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The Angles of Anger

by Robert G. Waldvogel


Anger, one of the many emotions in a person’s arsenal, is a reaction of extreme displeasure, intolerance, or out-and-out rejection of a situation or a person’s actions. It can be externalized, resulting in a raised voice, a hand slam on a table, and rage, or internalized, mentally and physiologically creating pressure cooker breeding heart rate and blood pressure elevations and, over time, anxiety disorders.

It can be generated by a wrong, a betrayal, or an injustice. Paradoxically, these wrongs do not, by definition, have to be true. Instead, they only have to be believed or perceived as such.

A recent overcharge at my routinely frequented coffee shop illustrates this point. Since I usually order the same items, the cost is always the same. During a visit a few days ago, it was not. Becoming mildly angry, I asked, “Why are you overcharging me tonight?”

“The prices just went up yesterday,” was the response.

And with that information, my anger subsided.

The Bible warns that a person should not let his anger elevate to the point where he sins. Al-Anon, the twelve-step recovery program, rephrases this by stating that “anger” is only one letter short of the word “danger.” But anger intensifies into rage when injustices are consistently administered and only creates a dilemma in which the infracted cannot tame his anger because it results from another’s actions he cannot control.

There are many angles to this unpleasant emotion

It can, for instance, become repetitive. When it is repeatedly experienced, even without cause or provocation, it can be suspected that it is the result of an early-life origin that has not been identified, and each episode of it can be surmised to be a late layer that restimulates the multitude of the others upon which it rests.

Adult children subjected to the instability, shame, and blame of an alcoholic upbringing, who are forced to squelch and suppress what is blatantly apparent to them, but seemingly not to those who subconsciously succumb to the “don’t’ talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel” rules that maintain the dysfunctional family system, are discouraged from expressing anger. With each incident, it builds and, after years of exposure, can reach rageful levels.

Anger can indicate and pinpoint. As episodes of anger diminish and a person returns to a calmer, if not more rational, state, he can question whether the intensity, amplitude, and duration of it was appropriate for or disproportionate to the anger-evoking incident.

If, for example, a person envisions himself beating the wall with his fist after the proverbial glass of milk has been spilled, then something far deeper, earlier, and most likely hidden has been triggered. His reaction is then nothing more than the tip of that iceberg.

Anger can result from unrealistic expectations, such as trying to change someone or something the person is limited or powerless to influence. While countless millions have done exactly that when attempting to change, fix, or cure an alcoholic, they have failed because they are unaware that they are addressing a disease and not necessarily the afflicted one behind it.

How many have watched events or people on television and then yelled, in anger, “How can this be? How can you say something like that? Can’t you see that…?”

No, they most likely cannot. But, more importantly, anger expressed at a television screen is futile and will only place the person in a needlessly agitated state.

What may be of far greater value is examining why the anger is evoked in the first place—that is, what does this circumstance or person mean to him—and keeping the serenity prayer in mind that advocates understanding what a person can and cannot change to breed that state.

Finally, anger can be the equivalent of a veil or a cover-up. While most people see this emotion as existing in and of itself, it often hides the true one behind it, such as hurt or fear. I am reminded of the once-popular Let’s Make a Deal game show in which Monty Hall, its host, often asked, “Do you want to stay with the money you have or go for what’s behind the curtain for $200?” People usually do not know what is behind their “angry curtain” and therefore only see the anger that constitutes it.

Since this emotion is universal, there are certainly healthy aspects and angles to it, provided that it does not reach the point of control-less volatility. First and foremost, it alerts a person to wrongs and injustices. It may enable him to identify some or all of them in himself. It gives him the additional energy to defend and protect himself when bonafide inaccuracies have occurred. It establishes boundaries. It teaches others what he will and will not accept or tolerate from them. And, finally, it creates self-worth and -esteem by inhibiting others’ abilities to transform him into a people-pleasing doormat.

Understanding the purposes and angles, both healthy and unhealthy, that anger plays in a person’s’ life, particularly that of an adult child, can promote new perspectives as he walks out of his past and into a more promising future.

Robert G. Waldvogel has earned the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Behavioral Health for Late Adolescence and the Emerging Adult and a Postgraduate Certificate in the Fundamentals of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. He has led Twelve-Step support groups on Long Island for the past decade, and created the Adult Child Recovery-through-Writing, and the Strengthening Our Spirituality Programs taught at the Thrive Recovery Community and Outreach Center in Westbury.


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