What's Wrong with Being Angry?

There's another "new" development in therapy. New is in quotation marks because for family therapists, the idea that arguing is healthy isn't at all new.

Owning one's anger, discussing it with passion, not insisting that it be mollified, relishing the conflict as a hallmark of differentiation, a divine right to one's point of view, well, this is nothing new.

I just spent 45 minutes today with a kid and his parents and insisted he spleen them, that he argue his point until he won. He lost, but only because it was about curfew, and face it, I can't tell parents to let their kid break a law, and they sure weren't going to give him permission to stay out past curfew.

It's all about the killing on the streets of Chicago, which does have something to do with anger, I imagine. But that's for another day.

That family argued and screamed. They cried and threw up their hands in disgust, and at the end of the session everyone was hugging and kissing and it was a wonderful thing to behold.

Fine. They didn't hug and kiss. But they did feel pretty darn good and went home for another round about something else.

The process of resolving conflict and hurt feelings is the foundation of intimacy. It has to happen to have healthy family (and marital) relationships.

Anger as adrenaline is really functional, perhaps the driving force in some creative problem solving. Even working to avoid anger as such is good; it channels the arousal. But as a concept, anger has always been just that, an interpretation of bodily arousal, an emotion, something we have to contend with, manage.

It's how we express it that separates the amateurs from the pros. We try not to be too indelicate, but sometimes we are! And when that happens, then damage control is necessary. When anger builds up it can be especially nasty, and all the zen distraction in the world won't stop it. And perhaps sometimes that's for the best. As long as there's resolution.

And no one should go to bed mad.*

Mark Epstein writes a terrific little piece, originally published at The Oprah Magazine, "What's wrong with anger?" now up at CNN.com. Check it out before CNN takes it down.

He seems to think, however, that relationship therapies have failed in the past because they focus too much on empathy and understanding. Too much of this "attunement" denies the need for rupture and tension in relations. Rupture and tension are really happy events. Rupture and tension are normal. Healthy.

The language makes me think of child birth, and what could be better than that?

We family therapists have always said that when couples need space, the quickest way to get it is to have a fight. It works wonders. When we've had enough intimacy we naturally attack one another. Or when we're out of sorts, like wounded animals, sometimes we'll go on the offense.

We can't exactly yell at our bosses. We'll lose our jobs! A good spouse knows this.

As soon as we recognize that what we're doing is having an undesirable effect, meaning we've gone too far, or if the "discussion" or tantrum (sometimes it IS a tantrum) is getting mean, then those of us who have learned to fight well apologize and kiss and make up. We compromise, accommodate, yield points.

That process can take a little time.

Family therapists value intimacy over psychological space so we hope to speed up the process with good communication and empathy, quickly get to the kissing and making-up part. You see, empathy IS good.

But people need space.

Otherwise we might melt, merge, lose our identities. Much better to fight for them.

And we have our narcissistic injuries.

And lest we forget, conflictual couples, couples who are destructive naturally with one another, shouldn't be fighting at all. They don't know how to do it well, and it does take a good year in therapy sometimes to get it right. (See the comments section for elaboration on this).

Some people do seem angrier than others, and in therapy this is not a light matter. Anger is a negative emotion, it creates other negative emotions in other people, people who are afraid of anger. So it's not exactly good.

And to be honest? If you're not a little afraid of anger, you might end up dead one day. Best to be careful around angry people, not to embrace them. Most people aren't violent because they're feeling loving.

So no, this will not be a complete discussion because anger is no simple subject.
But it reminds me that anger that is not intentionally violent inspires memories of childhood conflict, the type of conflict that makes us what we are today.

Dr. Epstein quotes D. W. Winnicott and draws a lovely comparison between our relationships between ourselves and our primary care-takers as children, and how we'll relate to partners in future relationships. He says it so well, I'll let you read it yourself. He says that the "new" thing (there's that word again) in psychology is to be 'a good-enough mother', not better than that. It is no longer necessary to be Super, Allstar, Empathy-maven, All-Attunement Mom.

It's good enough to be good enough.

Some of you peaked too soon, I imagine. Here's what he has to say.

'Good-enough mother'
Psychologists who study the origins of intimacy in mother-infant relations support this shift in emphasis. The template for all intimate relationships is the one between infant and parent. Studies of these relationships have exploded the myth of the 100 percent responsive mother. Research suggests that the best parents are fully attuned to their children only about 30 percent of the time, leaving lots of space for failure.

D.W. Winnicott, a pioneering British child analyst of the last century, laid the foundation for this shift with his concept of the "good-enough mother." Parents cannot possibly be at one with their children all the time, he suggested. Babies are not benign beings emitting only love. They are rapacious creatures who love ruthlessly, and who, as often as not, bite the hand, or breast, that feeds them.

The good-enough mother is one who can tolerate her infant's rage as well as her own temporary hatred of her child; she is one who is not sucked into retaliating or abandoning, and who can put aside her own self-protective responses to devote herself adequately (remember the 30 percent figure) to her child's needs.

This "good enough" response, while not denying her own hatred, teaches the child that anger is something that can be survived. Winnicott wrote about how the child whose mother survives his or her destructive onslaught learns to love her as an "external" person, as an "other," not merely as an extension of themselves.

This child recognizes that the mother has survived the attack and feels something on the order of joy or gratitude or relief, a dawning recognition that mother is outside his or her sphere of omnipotent control. This is the foundation of caring for her as a separate person, what we call consideration or concern or empathy.
Just terrific journalism.

*One last thought. Although obviously I'm advocating healthy conflict, you probably should keep in mind that whatever you say in the heat of an argument can and probably will be remembered.

You can try to take it back. But even when you apologize and take it back, you've still said it.

That's why it's not so simple for me to say, Let it fly. The safer recommendation is to suggest you say nothing when you're angry, that you wait until you cool down, and THEN have the argument.

It's still an argument. Go for the point!

But try to follow a few rules of basic decency. Watch the expletives (meaning keep them to yourself). Let yourself cool off before you go to the mat. Don't say things you'll regret later. And don't even think of letting the volume get so high that you scare the children.



Leora said…
I'm still waiting for a post on internalized anger. I was brought that anger is bad. So I can have twenty therapists tell me that anger is healthy, and then I go back and hear: "hush, don't say that!" or I read the Ramban's letter that anger is a character flaw, and there's something unresolved in me.
Anonymous said…
Great piece, great insights. I really must make it a priority to get back here more often. I don't know where time goes...

Speaking of time, I'll need to return with a "good enough" comment as work readiness beckons. I managed to check the Epstein piece and want to thank you for the link. I couldn't agree more with his thoughts on attunement....and yours on anger expression, in general. It's not the feeling itself that has the potential to generate distress as much as the form of its expression.

I have been fortunate to have had a mother who was able to "contain" my infant rage (ala Epstein) and not engage in retaliatory or abandonment behavior. As a result, my adult actions mirror hers--I do not "tit for tat", nor do I threaten to leave. I also have an ability to weather conflict and recognize its place, even value in generating greater depth and safety in relationships. I am most grateful to my Mom, indeed.

Back later.
therapydoc said…
Yeah, I know. And I took this down thirty downs (this time I'm not exaggerating) to change it and this morning considered deleting it altogether.

Except it gives us so much to talk about.

Many of us grew up thinking anger is a flaw. Worse yet, our families stressed what is called Shalom Bayit, a peaceful home, so molifying an angry person, keeping the peace, becomes the antidote to anger. One person has the right to be angry. The other doesn't.

Say that one person is the male. The other is the female. In Judaism, she's elevated in status (yes, it's true, our rabbis feel women are an improvement). She CAN control her anger and he should aspire to being like her.

And until he is, she will give in, keep the peace.

Mental health professionals don't see anger as a good or a bad. It just IS. And we have to deal with it. Is it better to hold it in and have rational discourse? OF COURSE. But is it bad, when everyone knows that in this family people are allowed to get emotional and have emotional arguments?

NO, of course not. As long as it's resolved and everyone's feelings are okay. So storming off angry is bad. Unless you say, (like I did when I couldn't stand the conflict at the shabbas table when the kids were teenagers), when it's safe, let me know. I'm going to bed. It got safe really quick when I left.)

Again, it's a HUGE subject. I think the Ramban didn't have the time for the kinds of animated discussions/debates that I'm recommending that are necessary for decent problem solving.

I tell couples, when you argue, don't start late at night, and give yourselves three hours to work almost anything of importance through.

And address your feelings. Discuss them with people who matter. They're not good or bad.
And sure, avoid the tantrums, the expletives, and the extreme emotional expression that scares the kids.

Or me.
linrob63 said…
Terrific post for discussion material, you are right!

When we have seen the kind of anger that is expressed through violence and cruelty, any kind of anger can be scary. Better to back off and wait it out, even at the expense of 'losing our voice'.

But then, how to skillfully engage conflict: When -- as you say -- the adrenaline surges with the passion for your position on the point, how to keep the words from swelling and settling in your throat and give them flight instead?
therapydoc said…
Not easy, I'll get to it.

And when it comes to couples who engage in destructive conflict, the directive is: No, you don't get to even HAVE an argument until you get this part right. Talk about anything you want (preferably yourself) but as soon as you begin to fight?

Game over.

Break it up and do something else.
Anonymous said…
Yay for posts that teach us it's OK to think in more than one way. Especially when discussing things that are fundamentally in regular opposition...

Anger is a state on a continuum so it's often w/o a consistent opposite with which to define and regulate its meaning. What you grow-up understanding is the opposite of anger often seems to influence if you see it as valuable or destructive, or a mix. Eg. anger vs peace/calm, vs rationality vs helpless passivity, vs depression etc.
Thankfully we can all try new hats, like your family did to their benefit.
therapydoc said…
Anger on a continuum is a marvelous way to look at it. Only seeing the poles dismisses the feelings that are everywhere in between. THANKS!
therapydoc said…
And Psycho-T? Fabulous.
My dad struggles every day controlling his anger. I see how much of this is a result of growing up in a time and home where he wasn't allowed to show any "unacceptable" emotion - anger at the top of the list. Although it was perfectly acceptable to see displays of anger from his own father on a regular basis. It's no wonder that he's struggled his whole life learning to manage it. Another critical element in my mind is what you do AFTER you blow some healthy steam - if you don't nourish something it dies. So it's critically important to me to make sure you show greater love after the blow lest the only nourishment the relationship receive be negative. Excellent points, as usual. :)

therapydoc said…
I love this. Look who's making the great point, Hol?
Fabulously important post.

I was one to never express anger. Rather than be able to acknowledge I was angry about something, I would say I was annoyed, maybe even highly annoyed. But that didn't give me permission to fully "feel" the emotion and then allow it to disperse naturally.

Thankfully now, I am able to experience a full range of emotions among that spectrum between the poles.
therapydoc said…
Lisa, RIGHT. Annoyed, irritated, anything but angry.
Heidi said…
Great blog cuz! I have actually thought a lot about this issue. It has become obivous to me that people are much more mentally healthy when they express their anger as opposed to bottle it up. But I too was conflicted by the Jewish teachings that preach that anger is a terrible flaw, even in moderation. I was so conflicted that I consulted Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. He was awesome. We spoke about it for about an hour, and he really reconciled it for me. He agreed that anger was definitely healthy... but, different methods of handling anger were unhealthy, including supression. Also I did ask him about Ramban's letter, and his response was a) it is not halacha and b) it was not intended for the masses, it was written to his son. So, while its nice to read and attempt to follow, it would be insane to say that we are on the same level as Ramban's son. Anyway, nice reading!
therapydoc said…
Thanks for the feedback on Ramban. I think one of the dangers of being a teacher is that students expect that everything you say is true, should be true. What was good for Ramban's generation and for his son (and maybe it wasn't, ours is not to judge) might not be for us.

Context, context, context.
Anonymous said…
Context, context, context.

Ain't it the truth. I *was* going to add a little something but this sums it up.

I'd be a wealthy woman if I received a dollar each time I've said these same words. Amen.
therapydoc said…
so by wealthy you mean dollars and cents.
Anonymous said…
As someone who reads your blog often, and has never posted a comment.. I just want to thank you for this post.

I started therapy 5 months ago after having what I attribute to be a "mini" nervous breakdown having not ever dealt with being sexually abused as a teenager. I'm only 24 now, but in the past 11 years, my habits of dealing with anger and emotion are deeply engrained. Getting angry is very hard for me. If I ever got mad I was made to feel guilty for having those feelings, so naturally in my friendships in high school and college I avoided confrontation and became a people-pleaser to avoid anything that would make me or anyone else around me angry. I never learned to deal with it. The very few and very short relationships I have had kept me in constant fear that I had to keep him happy with me all the time, because I didn't know how to resolve anger, disagreement, or anything that seems to go with normal relationships. So now that I am pulling apart my life as a child, leading up to and as a result of my abuse, I should be angry, livid or whatever adjective you choose at so many people... but I can't and I am not. I make excuses for them, I put the blame on me. As an adult, I know that anger is a normal part of life.. but the more people I hear it from and can offer insight, the easier it is getting for me to picture myself doing this one day. Thank you.


(sorry if this shows up twice.. I am new to this posting of comments jazz)
therapydoc said…
It's hard to predict who will be angry, who will let it all go.

When people blame themselves for something that happened to them as children, or when others automatically blamed them, it's likely a certain amount of anger will be directed at the self, not the perpetrator.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

It's that right to be angry that we're talking about. Some of us didn't get the right, as children, to be angry.

When the anger at the self is resolved, it's not surprising that the victim is free to externalize, lay the blame, and the anger, where it belongs.

Liberating. But it still doesn't necessarily feel good, and it doesn't necessarily happen. These things are so slow to resolve, which is where that time heals thing comes in.
therapydoc said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Syd said…
Anger that manifests as raging is destructive. I've been on the receiving end of several tirades from the alcoholic. And no matter how many times there is an apology, it still reminds me of the apologies after a drunk. "I'm so sorry, I won't do that anymore. Can you forgive me?" and so on. It sounds like a broken record after a while.
My capacity to forgive diminishes because there is no real attempt to change the behavior. The same with people who blow up in anger frequently. There is no change, just spewing forth.
I agree that anger is helpful but it needs to have some measure of civility to it. I would say that "letting it fly" can be destructive in relationships.
estee said…
Thanks for the link to the Epstein piece.. what a great article! I find the label "good enough" NOT good enough, though. Why isn't "good enough" truly great?

Anger is a powerful emotion and like all powerful emotions, it provokes a powerful response. Labeling this stuff "good" or "bad" seems misguided -- how can you have a "bad" emotion???? Every time I hear my daughter say/shout "I'm ANGRY at you!" I want to do a little dance. Those words open the door for a conversation... a chance for her to explain, for me to respond, and for us to find eventual resolution. It's kind of like saying "I love you" -- it *begs* for a response. Giving her (or anyone) space to be angry is not easy -- but it actually inspires trust that I'll be there even when she IS angry, and confidence that her anger is not going to destroy our relationship. So, in the end, it strengthens our bond.

Words that are spoken in anger are also very powerful -- and usually tell us a lot about why someone is angry and what they want us to do about it. Holding on to those words (and using them against the person at a later time) destroys whatever trust the person might have had when they spoke them. and when someone is deliberately hurtful or mean, then that tells you a LOT about how their whole psyche... if we are paying attention.
therapydoc said…
Syd, Right. We can't let it fly, can't be destructive. We're going to have to follow-up with this on a post on rage-a-holics.

For the uninitiated, these individuals have difficulty managing anger and tend to terrorize their families.

Like I said. Scare the kids? Don't even think about it.

We'll talk.
therapydoc said…
This is an amazing discussion. In 2 years of blogging (May) I can't remember anything this productive.

You people are fantastic.

Thanks Estee for adding that. It's what I liked about the Epstein piece, and it's how I tried to raise my kids, too.

Their poor spouses.

Ya' know, not everyone's comfortable with emotion.
cardiogirl said…
Your posts are so well written. They're a pleasure to read, I was surprised to see you say you re-wrote and almost deleted this one!

As Leora said, I grew up learning how to internalize anger and I *still* don't know how to deal with it or even express it. I always say, "It's fine," when it is not fine at all.

Talk about the blind leading the blind in trying to teach my children how to express themselves.

I never knew "going with the flow" or "getting along" was called attunement. I'll have to run that past my own therapist to see if I can impress her :)

Wonderful post!
therapydoc said…
Thanks CardioGirl.

I call that, going with the flow bordering on people pleasing, which will be a post coming soon.

You have no idea what I go through with this stuff. Do I post it? Do I delete it? That would be a good post, what I go through. Not ready :)
Just Me said…
You made me realize something. Something that is probably actually important.

I grew up in a very abusive family, buying me therapy throughout most of college. I did not do well for a long time, essentially hating the therapist and fighting with him. Eventually it worked out and I got better. A suicidal depression my senior year meant that the pscyhologist I'd seen strongly recommended (ie left no question) that I needed to continue treatment for a while.

Over the years I tried something like 6 more people. I hated every one of them. I ultimately decided "no more for me" and because I was doing very well it didn't matter.

Then my last six months of grad school I became more and more agitated and moody. By 3 months after graduation I was in what I would ultimately learn was cycling between mixed episodes and severe depression. Diagnosis took another 2 years, until I was desperate enough to see a counselor.

One thing led to another and ultimately the bipolar dx came. At first I was in a clinical trial requiring participation in therapy, and then my new psychiatrist after that required me to be in therapy. And I was incredibly difficult to stabilize, so there wasn't much question.

That is how in 6 weeks I will have been going to the same counseling center for 6 years. I've had 2 therapists there and I am just now starting to miss the occasional week. Which is lovely. I'm doing well.

From the beginning with this current therapist I've done well. There are a number of reasons, but you made me realize one of the greatest commonalities of the 2 therapists who I have really done extremely well with out of my total of maybe 10: we argue. I'm not good at arguing or being angry, and that isn't an easy trait with bipolar. But he gives me a safe place to argue if I need it, and even though I know I won't win most arguments, the fact that I can lets me feel control where sometimes I don't have a lot.

Thanks for a lot to think about.
therapydoc said…
I'm sure that's true.

I FORGOT to say, and I'll have to reiterate it now, but expressed emotion (a nice word for anger) is especially difficult with people who suffer from certain disorders, bi-polar, schizophrenia, and schizo-affective, among them. They don't do well with people who are angry, it's very upsetting.

Heck, it upsets most people. That's why we're talking about it.

Look on the side-bar for more on this. I'll try to post the main points again sometime soon.
Jack said…
I can't imagine not being able to express my anger. Sometimes I have struggled to find the right voice/venue for it, but to not let it out, oy.

Blogging has been a tremendous outlet for me in that respect.
Leora said…
Heidi, whoever you are, I'm glad one more person than me (besides Pliskin and Twerski and therapydoc) have grappled with the Ramban's letter.

If I am ever in a situation again where this letter is being discussed in a class, I would like to be able to say something intelligent instead of hiding in my chair and feeling alienated, which is my instinctual reaction.

So far, the best I have come up with is that one can translate ka'as, the Hebrew word for anger, as rage. So ka'as can mean both anger and the reaction to anger.
Anonymous said…
What a great discussion! I am excited to see others studying and interested in the Rambans letter as well! I have been reading regularly lately, in an effort to let go of some serious anger. It has helped, actually, but still I wonder about how it is that we can express anger in a way that is productive when the object of our anger is not able to work it out with us.
I think that unexpressed anger is one of the most painful and potentially unhealthy emotions we experience. Many people who are angry dont actually want to be angry. They dont want it to shape them, but its difficult to work it through, espcially if you hurt or angry with someone you love and/or rely on. I think that most of us desire closeness, and we can learn to use anger to have more, not less, and to help move ourselves forward...what a vast topic!
therapydoc said…
I can see why the expression of anger to the point that everyone knows undoubtedly that a certain person is really angry, as in raging, seething, is considered something to avoid in the Jewish tradition.

It's unattractive, for sure, and people are naturally afraid of angry people unless we've been socialized out of in families where it was okay to let it fly.

Most of us, however, probably cringe.

When I use the language, anger-phobe, everyone in therapy, it seems, raises their hand.

My guess is that the Ramban, who I think was a contemporary of Rambam(?) might have thought along the same lines. Rambam said that if we work hard to exaggerate a personality trait we want, we might be more likely to hit the mark than just working at it ho hum.

So nobody wants to appear to be a monster, so we try to be saints.

How hard is that?
phd in yogurtry said…
excellent & insightful post.

.....The process of resolving conflict and hurt feelings is the foundation of intimacy ......

this is great. will definately use this.

good enough parenting is my mantra. that's all we can do and its all that's needed. its a false illusion to think we can be 100% attuned. leaves disappointment and unnecessary guilt. celebrate realistic parenting goals.
No time to discuss this more but I have real issues with this "destructive baby" business. I agree that you don't have to be attuned to your baby 100% of the time, if you have a good foundation 30% can be enough, but the question is which 30%?
tdt said…
It's unattractive, for sure, and people are naturally afraid of angry people unless we've been socialized out of in families where it was okay to let it fly.

It can be really scary wrestling with anger rising in ourselves while fighting the memories of not just past abuse, but of trying to be completely stoic during the abuse by members of one's family of origin.

(Getting to THAT point of self-awareness was just about miraculous...)

So nobody wants to appear to be a monster, so we try to be saints.

How hard is that?

For the wronged child inside the grown adult, it can be the most difficult monster to fight. I don't want to be a saint, I just want to be a "Good-Enough" person. To me, that means to break the cycle. I am scared enough of myself to want to do this, but also scared enough of myself to be scared of myself when the anger is rising.

therapydoc said…
Yeah, that was an Aha moment, I'll bet.

Fabulous, too, to really get it and feel what you had to fight not to feel. This pain of watching others being hurt in the family is so terrible, and cuts so deep.

Good enough? You're better than good enough if you can share these feelings with your family and friends. The impact on others, the teaching is so important.

thank you, thank you, thank you.

I wish everyone could read this comment, because it speaks to the heart of anger-phobia, which everyone should respect, in my opinion, and a reason to keep "expressed emotion" again, code for anger, down, containable, rational, all the time.

We can Say it, but say it nice.

People can say, "I'm angry" nicely.
Anonymous said…
I love that: 'say it nicely'. Nice can vary with that all important context you mentioned earlier.

I've had the experience of having someone lose it with rage, and the real problem is that their anger overwhelms the person. Anger like that is like someone taking a hatchet to any semblance of a boundary you've ever had. For kids it's even worse because they don't yet have those boundaries so you're getting at their spirit, if you're not 'nice'.

So demonstrating to a child that you recognise that anger is difficult for you too but you manage it 'nicely' anyway seems a far better lesson than being 100% perfect or 100% right.