Something very humbling happened to me this past week. It’s really shaken me. Our son, Isaac, periodically has meltdowns at school that seem to come out of the blue. He swears and yells at other kids over innocuous things and can’t calm down. As a result, he loses friends and is often on the outside of social gatherings. We’ve tried everything with Isaac, but he keeps losing his temper. Nothing works. His mom and I see him as a nice kid with an anger problem.
The school psychologist had a different take on Isaac. She said that Isaac is not angry, he is mentally disorganized. According to her testing, she said he has a nonverbal learning disability that is making him somewhat depressed.
In other words, Isaac misreads behaviors in others and often takes them as rejections, cannot see the subtleties in human relationships and becomes inflexible when under stress. He cannot put his disorganization into words, so he just blows up. She wasn’t excusing Isaac’s behavior, just explaining what may be causing them.
However, the real bomb was when she said that his problem is often hereditary. Indeed I’m embarrassed to say that I have the same problem as Isaac. My wife and kids are so tired of my blowing up all the time and then later apologizing. I have this chronic foul mood. So I signed up for anger management classes. I figure what’s good for Isaac is good for me too. Besides, I can’t help him if I can’t help myself. I never dreamed that my life-long anger problems have nothing to do with anger.
There’s an enormous difference between normal anger and defensive anger. Normal anger is the natural feeling that arises when our reasonable expectations are failed. Often when it is expressed in a controlled way with specific requests for change, healthy anger can lead to more honest relationships and enhanced self-esteem. At other times, we may let go of healthy anger by keeping things in perspective. Generally we feel relieved and good about ourselves after resolving frustrations with others.
There's an enormous difference between normal anger and defensive anger. Click To TweetOn the other hand, when anger is a defense or covering up for other problems, it gets expressed in a confused and exaggerated way, often over seemingly trivial matters and comes at the expense of other people. Such blowups are like shooting sparrows with cannons. It’s overkill. Often other loved ones are constantly frightened and have no idea how to support the person who is angry. The defensively angry person often feels worse afterward and doesn’t have any idea how to prevent future outbursts from happening again.
Chronic irritability, road rage, temper tantrums, social incivility and domestic violence are all examples of destructive defensive anger. Defensive anger is always a cover up for hidden, untreated emotional and psycho-neurological difficulties. It’s really an expression of mental disorganization, not authentic anger.
Living in an angry culture
Certainly living in the only civilized culture that supports the death penalty, allows free access to handguns and assault rifles and is constantly at war doesn’t model alternative methods for resolving relational conflict or managing emotional self-control.
Such messages only get ingrained in our young people with their exposure to violent video games, TV programs and movies that portray murder and mayhem as painless forms of entertainment and violent pornography on the Internet. Our profit-centered, me-first, instant gratification culture often causes many of us to have unrealistic expectations of what to expect out of life.
Too many of us have a chip on our shoulder—we feel constantly dissatisfied with our lives no matter how good we have it. Losing control with anger becomes our release from inner dissatisfaction and numbness. Too many of us are unwilling to look any deeper into why we lose self-control and how we don’t have to be slaves to our culture.
Americans are losing their tempers now more than ever. A recent National Institute of Mental Health study found that more Americans are having anger problems than previously expected. In fact, 7.3% of all adults—approximately 11.5 million Americans—have Intermittent Explosive Disorder causing them to take out their anger on others in violently destructive ways. This rate is likely underreported.
The loss of calming community connections, the increase of gratuitous media violence and the social isolation of technological living erodes the inner and relational resources we have for handling life’s frustrations. Oddly enough, it’s not the character of Americans that give rise to anger problems, it’s the lack of training and support giving us what we need to regulate our emotional experiences. When good people do bad things, it’s time to look at our culture.
Signals of defensive anger
Chances are you already know you have a problem with anger. What you may not know is how much it affects you and your loved ones and how to lessen it.
Many angry people minimize the effect of their chronic problem on others and themselves. They blame somebody else rather than look inwardly to see how they cause their own problems.
Defensive anger affects our health. Many of our worst health nightmares—mood disorders, stroke and heart disease and hypertension—are the direct result of chronic irritability and temper problems. Your anger is likely to be a cover-up for other mental health issues if:
- you are persistently irritable for no apparent reason
- you are continually on a short fuse and others are nervous around you or placate you
- you control situations by being threatening with your anger
- you are easily insulted, feel entitled to special treatment or often take things personally
- you become so physically aroused with your anger that you cannot calm down, even when your needs are gratified
- you experience frequent headaches, neck stiffness, jaw soreness, muscle and back pain
- you go through continuing cycles of rage with later remorse, despite how much you promise to stay in control
- you continually brood, feel others have it in for you, hold grudges or feel envious
- you have chronic neurological problems: difficulties understanding human relationships, always having to be active and can’t concentrate, have a reading or learning disability or have difficulty putting feelings into words
All of these signals are a cry for help regarding underlying and treatable emotional difficulties. The first step of recovery is to admit to yourself you have a problem with anger.
Why am I so angry?
Defensive anger has many causes. Some of us are genetically programmed to be on a short fuse. Frustration tolerance has biological origins. Where some people are unflappable no matter how many stresses they encounter, others are wired and wound up even in peaceful times. Typically being depressed or anxious and lacking frustration tolerance can make us more likely to be persistently irritable and prone to blowups. Often such underlying mood disorders are not identified, especially in men and children. Most of us recognize depression only in its passive and withdrawn form.
Actually most defensive angry people are often depressed and don’t know it. Some people lack anger control because they like the compliance it induces in others. Often they have grown up with a learned pattern of blaming and taking out their frustrations on others. They continually find fault with loved ones, unaware of how their own behaviors shape responses from family members. They project inaccurate, negative images onto others and then act as if those projections are facts. Such defensive anger is a learned response to stress and is always self-defeating.
Actually most defensive angry people are often depressed and don't know it. Click To TweetOther people have underlying psycho-neurological problems that have never been identified. They experience the world as a disorganized place and respond in kind.
Often they have a history of self-hating, as they cannot explain why they are so different from other people. Instead of seeing themselves as having a treatable brain disorder, they see themselves as bad and act accordingly.
Finally, some people have experienced traumatic stress growing up, often without knowing it, and simply cannot control the physical sensations—hyperarousal and numbing—as their brains and bodies get out of control when triggered. They are the people who shoot sparrows with cannons and often feel ashamed of getting worked up over seemingly trivial matters.
Tragically, many people with anger problems are very good people who simply cannot control their brains and lack the training to do so.
Getting help for defensive anger
First, realize that your behaviors do not define you. There are many parts of you that work fine, and you’re not a bad person for having anger problems—a lot of people do. However, you are a person in need. Certainly if your anger is causing you to be violent towards others, get immediate help. Call the Domestic Abuse Program at 612-874-7063. Untreated violent anger only gets worse and can be eliminated.
If you’re persistently irritable, but not violent, get help from a caring professional who specializes in anger control treatment. This may involve looking at yourself in an indepth way, assessing for biological, psychological and neurological factors that underlie your difficulties. Such work may entail you to look at your thinking, sensations, fantasies and behaviors and then retraining your brain to respond to stress more effectively.
Also, you may need the help of an anger management group, to be evaluated by psychiatrist for mood disorders and possibly get assessed by a neurologist for faulty brain functioning. Certainly, family origin issue underlie anger problems and need treatment as well. Such recovery efforts are a lot of work; brain recovery takes time. However, you should see improvement in anger control fairly soon and the lifelong benefits of recovery are more than words could ever say.
Being in control of your emotional life will make you a whole and deeper person whose loved ones can’t get enough of you.
John H. Driggs, LICSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
This article first appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.