Quite often in therapy, either my clients or their significant others ask me, why did I became angry? What happened? Why am I such an angry person? I decided to answer those questions in detail in a series of posts about anger that will specifically describe why a person becomes angry, what maintains angry behaviors, and finally, what to do in order to address it in an effective way.
As we all know, anger is not an unusual or abnormal emotion/reaction; getting upset now and then is natural. But holding onto angry responses for days, sometimes weeks; blaming others as the source of your anger; and withdrawing from relationships are not only unacceptable but also unhealthy responses. If there is a single person in your life, or maybe more than one, that has told you to pay attention to your anger outbursts, it is highly probable that they said it for a reason and not necessarily to hurt you or because they are hateful.
In one of my previous posts “Anger: behavior account-ability and response-ability,” I shared a definition of problematic anger. Anger is troublesome when it happens “too often, too much, and for too long.” The habitual angry person gets angry too easily, stays angry for too long, and uses angry behaviors ineffectively to the detriment of her/his relationships.
Problematic anger typically involves:
(a) High levels of physiological arousal, such as accelerated heart rate, agitation, feeling on edge, and hot sensations.
(b) Strong emotionality, such as feeling enraged, furious, and agitated.
(c) Aggressive behaviors, such as loud verbal outbursts, yelling, screaming, throwing things.
And finally, (d) specific thinking traps that simultaneously trigger and exacerbate the angry episode.
At the end of that post there is an anger self-assessment that you can take to determine if your angry responses are problematic or not.
I also found helpful to explain my clients how a regular angry reaction is different from a problematic one. So, in session I present to them the following drawing:
Notice a major difference in these chains: a person that has a regular angry reaction will pause and reflect about his/her next steps versus a person with anger problems will quickly “feel accused” or “attack” as if he/she did something wrong.
If you’re still not sure if you have anger problems, simply see if you can go 72-hours without being upset at someone or a situation that doesn’t fit your expectations.
Why did you become an angry person?
It’s quite likely that you didn’t become angry overnight. Why would anyone want to become angry? You don’t choose it. You become it. Understanding why you learned to display and use angry behaviors is not about finding excuses, it’s about providing you with the opportunity to learn about your personal history. Now, let’s face it: some of you may hold the belief that you’re only angry because of what others do or say: “I’m only upset because she cannot recall the facts properly; I’m only upset because she cannot pay attention to basic things at home like when the water is boiling or something is burning in the stove.” Here is the deal: You can continue to blame others for your own angry responses, but the more you do the further you get from building the relationships you want to have in your life. Aren’t you forgetting the resentment people build up and carry around them when they are with you? Aren’t you forgetting the countless arguments you need to engage in until you prove you’re right? Aren’t you ignoring that people at some point will simply leave because there is no shared responsibility when an anger episode arrives? Your angry behaviors do much more harm than good in your life. Hopefully it’s not too late for you.
Below are the most common causes that anger experts have identified and that I frequently witness in my clinical work with adolescents and adults. Some of these causes may relate to you while others may not; simply do your best to read the initial questions and answer them to yourself.
a. Family history: Did you grow up in an angry family? You may have been raised in an angry family in which a lot of anger was normal because it was simply part of daily living. Anger in the household occurred quite often, almost on a daily basis or a couple of times a week. Sometimes, my clients tell me that they didn’t witnessed any physical altercations or physical violence at home and therefore they believe they didn’t grow up being exposed to anger; in fact, they may say “words don’t hurt.” Nevertheless, anger has other expressions: yelling, insulting your loved ones by calling them names, shaming them in front of others, nagging them, or becoming argumentative when people are simply talking to you. All of these responses are emotionally-based angry expressions.
In angry families, nobody listens unless someone gets angry. A lot happens by simple modeling: We learn when to get angry, how to get angry, and for how long to be angry. For some angry individuals who were exposed to those family environments, anger seems like a natural experience. In fact it’s a part of who they are: strong individuals. They may believe that letting go of that anger represents becoming weak and against their personal identity.
b. Is anger masking your own states of shame or core beliefs of being defective? Ask yourself, when people are giving you some feedback, do you quickly personalize the message as if they’re telling you that something is wrong with you? For instance, when Anna was making space in the home to receive her new puppy, her boyfriend suggested that it would be better to wait until they got a confirmation from the breeder that he would in fact be selling them the puppy (mainly because he had struggled with buying a puppy from breeders in the past). As soon as Anna heard those words, she quickly told her boyfriend, “Don’t you think I’m capable of making home for the new puppy? How dare you criticize me? Do you think I’m not going to be a good caretaker?” She couldn’t hear the context in which her boyfriend was simply making a suggestion. All what she heard was: YOU’RE WRONG and feel like “HE’S ACCUSING ME.”
It could be that there is a part of you that sees yourself as defective or broken, and a slight comment from others can easily trigger states of shame. It’s like when someone makes a comment, most of time the feedback is about something you said or did. But you quickly take it personally and that comment/feedback touches the end of a spider web of shame inside you. The comment doesn’t just touch the end though, it activates the entire spider web. Are you able to notice what happens emotionally when you get angry? Can you notice how you really hear the comments/feedback from others and your emotional reaction before it quickly morphs onto anger.
c. Is anger masking the fact that you are a thin-skinned?
When people are struggling with anger, more often than not, they always find a reason or excuse to be upset, like:
– Your partner saying “how did you sleep today?”
– Your partner tells you too much background information when asking a question.
– Someone at work didn’t complete a task in a properly manner.
– The elevator is not working.
– A driver cuts in front of you.
If you relate to some of those examples, and maybe more daily situations are coming up to your mind right now, it’s quite likely that you are simply oversensitive. You quickly feel insulted by others, get hurt easily, and are thin –skinned at your core. As a result of this sensitivity, that you mask very well, you will always find reasons/excuses to be angry. It doesn’t matter where you’re and who is with you. You simply don’t know how to let things go or unfortunately, you may tell yourself that “you shouldn’t let things go without others experiencing a consequence of their behavior” as it’s up to you to show people the right way of being in the world.
d. Other factors: Do you have a history of trauma? Do you struggle with mood fluctuations? Do you have a chronic illness? Do you have a history of substance abuse or are you currently taking illegal drugs? Do you struggle with a neuropsychological condition? Do you have premenstrual syndrome?
All the above questions are pointing to other areas of vulnerability, in addition to family history, emotional schemas of shame and/or defectiveness, that may or may not apply to you.
The bottom line is that when looking at why you became an angry person I can simply say that learning history is learning history. You may have been vulnerable to any of the factors described above in detail. However, angry behaviors are learned responses. If you showed an angry behavior in order to obtain what you wanted and you obtained the results you expected, it’s quite likely you learned to engage over and over in that behavior. You learned to get angry too easily, stay mad for too long, and use angry behaviors poorly to the detriment of your relationships and quality of life in general.
In case you’re still interested in learning how to deal with anger, my next post will describe most common factors that contribute to maintain angry behaviors. Keep in mind that you cannot say “good bye” to anger without saying “hello” to it. You cannot learn to deal with anger without learning how it started and what keeps it going.
Patricia E. Zurita Ona, Psy.D. is a psychologist at the East Bay Behavior Therapy Center. Dr. Zurita Ona can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deffenbacher, J.L. and McKay, M. (2000). Overcoming Situational and General Anger. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Potter-Efron, R. (1994). Angry all the time. An emergency guide to anger control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.