Fear expressed as Anger, then used to Control

Anger - part 1

Ever wonder why some people seem to be angry at really minor silly stuff? Or maybe angry for absolutely no discernable reason at all? Or have you noticed yourself just generally pissed off, reacting to tiny annoyances as if they were life and death problems?

Some people avoid acknowledging their anger by calling it by a different name: frustration, annoyance, disappointment, irritation, etc. These softer words are variations of the same thing...names for different kinds of anger, like Eskimos have names for different kinds of snow; it's all anger, or snow.

Here's the deal:

Stuff happens that triggers normal responses: anger, sadness, joy, hope, fear, happiness, etc. If we have been taught and allowed to feel whatever it is that we actually do feel, better yet, helped to acknowledge and even name the feeling, we feel good about ourselves. If we had exceptionally healthy parental units, ones who actually dealt with their own anger, they probably helped us learn to deal appropriately with ours. We learned that it is okay to have a feeling, even anger; it's just a feeling. We talked about it, maybe in an animated fashion, using descriptive words and/or hand gestures. Maybe our parents helped us through it by letting us know they understood how we felt, validating us; maybe they encouraged us to do something physical to discharge some of the anger, go for a walk or run, throw rocks in the river, go to the gym, whatever. The point is, healthy parents accept the feelings children have and help them find constructive solutions for dealing with them. Most importantly, healthy parents model useful ways to deal with their own feelings. If parents kick the dog or name-call, or just curse and rage, kids don't get to learn appropriate anger management.

In contrast, another scenario is when we are not allowed to safely experience our feelings and must stuff them, only to have them show up later in some destructive form. Everyone knows of cases where children are told "you're not angry" when they really are...crazy-making (schizophrenogenic). The message is that anger is not okay and must not be acknowledged or expressed, even in an appropriate way. The anger goes into hiding, only to show up when we least expect it.

More severe situations include physical or sexual abuse by an authority figure, a relative, teacher, clergy or anyone else. Or maybe we grew up in an alcoholic or rage-aholic household, unpredictable, scary and controlling. We are infuriated, but we cannot express our anger or fear as the abuser has intimidated and frightened us, or we are too embarrassed; or maybe we tell but no one believes us. The message? Stuff the anger to survive.

The usual destructive setup for a child is this: An adult authority figure handles his fear with anger. We tiptoe around dad when he is angry, dealing with his own anger by drinking and raging and not in a constructive way such as talking about his fears, perhaps about money or work. We avoid talking to mom when she's frustrated, knowing that she will respond by yelling at us, giving us the message that we are just too much trouble and she "can't possibly get everything done". Maybe our coach is infuriated at one of our teammates (coach is really scared of not winning), so we don't tell him we have to miss practice tomorrow. All of these adults are handling their fear with anger. They are using their anger to control; we can&@329;t even talk to them! Lesson? These adults are fearful and are expressing it in anger, thereby controlling us. Even the dog hides in an angry household! Simply put, we are taught that when people are fearful they become angry and try to exert control over whatever they can.

When we grow up and experience our own fear, we do what we have seen modeled and try to control things and people, lashing out in anger. After all, we learned as children that anger is a useful way to control. Scared of losing our job? Get angry and badmouth our co-workers in an attempt to control...try to get them fired to save our own job. Afraid our candidate will lose the election? Direct anger at friends who are on the other side, (not at issues or the politicians) attempting to control them and make them see our point or even change sides. Above all, don't have a constructive conversation, sharing opinions but not attacking each other. Fearful our kids are not looking good and are reflecting poorly on us? Angrily lecture them about grades, hair, clothes, or even blame the teacher for our child's poor grades or behavior. Avoid acknowledging our fears, just get angry and try to control them.

Solution: deal with the old anger, fear, and feeling of being controlled. If you are dealing with it by covering it with alcohol and other drugs, get help! If your anger is coming out in ways that are harmful to you or others, get help! As adults we have the opportunity to be honest with ourselves about what we do; only then do we have a chance to choose our own behavior. Don't destroy friendships, hurt family, blame others or teach your children destructive behavior because of your old anger.. There is a better way!

Dr. Dawn Obrecht is the only MD addiction medicine specialist on the western slope of Colorado. She is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and her office is in Steamboat Springs. She teaches a communication course to medical students at the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver info@docdawn.com.


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