “Maybe a little.” I then responded, “That makes perfect sense–to your emotional mind. You grew up with tremendous anxiety about expressing yourself. Understandably, you experienced safety by trying to avoid conflict with your father. Your inhibitions in expressing yourself contributed to feeling controlled.”

During the following session, I asked Keith if he was open to doing an exercise. He agreed. I then handed him a blank anger log. “Make yourself physically comfortable. Look at the anger log. Imagine that you are seated where you might be completing the form. Hold the pencil to the paper without writing anything. Now, think of an event that you would review if you were to complete the log. Do that for a few moments. Now, shift your attention from the event to what you are experiencing regarding writing it. What physical sensations are you experiencing? Are you feeling calm or tense? What are your thoughts about this task?”

Keith paused for a moment to reflect. With little hesitation, he answered, “Yeah. I guess I’m angry that I have to practice these skills while others don’t have to...others had it easier. They most likely didn’t go through what I went through.” I fully acknowledged and validated this belief that, yes, others may have had it easier in so many ways. And, yes, they may not have to do these exercises to better manage their anger. And, yes, engaging in this work arouses uncomfortable feeling regarding previous wounds and hurts. I then emphasized that he could choose to stay resentful and hold on to his anger or he could take steps to change, with the potential of having a more fulfilling life. Additionally, I highlighted to him that how we manage anger involves habits in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors–habits which he can change, but only with patience, commitment and practice.

Keith’s recognition of irritation with this task presented another opportunity to discuss mourning and grieving for what he didn’t have and felt he should have had. Much of anger is about this discrepancy. As part of such mourning, I encourage clients to find a picture of themselves at an earlier age. Over time, when they are ready, I help them recall the earlier suffering of that younger self. I help them work toward being able to fully express themselves as that younger version and say things like, “It made perfect sense that you suffered, were confused and even angry with your parents,” “How you were treated was not your fault” and “I’m sorry I could not help you.”

Such mourning and grieving is an ongoing process that in many ways never ends. Rather the rawness of such experiences just becomes more emotionally muted. Through our work together,
Keith increasingly began to develop a deeper connection with himself, his feelings and his thoughts
Keith increasingly began to develop a deeper connection with himself, his feelings and his thoughts. He became more alert to his tendency toward anger and increasingly recognized it as a signal to direct his attention to self-reflection rather than act it out. He reported one incident, having to do with a homeless person that very much reflects this growth.

“You know that homeless guy who is always on the corner. I’ve always been annoyed when I walk by him. In the past, I’d usually tell myself that he was just lazy and that he should get a job. I started to think about that. I think that I was just feeling inadequate about not being able to fix him or others like him. I also reacted to feeling he was needy, a feeling I’ve always felt uncomfortable acknowledging in myself. There’s a lot in there!”

Keith continued with therapy and gained a variety of strategies to better understand and manage his anger. He expanded his compassionate self sufficiently to recognize and admit some of the hurt he had experienced that contributed to his shame and related anger.

As often happens when treating chronic anger, improving his ability to more constructively manage his anger reduced his motivation to more poignantly mourn and grieve his childhood. However, processing the loss of his father led him to attend to his earlier years. He became increasingly able to tolerate mixed and ambivalent feelings, essential for dealing with his complex relationship with his father.

Keith demonstrated progress in that he reacted with anger less frequently and it was shorter in duration when it did occur. At one point, Keith reported that he was pleased with his improvement and that he needed to take a break. Additionally, he was also able to recognize that spending more time on grieving and mourning had been very difficult for him.

Keith returned a year later, prompted in part by an anger-arousing episode that had surprised him. While he had continued to make progress, the event had pushed hard on one of his hot buttons. It was a reminder that learning new habits requires commitment, practice and patience.

Anger in Our Culture

It’s difficult to discuss chronic anger within the therapy session and ignore the larger expressions of chronic anger that we are witnessing in society. As previously indicated, we see evidence of such anger in statements made on the Internet, supported by anonymity and increased cultural support to “tell it like it is.” We see it on newscasts revealed by the “talking heads,” each predominantly focused on getting their points across rather than having a real discussion. Clearly, the media reflects our culture, but, unfortunately, it may only further influence those who already are defined by their chronic anger–just as violent videos have been shown to have an impact primarily with adolescents who are already prone to anger.

Additionally, we see increased evidence of anger as identity as the foundational core of the hatred of the “other”, those who may be different than us–whether regarding race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. A moment of intense anger brings with it a tendency to demonize the other. However, when chronic, it can lead to more fully dehumanizing them as well.

Furthermore, chronic anger may foster the belief that one’s happiness can’t be achieved because of one’s very existence. It is this rigidity of identity that gives far too much power to others and distracts those with such anger from the work required to explore and identify choices that can help them to feel and become more empowered. And far more serious for all of us, are individuals who associate with others with the same tendencies or, even on their own, promote activities to teach others a “lesson.” These facts only highlight the challenge we face as clinicians dealing with chronic anger.

Holding on to anger is often rooted in the need to protect ourselves from being hurt again as well as re-experiencing our past suffering. This is especially the case when this mindset becomes the foundation for one’s identity. So, while anger management strategies that focus primarily on behaviors and current knee-jerk thoughts can be effective, moving past chronic anger as one’s identity requires going deeper. It calls for helping individuals recognize and sit with the pain of grieving and mourning their past wounds. It requires that they become a witness to the suffering of their younger selves if they are to be able to live more fully and with greater emotional access in the present.

Dealing with chronic anger, as when dealing with so much of our client’s suffering, involves our sensitivity to dosage–sensitivity to the protective nature of symptoms, the degree to which they have become a part of a client’s identity and, of course, to their openness to change. For this reason, many individuals with chronic anger will never seek our services. Consequently, clinicians who address chronic anger may need to play a more active role as advocates for education and understanding of chronic anger in the courts, correctional facilities, substance abuse programs and schools.

One of my personal challenges as a therapist working with individuals with chronic anger is to
always be alert to look beyond the anger to the pain that it masks
always be alert to look beyond the anger to the pain that it masks. So, at any given moment within a session, I need to be mindful to be empathic with my client even when I find myself also focused on the pain they may cause for others. Such moments require my own comfort with anger and remembering the powerfully cohesive force that chronic anger may have in helping them to maintain their identity.     

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Bios
Bernard Golden Bernard Golden, PhD, the founder of Anger Management Education in Chicago, has been a practicing psychologist for almost forty years. He has clinical experience in a variety of settings including community mental health centers, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, private practice groups, and individual practice. He has worked with children, teens, and adults. Dr. Golden was an Associate Professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago for twelve years prior to expanding his practice to full-time in 2002.

Dr. Golden is the author of Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work (John Hopkins University Press, 2016), Unlock Your Creative Genius (Prometheus Books, 2007) and Healthy Anger: How to Help Children and Teens Manage their Anger (Oxford University Press, 2002), and the co-author of (with Dr. Jan Fawcett and Nancy Rosenfeld) New Hope For People With Bipolar Disorder (Three Rivers Press/Random House, 2002, 2007 (2nd. Ed.). He has also co-authored The Bipolar Relationship (Adams Media, 2009) with Jon Bloch and Nancy Rosenfeld. Dr. Golden blogs about anger for Psychology Today and his website.