TIFT #50: Notes on Anger

tift Apr 26, 2022

This post started out with curiosity about why fathers are often antagonistic towards their children. There isn’t much talk about this often unjustified anger, so why is it common? One important answer came when that observation connected with the way self-made successes tend to look upon those who don’t have the same opportunities. In both cases, there is anger, usually not deserved by those they see as “lazy” or unmotivated. A similar dynamic is often at play in hate of underprivileged minorities. They, too, are seen as “lazy.”

It’s not about laziness

The key to this rather ubiquitous form of anger is that life is hard. People, especially those who feel a sense of responsibility to others, have to work hard and make sacrifices. They deprive themselves to fulfill their internalized standards of providing. They feel pride in their accomplishment, but men, especially, have trouble admitting their need for recognition. This sets up conflict between an internal sense of need and shame that it exists. They tend to justify themselves a bit too much. “I have earned every penny of the respect I demand.” In other words, they feel entitled, but also a bit sheepish about claiming it. Perhaps the value of sacrifice that led to their success is also a source of guilt for patting themselves on the back. So they want to be patted by others, but still aren’t comfortable about it.

The solution is to find a scapegoat. Those who accept the right to be taken care of, to be supported, and to have their burden eased become targets. Whether children, employees, minorities, or some other struggling group, they are all seen as lazy and undeserving in comparison with our “unsung” hero, the one who slogs through the hardship of life "without complaint."

What lessons can we derive from this?

The most important is to realize that life really is hard. The hardship weighs heavily, and we all need to accept some credit for that. The healthiest are able to accept the give-and-take that make things even up in the end, but those who feel shame about their own needs are the ones who tend to resent others having their needs fulfilled.

In this case, the answer is a change in values, accepting that we all have needs. Sadly, the group affected are likely to be the last to relinquish their cherished stoicism. Now let me turn to some other thoughts about anger and its resolution.

Some more thoughts about anger

Anger, in partial contrast to sadness, is an emotion with an interpersonal context. Its impact on others leads to strong responses and often consequences. Some observations about this unique emotion arise from following process rather than method as a therapist. Doing so helps us pay attention to precisely what is going on in the therapeutic space.

A tank of gas and a road

Anger starts with something experienced as wrong. That means there is a judgment and judgment means there is an internalized standard, by which something is not right. Next it acquires a tank of gas and begins to look for a road to follow. The tank of gas naturally leads to a desire to travel, but where? When Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) says, “Go ahead, make my day,” he famously invites his adversary to give him the satisfaction of a road, given that the tank is already full. Why should the tank be waiting? Putting anger on hold seems to make sense from an evolutionary point of view, where action could lead to disaster as often as victory. Thus, it seems natural to consider the gas and the road as separate and distinct. Let’s look at how this plays out.

Gas but no road

You see a parking ticket on the windshield and instantly feel a sense of anger and injustice, but with nothing (good) to do about it. Maybe the feeling dissipates as you pay the ticket and leave the incident behind. Or the anger may remain potential, waiting for some action that will release the feeling of tension. Alternatively, the imperative to travel may be too strong or resistance too weak, and a road is created where there was none:


  1. The car door gets kicked. The mind’s capacity for symbolic substitution (displacement) provides a maladaptive substitute road.
  2. Anger is turned against the self, a maladaptive substitution with the only advantage being that no one fights back.
  3. The gas goes in a reservoir with that gathered from other wrongs and, as in Dirty Harry’s case, waits patiently for a road to appear.


In clinical practice, anger can come up suddenly when a road appears, even if the route is only metaphorically related to the source. For example, it might be an injustice perpetrated on an innocent animal or child. The relationship to the client’s personal experience may be far from obvious. Furthermore, if there existed a condition in the past for which direct aggression had to be inhibited, the client may unconsciously be blocked from awareness of the connection (That, blockage is also an EMP). Hopefully a way can be found to explore the connection between anger abruptly experienced and the client’s personal experience. And what if anger comes up and there is a pathway to action?

From anger to action: Gas and a road

In the wild, aggression, and presumably the anger that powers it, serves multiple functions. It helps to establish the social hierarchy, defend against predators, and overcome prey. In each of these situations putting anger into some form of action is the source of benefit, whether it is simply making a threat or actual violence. So we might say that the most natural course is to go directly from anger to action. Even a growl is an action, an exceedingly effective one, as it communicates what might happen if the other fails to “back off.”

Even though physical aggression is heavily regulated in our “civilized” society, threats, put-downs, dominance, competitiveness, and other aggressions driven by anger are heavily represented, along with games and dramas as sources of imagined aggression.

Even in modern life, one healthy result is the maintenance of a balance between active and passive experiences. A physical metaphor may help. Molecules in the air are always in motion. When they get close, they repel each other, keeping an average distance such that they don’t all bunch up in one place. For healthy humans, a similar balance is maintained, where experiences of being “done to” set off active, anger-based responses that help keep those who would dominate under some control. On the other hand, many groups suffer from systematic domination through various forms of bullying, discrimination, and outright subjugation. When sustained or cultural, such subjugation tends to end up, individually, or even culturally, internalized as negative attitudes towards the self, leading to low self-esteem, shame, and inability to defend appropriately against further abuse.

Interestingly, the emotion on both sides is anger. For those who are done to (and those who empathically feel their pain), the healthy natural emotion is anger. For those who dominate, the driver of their aggression is also anger. And when both sides are evenly matched, feuding can stay in an ugly balance for a long time.

How does anger resolve?

Sadness and grief can resolve to acceptance. But what about anger? The preferred (and easier?) path to resolution is to "settle the score." Whether by apology or retribution, the result is that the wrong has been erased and no further resolution need be attempted. Perhaps that is a hint to how difficult it is to accept a wrong that has not been set right.

Can there be resolution without settling the score? For non-verbal mammals including humans, there seems to be a pathway for arousal to dissipate over time, much as Peter Levine describes the ending of fear in herd animals. But humans have the additional capacity to derive anger from past events, holding onto it pending some future event, such as an apology.

This highlights the importance of narrative for us, both as a promoter of anger and a pathway to resolution. Unlike most mammals, anger in humans depends quite heavily on judgment that we or those we care about have been “wronged.” As described above, this judgment initiates the tank of fuel and the seeking of a pathway for action.

As in grief, there is usually a time factor. It is unwise to tell a newly grieving person that they will get over their loss. Similarly, it won’t work to tell an angry person that their hurt will soon dissipate. In the meantime, anger drains energy. Eventually, at least in many cases, harboring a grudge becomes a burden. It has to be maintained by obsessing about future action or by finding new sources of outrage. In time, though, anger runs its course, and the energy of maintaining anger may come up against the anticipated relief of letting go.

Narrative and judgment are also involved in pathways to resolution. It appears equally important to have a reason, a justification, for “letting go” of the idea that we have been wronged. The foundational process of transformation from a felt sense of injustice to a wider perspective is hopefully familiar to readers of this blog. Once again, we come to the magical juxtaposition of inner experience and outer perspective, often described here as the two requirements for the change mechanisms of extinction and memory reconsolidation. This appears to be key in the resolution of those parts of anger that derive from a sense of injustice. Perhaps it is worth noting that the felt sense of injustice often starts out without words, but may be amplified by verbal justification. “He did it on purpose!” At some point, it may become tempting to step back and look at the situation from a broader, more mindful perspective. The immediacy of rage is modified by a new antidote, seeing the wrong as a part of life, “just one of those things.” With that perspective, the steam is lost. The fuel tank drains out, and acceptance fills the void. Anger can end with a whimper rather than a bang.

Anger must have its “day in the sun”

Looking at the process from the Peter Levine point of view, the difference between the course of anger in other mammals and in humans is our ability to halt the natural unfolding by bringing the past and future into our mental life. Between the two, the natural process of activation of anger and its dissipation can be delayed indefinitely. Thus, for humans, the process of changing narrative and judgment are often crucial.

Why does the true source of the anger need to come to consciousness? If I understand correctly, Richard Lane says anger is not “held” as such outside of consciousness, but is reconstituted at the same time we become conscious. I’m not absolutely sure, but in practice, the conscious sharing of the feeling, with affect, is what lets us know the emotion extends down to the limbic system where maladaptive responses are triggered and the most critical healing takes place. That’s why it is so important to recover the original source and to bring it into contact with an antidote that makes possible resolution by “write-off,” without having absolutely to settle the accounts.

Is displaced expression of anger healing?

It makes some sense that sharing of displaced anger, that is, a feeling and circumstances that warrant the feeling, but where the energy comes from a different, but metaphorically equivalent, source, does not lead to resolution or healing. With displacement, the original emotion is not in an activated state. Raging at something symbolically related, but not personally important may feel good for a moment, but the benefit does not last or lead to permanent change. Rather, it seems to call for yet more obsessing and agitation. In effect, this is the equivalent of intellectual insight. It may have help us preview the true source, but, without the original core emotions being activated, there is no permanent healing.

And once again, “accurate empathy” is a phrase worth retaining. General expressions of emotion are usually a way to avoid affect. It is when we put into words the precise details of what touched us that we connect with our own affect and consequently, with our limbic system.

Can retribution be of psychological benefit?

In today’s cancel culture, the need to “see justice done” often comes up as a socially sanctioned version of revenge. From a psychological point of view, justice might set the accounts equal and remove the sense of things being “wrong.” Sadly, the injustice that raises such strong feelings is likely to be a metaphor for some deeper injustice and can’t bring healing to the original outrage. Justice will neither set things “right,” nor repair a personal list of wrongs from the past. There may be repeated settling of scores but peace will not last.

For those who say that “justice must be served,” any attempt to dampen their enthusiasm will be seen as failure to support a just cause. Rather than invalidate their feeling, what is true, and more acceptable to say, is that seeking justice is an extremely costly thing to do. Seeking justice involves personal risk, depletes resources, and may not succeed. Bad people fight back and don’t limit themselves to fair tactics. So seeking justice, even if supported by the legal system, should be considered a personal sacrifice and gift to society, not a personal remedy.

There is another aspect to this. Even if seeking justice is fully rationalized and supported by society, the unconscious is often looking for resolution in revenge, and will not find it. Resolution by revenge is far easier and more comfortable compared to acceptance. Until the motive of revenge is no longer active, the harder emotional resolution is unlikely to happen. Usually that means the hope of settling the score will first have to be abandoned. If emotional resolution by acceptance is the goal of psychotherapy, then it will have to wait. A principle I go by is that the processes of psychotherapy will generally remain on hold until litigation is resolved.


Jeffery Smith MD


PS:  To my readers: I'd love to respond to accounts of your "most difficult cases." I can't give specific supervision, but would value a chance to discuss principles. Please be sure to respect that this is a public forum and be sure not to identify names or places. Use the communication tab.


Photo: David Knox, Unsplash

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