Anger is a tricky emotion. In pure evolutionary terms, anger is our signal to fight a threat, as part of the fight, flight or freeze response (anxiety is the emotion that tells us to freeze or flee). This is all well and good if you are facing a hungry lion, but not so helpful if your boss has just criticised you, or another driver cuts you off in traffic. But this primitive, self-protective threat response explains why we can react so strongly, violently even, if we feel threatened – in a very crude way, that's what anger is for.
Most of my clients have some kind of problem with anger, roughly falling into two camps. The first group is scared of or uncomfortable with anger – theirs and other people's. If this describes you, it may be because one of your parents was given to angry outbursts, which as a child were very frightening. That vulnerable child inside you learns to be scared of anger, even when you are – on the outside at least – now an adult. It's also possible that your family were rather buttoned-up, viewing any expression of anger as rude and uncivilised (a very British way to deal with anger!), so you learned to keep your angry feelings stuffed deep down inside you. As an adult, it's now hard to access and express them, even when it's appropriate to do so.
The other problematic form of anger is expressing it too often and too volcanically. This is the cause of domestic violence, bar brawls, violent crime, road/air/trolley rage and aggressive bullying. It's just as harmful as repressed anger, both to those around you and ultimately yourself – you will probably end up in serious trouble, perhaps even prison, if you cannot contain your anger and explode at the smallest provocation. People with this 'anger style' may come from very angry, combustible families in which everyone was always shouting at/being aggressive to each other. They may also have been hurt, neglected or abused as children, so that child inside is absolutely furious at the world and can't help but express it, even when it's dangerous or destructive to do so.
The angry modes
In schema therapy, when people are expressing anger in a problematic way, we see this showing up as one of three angry modes. If you find yourself blowing up all the time, perhaps shouting or swearing at other people, being threatening or even physically violent, you are in Bully/Attack mode. This is the most problematic angry mode, so a major part of your therapy would involve learning how to respond to triggering situations in a calmer, more rational manner. Anger-management strategies can be helpful here, as well as longer-term healing of schemas such as Abandonment, Mistrust/Abuse or Vulnerability that can trigger this attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence style of responding to threats or challenges.
The second mode, Angry Protector, is less destructive but still problematic. This is when you express anger in more subtle ways, perhaps non-verbally by scowling or with a closed-off body posture; with sarcasm or cutting humour; angrily complaining about or being harshly critical of other people. This mode is all about keeping a distance between yourself and others, perhaps because deep down your vulnerable child is scared of attack or rejection. You may also be uncomfortable with any kind of criticism or challenge, so respond with subtle but unmistakeable shows of anger to shut that down.
The third mode is the most helpful, even if it doesn't at first appear that way! This is the Angry Child mode, and is evident in the way a person expresses their anger – often disproportionately to the perceived insult or infraction. You may have a tantrum, smashing or throwing objects (not to hurt others, just to release your anger). You might also get very tearful or upset. And beneath the anger is always hurt, fear or sadness, so if we were working together I would help you express your anger in a non-attacking, non-destructive way, so we could contact and soothe the hurt, upset or fearful vulnerable child lying just beneath the angry surface.
When we get people into Angry Child mode, teach them how to express their anger verbally or by doing something safe but physical, like twisting a towel or punching a cushion, they experience a tremendous sense of relief – all the anger literally drains out of their bodies. It can then be deeply healing and soothing to deal with the hurt that lies beneath – over time, your anger subsides as you feel happier, safer, stronger and calmer.
If you have a problem with anger and would like my help, email firstname.lastname@example.org