A CBT Approach to Understanding and Dealing with Anger

Anger is a threat; anger results from threats; anger is righteous; anger is destructive; anger is defensive; anger is hopeful; anger is a last resort or final battle cry.

To me, anger is the most fascinating emotion because it conceals as much as it reveals. Over the years, I’ve had many clients with so-called “anger issues,” whose woes included divorce, unemployment, isolation, and even imprisonment. Most of them couldn’t control their rage and, worse, didn’t even understand it. Why are some people always so angry? Why do some get offended by random insults while others seem unperturbed?

Fundamentally, it depends on your distress. Anger is part of the fight/flight/freeze system, meaning that it’s intertwined with and results from your anxiety. So the question is: How well can you tolerate it? Anger is anxiety perceived as a threat. And we often, implicitly, seek out and blame external sources. The existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted that we prefer anxiety to existential dread, because anxiety allows us to focus on what’s in front of us; it’s a fear of some-thing. Therefore, we can strategize against it, so the fear feels as though it can be managed. Yet, sometimes, life isn’t that simple.

We frequently react in a way that indicates a much more heinous danger. Road rage is a prime example. Why would someone become enraged by a random stranger cutting them off on the highway? Part of it is indignation. You’ve been wronged because the other driver intruded in your lane and almost caused you to crash into him. But indignation is often only a partial explanation.

Remember fight/flight/freeze? When you’re in a highly distressed state cultivated by an offense, you’re likely taking the act personally. Thus, there’s an emotional danger present. The individual who becomes enraged is also anxious, wondering, on my some deeper level, what the offense says about her. (In this case, the anxiety of crashing subsides once you’ve been cut off, yet the anger seems to exponentially increase.) Unfortunately, anger is erroneously reduced either to indignation due to unfair treatment or to a defense for the anxiety resulting from self-doubt. In reality, it’s more appropriate to think of it as triggering one’s perpetual internal conflict between both perspectives. Anger attempts to push away the threat to one’s self-image, as when we demand the other to “take it back!” An insult, like one occurring on the road, can precipitate a deeply tense state, leading to a ruminative spiral.

Most of us wonder about our places in the world, constantly questioning our roles in it. Am I a good person? Am I attractive? Am I lovable? Am I smart? If you believed, fully and strongly, that you were any of these adjectives, validation and lack-thereof simply wouldn’t move you. But how many of us possess that degree of confidence? Criticisms scare us, even if, rationally, we know that they’re unfair. Insults can ruin our reputations and shake our self-esteem. And for those with severe social anxiety and a near-certainty of their global inferiority, criticisms are akin to a branding iron re-applied to the wounded area, the perfect fit of one’s self-conception with the insult.

Anger is a complicated emotion that’s mostly directed outward. But, unless we’re forced into a trying predicament, it’s best to focus inward. Begin to explore your self-doubt and be curious about it. Ask yourself: Could it be a coincidence that, on the one hand, I struggle with self-esteem and, on the other, someone called me stupid? Is there other evidence for my intellectual inferiority? Is there counter-evidence to my negative belief? Does the person who insulted me actually know me? And could it be possible that the person who called me stupid is just an asshole? Because we’re always searching for patterns, we sometimes discover them when they don’t exist.

Some of my clients would say, “Yea, right; how could that be a coincidence?” Actually, quite easily. Some people sniff out our triggers and use them against us, while others push your buttons because they understand what it means to be a human (who doesn’t struggle with the thought that they may be dumb?). Gaining a deeper understanding of your anger makes it easier to manage it. Does that mean you shouldn’t ever blame others? No. But it does mean coming to terms with how your own beliefs and fears contribute to it.

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