Anger Is Its Own Beast, whose Bark Is as Bad as Its Bite

Gregg Henriques has written an interesting and thoughtful response to my 10 Tips for Reducing Anger post. Many of his points represent quite common objections and I welcome the opportunity to respond to them. I hope he won’t mind that for the sake of simplicity I’ve reduced his critique to two main points:

1. Henriques claims: Aggression needs to be sharply distinguished from anger; and aggression is the real problem, not anger.

I agree with Mr Henriques that anger does not equal aggression (by definition). And I’m sure we both agree that aggression is a serious problem, whether caused by anger or not.

But I would make a few points of qualification before treating anger and aggression as entirely separate concepts. Firstly, I’d point out that the definition of aggression is actually quite fuzzy, and that sometimes anger displays arguably overlap with aggression: Do you have to actually physically strike someone for it to count as aggression? Is yelling—incidentally the most common behavioral concomitant of anger—an example of aggression? Would it depend on what the person was yelling (e.g. threats)? What about leering or scowling at someone, or shaking your head threateningly? Hanging up; slamming a door; swearing; blaspheming… Are these aggressive acts? How about muttering expletives under one’s breath? What about smiling sarcastically, or rolling your eyes? Where does one draw the line? Anger, in a spouse or a parent, even one who does and says nothing, rarely goes unnoticed. And quiet, seething anger, can be scary to be around. The academic distinction between overt behaviors and internal thoughts is clear enough; but in reality, the line is often blurred. Anger and aggression are a little like barking and biting. Yes there’s an important distinction to be made, but they are certainly not unrelated!

My second point is this. Even if most anger does not result in aggression (or at least violence), almost all aggression is driven by anger. Let’s not be too new-agey in our understanding of what anger is, and where it comes from: The physiology of anger—its somatovisceral signature—heart pumping, tension rising, etc., all points to a readiness to fight or attack someone physically, or at the very least signal a readiness to do so.

This readiness is biological, of course, and one can act on it or not act on it, I agree. But anger constitutes more than just a biological readiness to fight or threaten from which we are psychologically removed. Anger is antagonism. It brings with it a desire for retaliation or redressal of some sort.

I actually mostly agree with the evolutionary theorists that Henriques explicitly links to. According to them, anger is part of an evolved neurocognitive program designed to orchestrate retaliation for transgressions. It operates on the logic of deterrence: basically, if you do something bad to me, I’ll do something bad to you, and that way you’ll think twice next time, and maybe start treating me with the appropriate level of ‘regard’ (read ‘fear’). The program doesn’t specify details, such as, ‘write angry letter’ or ‘withhold sex for a week’; it just says, ‘Transgression alert! Payback! Payback!’

Our nervous system gears us biologically to fight. Our motivational system gears us toward some undifferentiated form of retaliation or antagonism. The stage is set. For violence? Rarely, I’ll admit. For aggression broadly defined. Often. For some kind of move against the individual, whether aggressive or not? Almost invariably. For clear-headed problem-solving guided only by one’s broadest goals and values? Hmmm. Not really. For the latter, anger hinders rather than helps.

Look: Henriques and I no doubt are much closer in our views than may appear at first glance. I feel like saying, “Look, Gregg, let’s not polarize! In practice, if you or I had clients presenting with violent behavior, I’m sure we’d both prioritize containing the violence over any kind of emotion-based therapy.” We’re on the same page there. (The same would go for suicidality in depressed patients, or dangerous levels of thinness in eating-disordered patients.) But once emergency measures have been taken, and certain ground rules are in place, the chief goal of therapy becomes anger-management. The containment of violence is already somewhat delegated to the justice system. My main concern, even with aggressive individuals, is reducing the antagonism and rage that sets the stage for the violence in the first place. There may be other factors at play of course (such as social skills deficits, drug and alcohol problems, difficult life circumstances, impulse control or learning problems, psychopathy or narcissism, etc.); but as a rule, anger is at the root of aggression, and anger is what needs to be focused on in therapy, even if aggression reduction is the ultimate target.

Most of my anger-management clients, while rarely violent, are nonetheless suffering from their anger and causing suffering to those around them. They’re arguing, of course. But they’re also making angry decisions, withdrawing from relationships, sulking, or poisoning the air with latent hostility, and of course criticizing, judging, blaming, and so on… Sleepless nights; angry brooding. Sometimes this is all just going on in their heads. But it’s no less hellish for the individual…

This leads me to Henriques’ other point:

2. Anger within normal ranges (he asserts), far from toxic, is actually useful to the individual, because it motivates standing up for yourself when you’re being taken advantage of, or abused, or treated unfairly (e.g. spouse is unfaithful, boss disrespects you, friend steals your wallet.) Without anger in such circumstances you would inevitably let yourself be walked all over.

In a previous post I outline various caveats to my zero-anger proposal, so it’s not entirely true that I say anger is NEVER useful.

And let me add one more caveat: Even if I were to place zero anger as a kind of theoretical optimum, it doesn’t follow, practically speaking, that I believe we should all be devoting every second of every day to attaining it. That would be a kind of psychological perfectionism, involving obvious diminishing returns. There can be massive gains for an extremely angry individual to go from two standard deviations above the mean (on a standardized anger scale) down to the mean. The gains thereafter diminish exponentially. The difference between Buddha-calm (three standard deviations below the mean) and Dalai-Lama-calm (two and a half standard deviations below the man) are probably mostly imperceptible.

In practice, when I see someone in the clinic for, say depression or drug and alcohol problems, and happen to note in assessment that they also have (relatively normal levels of) anger, I don’t necessarily suggest anger treatment unless they bring it up. And even if they bring it up, I don’t necessarily suggest we focus on it first, or even primarily. I’m not fixated on anger! (Actually, if anything I’m beginning to tire of the topic.)

While we’re talking therapy: I agree that when anger comes up, no matter what the nature of it, it’s often appropriate ‘to focus someone on “getting in touch” with their angry feelings’, i.e. encourage them to articulate what they’re thinking or feeling and normalize or validate their experience. But Henriques appears to go beyond normalizing and validating; he encourage clients to ‘embrace’ their anger (his word). That’s different. That sounds a lot like promoting and enhancing the anger. And that’s something I could never see myself doing in good conscience (with very rare exceptions).

One way of stating our differences, then (perhaps rather simplistically) is that we disagree on the exact point of the scale where we believe the gains of anger-reduction begin to decrease, or indeed cease altogether and reverse. It sounds to me like Henriques is placing the turning point at about a standard deviation below the mean. I say that because Henriques concedes that anger is maladaptive when it is “confused with and used to defend against feelings of hurt, or when people are so self-absorbed they only see their own interests and are angry about being the victim when in fact they are blind to their privilege and how they are the victimizers”. Even at the mean, Gregg, ‘averagely’ angry people are doing that! And I say that only half tongue in cheek.

But OK, let’s make this discussion less abstract (and mathematical). Henriques states that anger would help you in various situation such as when your spouse is unfaithful, your boss disrespects you, or a friend steals your wallet (his examples). For my part I believe your anger would be (slightly) maladaptive even in these cases; however I concede that we’re in slightly perfectionistic territory. I’m not backing off my argument; I just don’t wish for us to polorize too much on this. Henriques and I both agree that extreme rage in these examples would be unhelpful.

Here’s where we differ. Henriques imagines that in each of these cases, the angry aggrieved party is mildly angry, but totally unaggressive, focuses his/her energies merely on redressing the grievance, and then moves on his or her merry way. On the other hand the hypothetically non-angry individual in these same scenarios would apparently roll over and accept what had happened—‘no harm no foul’—and do absolutely nothing.

That’s not how I see it at all, in theory or in practice. I see the angry individuals becoming unnecessarily distressed, losing sleep, saying and doing things they regret, acting in overly harsh and unfair ways, not listening, not thinking clearly, not being able to deal adequately with the complexities of these situations and feeling too antagonistic to contemplate potentially beneficial solutions that leave the transgressor unpunished. Meanwhile, I do not believe the non-angry individuals would do nothing in any of these scenarios.

If your spouse is unfaithful, then, angry or not, you will be very affected by it and no doubt feel compelled to take some action. Would moral outrage, hatred, contempt or any feeling from this family help you handle the situation? I don’t think so. These reactions are understandable, but not necessarily helpful. They muddy the waters. They add a desire for redressal and retaliation to an already complex problem. The less angry you are, the less likely you are to take pointless countermeasures in spite (such as we see in ugly divorce cases), engage in heated and damaging arguments, and sideline the real problem/conversation with attempts to increase the transgressor’s ‘regard for your welfare’.

What should you do then if a partner is unfaithful? I can’t say. It’s a case-by-case thing. You may wish to stay; you may wish to leave. Whatever you decide, however, it’s best if you hash it out with as much understanding and level-headedness as you can muster. You want to make the smart decision based on what’s really important; not just the most badass decision based on what would inflict the most satisfying vengeance.

If a friend steals a wallet and you’re not angry about it (just say you happened to know he was on drugs at the time and sympathized with his predicament), you would still do something about it: You need your wallet back after all! But you might talk with him before going to the police, and may even find a way to help him. You’d be unlikely to do this in anger. A very different future opens up for both you and your friend if you aren’t angry at that point in time.

The boss example is slightly loaded, because the term ‘disrespect’ already implies a certain angry evaluation. Let us reword it: ‘Your boss attacks you personally’ or ‘your boss criticizes you overharshly’ or ‘your boss uses foul language in talking with you’, or some such thing. This may indeed be a situation that needs addressing, but you certainly wouldn’t need anger to address it. There’s already a lot on the line, generally speaking, when your boss appears hostile or critical towards you, rightly or wrongly! No one would argue, surely, that just because you weren’t angry you wouldn’t act to address the situation/conflict!

Imagine the situation is this: Your boss got hate mail and came to believe it was you who sent it. He’s primed to think this because you and he had had a stern disagreement in a meeting just before the mail arrived. He then confronts you about it with a certain degree of hostility. Imagine you’re not angry. Imagine you understand why he’d think it was you, and why he’d be hostile in his demeanor as a consequence. Imagine you had made a similar mistake once yourself. Despite this empathy and understanding on your part, I contend you would still try to explain yourself.

When a tiger escapes from its cage, zookeepers act to restrain it and protect the public, but probably aren’t angry at the creature! If you catch your teen daughter sneaking out at night via a rope ladder, you may be amused or worried rather than angry; but this is not to say you wouldn’t do something about it! It just means you wouldn’t get her on the defensive immediately by becoming angry (albeit not aggressive) and saying things that sounded critical or controlling (albeit through gritted teeth).

Now I must allude to an argument I hear a lot, even if Henriques didn’t mention it himself: Some rather shy or unconfident people only ever do the assertive thing, the tough thing, when they’re angry. Their anger emboldens them to do what most of us would have done anyway. And they may come to form a view of anger as their ‘savior’. I’d say this is a special case of anger being the lesser of two evils; but I do not think that makes it a positive thing. Let me explain. Often the narrative goes something like this: “I was in an abusive relationship (or job, or friendship) for a time. I took it and did nothing. One day I got angry and left. I should have left sooner, but it was only when I got angry that I finally made the tough decision.” I would say the take home message here is not that this individual needs to cultivate more anger, but that he or she needs to be more assertive. When I hear stories like this I’m very interested in the period during which the person ‘took it and did nothing’. What were the calculations that led to that (poor) decision? Was there an overvaluing of something (e.g. the relationship, or job security)? An undervaluing of something else (e.g. independence)? An overestimation of threat (e.g. of being single, or of being unemployed)? An underestimation of coping resources (I won’t cope on my own…)? Whatever it is, that’s what needs to change. Adding anger to the mix may be a temporary fix; but it’s really just a case of swallowing the spider to catch the fly…