Anger Archives - Embodied Living

If you get easily annoyed or lose your temper it may not be anger. Shame is a painful, visceral emotion, that may lurk behind. But what can you do about anger when it is a cover for shame?


Anger in the pandemic

We are living in the strangest time in living history. The coronavirus pandemic has required that we all make changes. And this situation and the virus may have affected us in many other ways.

We are in forced confinement with our spouse, partner or even our kids, that may be too close for comfort. Our usual coping strategies, of travel, socialising etc may have been taken away from us. We are in a situation where we are more isolated, even in the safety of our own home.


What can we do about anger?

If you find yourself shouting more, getting irate on the phone, barely able to hide your annoyance at that stranger who passed you a little too close in the street, or full of rage of the increase in footfall on your usual walking routes. Perhaps you have become meaner. For many of us, anger is easier to do than what may be lurking beneath: shame.

Shame is a difficult emotion and perhaps one of the last taboos in our society. Shame is an acutely painful feeling of feeling fundamentally wrong or inadequate. A deeply held belief about our unworthiness or lack of ‘goodness’ as a person.


We cover it up

In fact, it can be an incredibly painful experience, especially when there are layers of shame that have built up over the years. And if we were shamed or humiliated as a child, intentionally or otherwise, and it wasn’t contained or seen. If we carry these layers of shame into our adult life, and a situation or event, often in relationships, triggers it we can have a strong physiological reaction. It can feel like a weight or dread in our stomach, we may feel nauseous or actually be sick, or faint. We might tremble, or feel dizzy. All said, shame wants to make us hide, to disappear.

Of course, something as terrible as this often cannot be tolerated. So we do something else instead. Often that involves us getting angry.

This might come out as bursts of irritability or even rage: at our loved ones, or at strangers. Though loved ones are often ‘safer’ so they may get the brunt of it. And then we feel terrible. This increases the shame experience and propagates the cycle of shame.


Where else the anger might appear

Another way that anger comes out, perhaps in a more passive-aggressive or certainly indirect way, is through blame. We project the shame onto others and blame them. We split the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and, for the slightest perceived indiscretion, the other becomes all bad. So we turn against family and friends. People around us cannot tolerate this unfair treatment. So we become more isolated. And our shame is triggered.


The purpose of shame

Guilt is a sense that ‘I have done something wrong’ rather than the ‘I am wrong’ of shame. Both, believe it or not, are prosocial emotions in that they have a healthy purpose in humans. Shame is there as an indicator that we have done or said something, or behaved in some way, that may cause us to risk our position in our group, family or society as a whole. So this terrible feeling, acts as an impetus for us to change and therefore belong. It is prosocial in that it increases our connectedness to others.


Origins of shame

We can experience shame very early in life, in pre-verbal stages in fact. As early as 15 months, an infant can have a visceral experience of being defective. Perhaps if a mother is unresponsive, neglectful or intrusive. The pre-verbal origins might explain why the visceral quality, the felt experience, of shame is do debilitating. The posture of collapse that shame brings about, initiates a similar collapse in our nervous system: vagal syncope. We go into freeze mode or disconnection and dissociation. All this happens outside of our conscious awareness, precisely because of the pre-verbal, beyond words and thought, origins of shame.


Causes and sources of shame

Causes of shame are multitudinous and happen at all ages and stages of life. Some examples might be: our body or our bodily functions; sex and sexuality; relationships; achievements or lack of achievement. Parental rejection is a certain source of shame but so are high expectations or punishment. These experiences of punishing external figures can be internalised as a bad object that continues to punish and shame us, in a self-propagating way, for the rest of our lives. And shame is massively linked to trauma of all types. Trauma and the fear of being shamed can lead to the ‘vagal syncope’ that Peter Levine talks about where our body and our mind shut down.


Secrecy and isolation

Shame multiplies with secrecy, isolation, and judgement. But it also demands us to keep quiet. But if we can be brave enough to talk about our shame with a caring other, we can start to shed its despotic layers. Shame often gets caught up with other, positive or negative, emotions. This might be desire, or pleasure; fear or anger; pride or sadness. Perhaps this is when shame becomes particularly toxic. Think about the young woman in whom shame has become bound with pleasure, who experiences overwhelming negative states in love making with her husband. Or the young man who is not able to experience any pride in what he does becomes shame is linked with it.


What can you do about anger linked with shame

Whilst anger often presents instead of shame, anger can also be bound with shame. If our early sources of shame involve anger, ours or others, the vicious cycle will be compounded when we experience anger as a defence against shame. You can probably imagine how toxic and debilitating this experience can be for someone. Caught in a cycle of explosive outbursts beyond their control and then overwhelmed into shutdown by those outbursts.

Here are some important things to consider to break the cycle of shame:

  1. Understand the complex nature of shame – it is an emotion that is at the heart of trauma and causes more trauma. It is internalised and often self-propagating and there may be layers of it. Its causes can also be trans-generational – shame in families that has not directly impacted us, can be passed on and internalised.
  2. Talk – shame thrives on silence and secrecy. But also judgement. So it is important to find an empathetic, non-judgemental other to whom you can tell your story.
  3. Healthy pride – it is said that the internal extinguisher for the fire of shame is healthy pride. We often, in our culture, have an unhealthy relationship with pride. But healthy pride – being able to celebrate and recognised our qualities, successes and achievements – is a powerful antidote to shame.
  4. Posture – unconsciously, in small or significant ways, when our shame is triggered, we adopt a certain posture that kind of sucks us deeper into shame. This posture is closed and collapsed and our head and eyes are downwards. By changing our posture and keeping upright with an open chest and eyes looking upwards, we can take at least some control.
  5. Breathing and HRV – shame throws us into chaos. This is a state of physiological incoherence. By learning breathing techniques to increase our heart rate variability, and coherence, we can begin to break the debilitating cycle of shame.
  6. Seek therapy – for all of the above reasons, therapy can be a useful resource to deal with shame.


Here is a useful infographic that explains shame in relation to guilt.

What can you do about anger when it is triggered by shame

Anger gets a bad rap: we might be scared of our own or others anger. Or we might use it as a weapon to control others. However what we often experience or think of as anger is something else.

More primitive, but important

Rage is a more primitive and ‘immature’ emotion. It evolves earlier in our development and from a more primitive part of our brain. Whereas anger, in its truest sense (I call it healthy anger), is actually a useful and positive emotion.

We start to experience anger from 18 months to 3 years of age. It is formative in the process of individuation as a child begins the journey of finding their own self, as separate from parents.

Healthy boundaries

Anger helps us at this development stage to put healthy boundaries between self and other (mother, father, siblings). Indeed it helps us know what is me (or mine) and what is other; and it gives us the motivation to communicate this. “NO!!” shouts the angry two year old. If this child’s energy (all emotions are energy) is met with loving acceptance, this two year old grows into an adult who can use that same energy to defend themselves or be assertive in the face of another who is behaving unreasonably.

Restraints imposed

However in the west our culture imposes restraints on this process that are hard to escape.

For instance, little girls often meet disapproval or resistance from parents if they show anger (‘little girls should be (passive) all sugar and spice’). As a result we can often become fearful of anger because a caregiver expressed anger in inappropriate or uncomfortable ways or even blamed us for it (‘don’t test me’). Or we ‘accept’ injunctions from others ‘don’t feel’, ‘don’t be yourself’ , ‘don’t be you’.

Healthy anger

Anger effectively, helps us to protect ourselves. When healthy anger arises in us we will notice it. We might flush, our heart rate goes up, we clench our jaw. This energy can be used in a useful way to achieve something positive: perhaps we ask for or say or do something in an assertive way. Then, after two to three minutes, the anger is gone and we are calm again. Healthy anger does not blow up in an uncontrollable way, it does not cause us to ‘lose it’ and it does not stay with us for hours or days afterwards. That is rage.

From healthy to dependency

In the absence of a healthy relationship with anger, we may find that we are too dependent on others. We might fear leaving a close knit family or we might manipulate others to keep them close. Undoubtedly if we over identify our sense of self with others (we ‘merge’) we won’t have good boundaries nor will we enjoy being alone or doing things on our own.

Where anger goes

If we have not ‘owned’ our anger it largely goes in one of three unuseful ways:

  1. We over express anger – we often get angry, or annoyed or show aggressive body language. Or we are critical or sarcastic perhaps, judgmental or bigoted (racism, sexism, homophobic).
  2. We under express anger – we sulk or withdraw, going quiet. We become prone to depression. We can’t say ‘no’. Instead of being able to assertively use anger, we cry instead. We are passive and self critical
  3. We don’t feel or express any anger – we deny or ignore our anger. ‘I don’t do anger’. We smile; we feel numb, dissociated from feelings and may be sexually impotent.

Anger supports life

Anger supports life. It is critical in the development task of separating from family/parents and becoming ones own unique individual self. And for someone with a strong sense of self (individuated) anger helps to protect and maintain ones physical, emotional , intellectual and even spiritual autonomy.

More rage these days

I see less useful, healthy anger around these days and more rage. Rage expresses itself in either a ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ way. Hot rage is explosive, always bubbling close to the surface and cold rage is repressed, rarely seen, but uncontrollable once triggered. Rage is more complex, and less pure than (healthy) anger and will often contain deep shame, guilt, sadness or fear. One of the best things we as people can do, is to seek a little help in resolving rage and getting in touch with healthy anger. As for things getting worse? I don’t know, but knowing the difference between rage and anger can be beneficial to all our well-being.

If you need help moving from rage to healthy anger, you might want to contact me.

And read more about anger here

Violence begets violence. Abuse begets abuse. As children, up to 37% of boys and 52% of girls are sexually abused by an adult 96 of whom are men. Almost all of these men have poor parent-child attachments in their own childhood (a serious relational trauma triggering a ‘rage’ or ‘anger’ cycle), and often have been abused themselves.

If abusers or offenders get therapeutic help the reoffending rate is 5%! The cycle CAN be broken. We can’t continue to blame the abuser, or even the victim, that is disempowering and damaging our very society, for generations to come:

“Traumatic psychosocial experience may have serious consequences for generations to come because of ‘organismic’ ‘compensatory attempts at homeostasis’ which ‘can lead to long lasting change in gene expression’ (Post, 1992, in Parker Hall 2009)

In this challenging TED talk Jackson Katz talks about how male ‘culture’ supports male abusive behaviour, men need to watch it.

And if you know anything about quantum mechananics, systems thinking or chaos theory as one person ‘wakes up’ (expands their consciousness), it has a disproportional large beneficial effect on the human ‘system’ because of the interconnectedness of universal phenomena.

The signs of depression vary from a general sense of unhappiness and meaninglessness to persistent changes of mood and feelings, and to psychosis (Hale & Davies, 2009). Whilst depression can have a deep impact on our lives, it can be helped with therapy.

Depression is classed as an affective disorder involving a prolonged and fundamental disturbance of mood and emotions (Cross & McIlveen, 1996). The signs of depression are associated with changes of behaviour and even physical symptoms (somatisation) such as backache and headache (Hale & Davies, 2009).

Core symptoms of depression

Depression’s core features are:

  • pervasive low mood
  • loss of interest and enjoyment (anhedonia);
  • reduced energy and fatigue and diminished activity (withdrawal).

Other features include poor concentration attention and decision making, diminished or increased appetite and loss of libido and disturbed sleep (waking early or over sleeping). Increased agitation or restlessness (pacing about, complaining) and irritability can also show for some. And of course we all know the risks of ideas or acts of self-harm or suicide that go with depression. In the depressed person self-esteem and self-confidence are incredibly low. And they are plagued by feelings of guilt and /or unworthiness. There is a bleak or pessimistic view of the future and depersonalisation (a feeling of I’m not me anymore). Some people may show multiple physical and behavioural symptoms in the absence of low mood (‘masked depression) (Hale & Davies, 2009).

Feeling flat

Another feature of depression is a loss of reactivity, individuals will show a blunted or ‘flat’ affect to life events (Sims, 1995). They show a failure to express feelings either verbally or non-verbally, especially when talking about issues that would normally be expected to engage the emotions. The difference is in degree. The client himself is not aware of his deficiency but when pointed out to him, may agree that there is a lack of any sort of emotional reaction (Sims, 1995). This may be experienced as a feeling of a loss of feeling made worse by the client’s own questioning of himself, feeling guilty about the lack of feeling.

Depressive episodes

A depressive episode may be classed as mild, moderate or severe. Nevertheless, diagnosis lies in skilled clinical judgement (WHO ICD 10), and usually symptoms have to be present for at least two weeks. A diagnosis of mild depression requires that at least two of the core symptoms are present (low mood, anhedonia or fatigue) and at least two of the other symptoms. For more severe depression more of these symptoms are present.

The Hidden Side of Depression

Clients often come to therapy presenting the physical symptoms of depression: lack of energy; loss of libido; disturbed sleep; absence of periods; unexplained aches and pains; difficulty making decisions; low motivation and inability to start or complete things. However they may not call it depression.

In an intake conversation a client talked of many symptoms of depression but presented them as problems related to her ‘tiredness’: ‘when I get tired my default position is negative, like I’m useless and no one likes me’. This client was clearly preoccupied with her lack of motivation to go into work. Her fear of not being able to get into work, ‘I cannot afford not to go into work’.

Alcohol and depression

Depression may also present itself as excessive alcohol consumption, this is perhaps more common in men (Rowe, 1983). Rowe (1983) observes that many men use alcohol to hide their weaknesses from others and to hide from themselves their own fear and despair. They drink excessively in social situations and also alone at home.

Anger and Depression

Many people learn early on in childhood that it is wrong to get angry. (Rowe, 1983). This may be through having seen too much anger expressed in parents’ relationships with each other or with the child and the child then ‘decides’ that to be angry is bad and so represses it.

Schiffer (1988) proposes that this leads to depression because when a young child’s needs are not being met they will protest loudly (raging tantrums). This makes them even more difficult for the parents to handle so that parents become threatening or unresponsive.  Eventually the child may become anxious (threatened) then ultimately defeated (depression) thereby establishing a limbic brain tendency towards depression. (Schiffer, 1988)

Depression is anger turned inward

Freud and Abraham posit that depression is anger turned inward against self (Schiffer, 1988) when the child internalises the parent figure and then attacks the parent inside. People often perceive depression as a failure or weakness and as humans we have an innate tendency to get angry with those that fail.This is why depressed people often attack themselves.

In addition a tendency towards ‘identification’ with the persecutor means that sometimes when a person feels overpowered by someone else there is a desire to befriend them. In this way, the mind of an abused or mistreated child seeks to befriend the abusing adult. But to join the tormentor the child’s troubled mind must take sides with the abuser and therefore turn to attack himself (Schiffer, 1988).

Internalising the critical parent

Exacerbating this for many clients is the critical parent that has been internalised in the child’s superego, and which will serve to torment the adult client with lifetime barrage of criticism and negative self-talk (Schiffer, 1988).

Case Study

(A fictional client assembled from real life experience)

For MN anger was an alien emotion. He stated that he rarely got angry and was proud to be a very placid man most of the time. He can remember two occasions when he did ‘lose it’ and he was shocked and scared at his reaction. This reinforced further repression of the emotion. In fact MN had a lifelong pattern of repression of emotions. This meant that he was not in touch with emotions to be able to talk about or express them. It was clear to the therapist that he had unresolved anger, as well as sadness and guilt about his wife’s death: ‘I wasn’t brave enough to challenge them,’ and ‘why do bad things have to happen to good people?’

Repression helps us cope, somewhat

Repressing anger by burying it deeply , perhaps because of fear of rejection or that it may escalate out of control, may be a good coping strategy to survive childhood. But the trouble with this is that it is the coping strategy itself that becomes problematic in adulthood causing many of the somatic presentations.

Depression as people pleasing

Another defence mechanism in dealing with anger is reaction formation where the unacceptable ‘bad’ feeling of anger is turned into its opposite extreme of needing others’ approval to feel good. This ‘people pleasing’ (Parker-Hall, 2009), shows itself in putting others before self or needing excessive amounts of approval from others. External behaviour presents as trying to please others all the time, being the peacemaker, going out of one’s way to never offend others, or a preoccupation with what others think about you. (Rowe, 1983). These types of people often find it difficult to say no and get put upon a lot and go to great lengths to avoid conflict.

To summarise, depression or depressive tendencies can show themselves in many varied and surprising ways. However, by understanding the patterns that present in our adult life and linking their origins to our past, we can heal. By recognising unmet needs and addressing them, we can begin to be more whole and become our authentic self.

Many of us have an unhealthy relationship with anger: we flip between occasionally or often blowing our top or being scared of our own anger and trying our best to suppress or avoid it. I call this Anger (capital ‘A’), it either blows outward in ‘hot rage’ or goes deep inward, buried as ‘cold rage’. We may not even be aware of it; tending to pride ourselves on our ability to stay calm and be quite a placid type of person. But the symptoms may speak to us.

Symptoms of repressed/unexpressed anger

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • digestive disorders
  • headaches
  • insomnia
  • compulsive eating
  • anxiety
  • procrastination
  • sarcasm
  • bitterness and resentment
  • craving a drink … to name but a few

Anger is one of the strongest emotions in our repertoire and carries with it the greatest potential for us to do harm to ourselves or others, and the greatest potential to be a force for change in our life. However, in order for it to be a positive force we have to move to letting go of the stuckness that we carry with anger so that we have a healthy relationship with it.

Resolving Anger – Understanding the Past

In my seven years of working one to one with people from all walks of life, ages, cultures it is clear that the past affects our relationship with anger in different ways. Often people are brought up to fear, feel guilt or shame about anger. For example, if a father was emotionally unstable and would lose his temper, the child will be fearful of the unpredictability of anger and may decide not to do anger because he or she makes a judgement about it. Or a child may have been overtly or covertly ‘punished’ for getting angry, thereby given a clear message of it being wrong or bad to get angry; or sometimes they are laughed at or ridiculed.

Think about the things that make toddlers angry: not getting an ice cream, not being understood (a little girl being called a boy, for instance), having a toy taken off them and given to a sibling, not getting the attention they crave. A young child’s anger is pure, animal-like, and if parents have got their own anger issues, it can be hard for them to understand or deal with a child’s rage, so instead of helping the child reason and understand what they are feeling and experiencing, the adult puts their own shadow onto the child, often giving them clear messages that this is not ok (the child’s unconscious mind only has one way to take this, ‘if this is how I am feeling, I must not be ok, I am not ok, I am bad, worthless, unloveable’ etc). Thus stuckness around anger, 99 per cent of the time in over 600 client hours psychotherapy, resides in the years 2 to 5 years old.

Anger: the emotions beneath it

What causes us to get angry? if you look closely it is being or feeling unjustly hurt or losing something (a physical thing or love or a loss of self, i.e. being misunderstood). So close on the heels of anger is sadness. Watch a toddler cry angry tears and you will see this. Then, if we are not given permission to feel what we feel, we learn to put a layer of emotion on top of that. We may feel guilt or shame about getting angry, we may feel afraid of our own anger. So the unhealthy relationship has layer on top of layer. Which is why most people bury it so deeply. It seems like a Pandora’s box to them, they dare not open it for fear of what they might find.

Anger and Rage – losing it

When we do let Anger out, it is often not in our control, we lose it. And we are usually aware, on some level, that our reaction was out of proportion to the triggering event (something that was said or done to us etc). We are aware that we have over reacted, which puts layers of shame and guilt on top again. And we are right about this over reaction. In such moments, we are not experiencing anger, we are overtaken by Anger which is chained all the back to the past, through all the other angry events all linked through this one to the very first event at which Anger got attached. So the Anger in the moment, is not a pure present anger from the moment, but carries the force of all the other Anger all the way back years into the past. Which is why it feels so overwhelming.

Anger at the root of depression

Likewise I have seen many people get sad instead of angry. Little girls are often taught that it is not ok to get angry (little girls are all sugar and spice and nice), so they are given more ‘permission’ to get sad and cry, and this is what they do, displacing their anger into sadness (reaction formation as a defence mechanism). Conversely, it is more ok for little boys to get angry than cry (little boys don’t cry), so they don’t cry, they do anger instead (grumpy old man syndrome, anyone?).

For both sexes, repression of Anger through denial, projection, avoidance, makes anger go underground. It turns inward on us. And we hold or repress these negative emotions in the body – so we develop physical illnesses related to heart or gut. Over time, that powerful build up of Anger, chained all the way to the past, becomes ‘cold rage’ and is the root of a lot of depression.

I always tell my psychotherapy clients that anger is a healthy human emotion and can be a positive force for change. When we are hurt unjustly by another, or lose something of ourself or something we own we can use anger (lower case ‘a’) to rally action: assertiveness, take action, speak up for ourselves. Then the emotion of anger is fleeting and used in a proactive way. But to get to this point requires that we deal with unresolved issues around anger first.

Dealing with unresolved anger

  1. Encourage a healthy expression – For many people, especially women, I have to start with helping them become more comfortable with anger by encouraging a healthy expression of the emotion. Many have not felt the emotion for many years, having spent a lot of unconscious energy suppressing it. We work with gentle, mutually agreeable exercises that the person can practice at home. This often brings a tremendous feeling of relief.
  2. Identify the first memory/event – Once the client feels safe enough, we identify the earliest event where anger was experienced in an unresolved way. This may need to be patient work, dealing with great resistance by the unconscious mind, but is always an amazing experience for the client, with a tremendous sense of relief and freedom. Often this work goes back to the age of 2-5 years old.
  3. Work with the higher rational mind to have learnings – This event is brought into focus by the higher corticol mind so that the adult client can take insights and learnings from it that the child wasn’t able to experience. This ‘bigger picture’ might include why people behaved the way they did, why the child behaved that way – this gives a sense of acceptance. Once these insights and higher learnings are taken, the Anger is resolved and let go of and replaced by other, more neutral or even positive emotions.
  4. Break the chain of Anger – the chain is already broken once we do this initial work, and then I work with the client to help them take these learnings into other events where they got angry during their life and resolve them too.
  5. Understand the gifts – As part of the process, I make sure that the client understands and appreciates the ‘gifts’ that have come from this event, perhaps it enabled a strong, rebellious side of them to be born (protecting them from being engulfed in others’ expectations), perhaps it was the root of their ‘please others’ pattern which has won them popularity and friends. It is important for the client to understand these gifts as strengths, which can be used with more choice and awareness, and if over-used, have become part of the problems in their life. So now they have far more choice.
  6. Allow sadness, guilt, shame – A final part of the process is to deal with any underlying negative emotions that were wrapped up in Anger, which usually now present themselves.

On some level, most of us want a happy, peaceful life, with vitality and wellbeing and fulfilling relationships. Unresolved Anger can get in the way of this, causing conflict and illness and troubled relationships. We are the only person who can take responsibility for the living the life we want to live and working on resolving Anger is a big step in that direction.