The Hanky-Panky Behind Our Anger

Knowing the source of anger is important.

A new TV sitcom starring Charlie Sheen, who plays the role of an irascible anger-management therapist, is coming our way this summer. The show, which will be seen internationally, will apparently get its comedic effect from the hot-headed Sheen’s portrayal of a man of wisdom and propriety. I hope he doesn’t make a mockery of psychotherapy. Dare we hope that Sheen’s character will dispense some valuable insights into the nature of anger? That would help millions of sufferers worldwide who don’t understand that chronic anger is a defense covering up deeper issues.

Anger is often a laughing matter on TV, though less so in real life. In chronic form, it can escalate into debilitating misery. That’s when we feel it on a regular basis, in a self-defeating manner, toward an individual, group, or situation that we perceive as unjust or oppressive. Anger can also be produced through past memories and future expectations. Often we hold the anger in, and that of course is unhealthy for our mind and body.

We can also feel recurring anger toward ourselves, allegedly on the grounds that we’re a worthless fool or hopeless failure for lapses in judgment and missed opportunities.

Unfortunately, information from the media and from experts on anger management seldom reveals how anger is often used as a psychological defense. Experts usually overlook this important knowledge, offering up instead tips and advice on relaxation techniques, revised thinking, improved communication skills, use of humor, and changing one’s setting or environment. Even the American Psychological Association’s website entry on anger management says nothing about how anger serves as a defense.

To help us understand how we use anger as a defense, we can ask and answer a series of questions. Question: Why do we experience chronic anger and hold on to it? Answer: Because our anger serves as a defense against deeper awareness of our collusion in our suffering. Q: What is a defense? A: A psychological defense is an inner process, typically unconscious, that hides certain vital facts from our consciousness. Q: Is anger always a defense? A: No, sometimes anger is appropriate, depending on the situation. Much of the time, though, anger is inappropriate and unnecessary. Q: What is it exactly that we’re trying to hide from our awareness? A: We don’t want to see our unconscious collusion in the experience of our unresolved negative emotions. Q: What unresolved negative emotions are we talking about? A: Most of us, to different degrees in various situations, are unconsciously willing to indulge in feeling refused, deprived, controlled, rejected, criticized, abandoned, and betrayed. These unresolved negative emotions are first experienced in childhood. Often these emotions arise in children as subjective impressions of what’s happening to them, meaning the impressions are not necessarily based on reality factors. Q: Why don’t we want to see our collusion or indulgence in these emotions? A: Because this fact of human nature is so startling, shocking, and humbling. Our ego and our self-image refuse to consider that we are creatures of such flawed inner processing. Hence, our anger serves as an emphatic denial of our secret willingness to indulge in unresolved negative emotions. Our anger blames someone or something else for the distress we’re feeling. Or, if the anger is directed at ourself, we typically blame ourself unfairly or wrongly. Q: Can these old emotions be resolved or healed? A: Yes. We become more intelligent and conscious as we see how our defenses work. Once we stop being fooled by our defenses, it’s easier to let go of our suffering. Anger, by the way, is just one of many different defenses.

Let’s look at an example of how we use anger as a defense. James and Julie, married for ten years, are heading for divorce. They’ve grown increasingly angry with each other, and that anger now spills out almost every day. They’re both convinced their anger is justified by the other’s failure to be supportive, attentive, and appreciative.

However, the feeling of not being supported and appreciated is familiar to both of them from their childhoods. They both had parents who they felt had failed to acknowledge their value and appreciate them for their own sake. Yet these negative impressions are repressed and largely unconscious. Both James and Julie now have decent relations with their parents. Yet the old hurts, based in part on subjective impressions from childhood, are unresolved in their psyche. That means the feelings will pop up or reoccur at the slightest provocation, often in situations that are being misinterpreted by one or the other. This justifies Benjamin Franklin’s observation that, “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.”

Often over the years, James and Julie did express love for one another. Yet the old inner conflict always reasserted itself. Frequently when one of them was being affectionate, the other could easily feel that the effort wasn’t good enough, that something was still missing. They each remained emotionally attached to that old painful feeling. Deep down, the feeling of being unworthy or undeserving is part of their identity. They didn’t break clear of this emotional attachment because they never became aware of their unconscious willingness or compulsion to continue to experience the old hurt.

Since they can’t see their entanglement in the unresolved pain, they react blindly to it. They react by blaming the other for causing the hurt, at the same time that they instinctively deny an inner admonition (from the superego) that they are party to their own sorrows. The defense goes: “No, I’m not interested in continuing to feel that old hurt of being unappreciated! Look at how angry I am at her (him) for causing me to feel this way.” The angrier they get at each other, the more emphatically they cover up their own individual determination to replay the old unresolved hurt. Another perspective on this dynamic can be found in a quote attributed to Buddha: “In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”

Along with anger, other self-defeating forms of suffering can be both consequences of our unresolved negative emotions as well defenses against realization of our attachment to these unresolved emotions. These forms of suffering include greed, envy, loneliness, compulsive gambling, drug and alcohol addiction, shame, guilt, worry, anxiety, depression, boredom, fear, sadness, and apathy. It’s enormously insightful to see how these emotions and behaviors are used as defenses.

Could Charlie Sheen possibly get some of this knowledge into a comedy show on TV? It could be done, bit by bit, week after week. He sees his comeback, he says, as a way of apologizing to America for last year’s meltdown. Passing along great insight would sweeten the apology.