After many years observing the effects of anger in family life I have come to the conclusion that it is largely an ineffective social emotion. While it is certainly a necessary and essential response to social injustice, abuse, or attack, it is a largely overrated emotion for problem-solving or relationship building.People who get angry at lot tend to justify it for one of three typical reasons:
Take the first reason: People who feel entitled to express anger at others usually say things like “I am just expressing how I feel. I am entitled to do that. How dare you suggest otherwise”. This notion of being entitled to express how we feel is used by a lot of abusive people to justify angry outbursts. The truth is that you are not entitled to express how you feel if the effects of that expression are distressing for another person. The indulgent person who gets angry or aggressive will just demand that others deal with and cope with their anger. “That’s just the way I am”, the abuser says, “I am just expressing how I feel”. Of course that is not what he/she is doing – he is seeking to upset or get another person to give-in or comply with them. That’s the real intent.
Also, the notion that you are entitled to express your anger and frustration at your spouse or children on a consistent basis is disrespectful and demeaning. If you are ever on the receiving end of a ‘verbal tongue-lashing’ you never respond with pleasure or appreciation. You usually feel patronised and diminished as a person because; deep down you know that you do not deserve it. The thing is it is only on rare occasion in family life that anyone does.
Therefore, the second reason, that people suggest that they are just venting their feelings is equally flawed. People will say things like “I am just getting this off my chest. This has all built up inside of me and I am juts letting off steam. What’s the big deal?” This is also a self-indulgent exercise where the effects on other people are not considered. For this reason, narcissistic people are very quick to anger when they do not get what they want or when they want to pressurise someone to give them what they want.
The third reason is that some people feel it is their role to put other people right. They will say things like “That guy just cut in front of me and changed lanes without indicating. I am going to let him know what’s for”. Or they might berate their children for simple mistakes like spilling a glass of coke or forgetting to do something. This is a righteous position where the angry person feels superior or better to the person who is in default and gets some perverse pleasure out of catching other people making mistakes.
This is an over-compensation that arises from the person’s own past experiences in life and a way to get back at the world. The father who hated being on the receiving end of his own father’s wrath finds himself berating his own children in the same way. The hyper-critical mother humiliates her child with her anger in the same way that her mother humiliated her.
The need to put other people right is justified on moral grounds but it really comes from a sometimes perverse righteousness. Domestic fundamentalism is an endemic problem in family life. The righteousness is often a way to ‘get back at’ the world and the child or spouse if often on the receiving end. So if a child makes a mistake or does something the righteous parent often gets angry because he or she feels betrayed and then punishes the child for this. The child has let them down in some way that is never known to the child. And for this reason the child grows through life with the scars and wounds inflicted by righteous anger.
Angry remarks, emotional venting, or patronising lectures are to emotional aggressiveness what spitting pr pinching is to physical aggressiveness. The thought of someone spitting at you or pinching you unnecessarily is offensive in the extreme. Yet we tolerate emotional, spitting where we degrade a partner or child with a put-down, and angry dismissive, or a verbal attack that leaves the other person feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or in tears.
It is very hard to deal with our own anger toward others who appear to be thwarting our goals and aims. It is especially hard for us to come to terms with the fact that other people are free individuals who are not obliged to meet our expectations in life – be it children spouses, or parents.
More often than not anger is ineffective because of the effects it has on others. It can feel good to you to vent but when you look into the other persons eyes you realise that there is much left to repair.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.