Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Anger Part II--Anger grows out of Frustration

     Anger seems to be amplified frustration, so the questions are (a) what makes us frustrated, and (b) what amplifies it? It seems that frustration is created by the loss of an object, either property or a person, either a real  loss or a fancied or predicted/feared-for loss. We get frustrated and angry in a traffic jam because we are deprived of freedom of movement. We even honk at the "slowpoke" driving in front of us because we are frustrated at our inability  to drive faster. Righteous anger is a special category because then we justify our anger by saying that it is directed at a sinner or a breaker of society's laws or mores who therefore deserves both scorn and anger, which may be amplified by our own  frustration and anger at never having participated in "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" as the hippies of the '60s did.

     It seems that frustration is caused by loss plus the inability to do anything about the loss. (It is notable that in classical psychodynamic theory depression is also caused by a loss. Could the strictures of society then explain why more women  than men get depressed, and more men  than women get homicidal with rage?) This immediately harkens back to a baby's instant anger when deprived of his/her rattle. Society may have taught us how to channel and not act on the rage we feel from being frustrated, but we have never learned how not to feel frustrated. Giving trophies to all the members of all the little league teams' players rather than just to the winners does not prevent adult feelings of frustration in later life; it just makes the sensation rarer and therefore more difficult to deal with.

     So unlike what all mental health practitioners tell us, it is the reaction and negative feeling of frustration that is inborn, and not anger. We must therefore ask what tools our family and society has given us to help us prevent our frustration from exploding into anger, and why, under certain circumstances, our feelings of frustration are relieved by exploding into anger. Of course society accepts our getting furious at ourselves if we drop and break something---we are instantly angry at our loss, and everyone empathizes with us. In a somewhat similar way society understands our getting angry when our favorite team loses, although what it is about the loss that led to  our frustration is less clear since  in that  case nothing tangible was taken from us.

     Therefore the thrust of anger management courses should be to teach us how to prevent frustration from escalating into anger, rather than assuming we will get angry and then teaching us how to control it. You should't  deal with an alcoholic by teaching  him/her how to behave when drunk.  By the time we get angry we are already near a dangerous flash point. And it is much more common than we think----boredom, for instance is low-level anger. We are frustrated that we are wasting our time doing whatever it is that is boring us, and then angry at ourselves or others  for our not getting up and doing something else. We know deep down that the only thing we have to spend that is uniquely ours is our time, and the time we spend  doing something we do not want to do (schoolwork, housework, visiting with inlaws) generates resentment, frustration and eventually anger.

     The surest recipe for frustration-amplification-anger is the knowledge that the loss cannot be reversed, thereby adding a feeling of impotence to our frustration. It is all well and good for Omar Khayyam to have written "The moving finger writes.......", but the reality of the irreversibility of time can be a very bitter pill to swallow. Thus when a loved one commits suicide, we become angry because (a) the loved one left us without warning us or seeking permission and (b) it is totally irreversible. Similarly, in a divorce, the children tend to be angriest at the spouse who leaves, no matter what the justification, since it is the act of leaving that certifies the divorce-to-be. In the same vein, when one of a divorced couple gets married, the other spouse and children often get angry all over again because a re-marriage demonstrates to one and all that the marriage is really over.


  1. Merely proposing the hypothesis that anger stem from loss does not constitute proof that mental health professionals (like me) have gotten it wrong, nor that anger is not some kind of "basic" emotion, nor that a sense of loss is elemental.

    Indeed, anger is associated across species with physiological changes and alterations in probability of certain behaviors and it is easy for observers to agree when certain animals are angry; this does not hold for loss: what behavior is typical of loss?

    I agree that anger can result from frustration. When an intention is blocked from accomplishment, the plan or initiated programme has been "frustrated". One's initial reaction is to try harder, to muscle through the resistance, to bash away the obstacle, to disable whoever is getting in the way. Thus it makes sense to get angry, to mobilize our resources for action, to become less sensitive to pain, to minimize concern about side-effects, collateral damage or danger ("Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead!"), to assume a convincing appearance of determination, ferocity and threat in order to signal any opponents to give in or get out of the way. Anger help one get tough and get things done when a situation gets tough.

    A tough situation can arise to counter a threat: the other guy gets angry at you so you get angry back to keep him from taking advantage. It's preparation for a fight and, again, a way to issue a warning.

    Related to this is anger at being dissed, at not being afforded the status we feel we can maintain. The challenge, the insult must reasonably be met with an aggressive response to assert our position in the social hierarchy, and to put the offender in his place. Such a reaction is very important for fitness and survival among any species of social animal.

    Aside from warning, anger also signals displeasure. It is not clear that a baby's rage derives from frustrated intent; rather, it seems to come on from any displeasure, including hunger or other physical discomfort.

    As for loss, that's complex. Loss of a parenting figure more likely evinces anxiety, sadness and withdrawal. Actually, we may read too much into a very young person's crying... it may be mainly just a matter of calling, like a calf mooing for its mother or even a bat making its location known to its mother in a crowded cave.

    We get angry over someone causing harm to something or someone we own or consider part of ourselves or important to us or with whom we identify (that we "care" about). Perhaps that's a derivative of feeling personally attacked. Thus when a god or disease or accident injures or kills a loved one, we may get angry. I don't know if that's closely related to loss as such. I think it may relate more closely to status: I and my guys don't deserve to be treated that way... why me... it's not fair.

    Fairness is an important part of social status and is connected to rivalry. Putting an inferior rival in a superior position is disrespectful and calls for fighting for recognition, even if that means challenging a superior. Putting up a fight against a stronger opponent makes sense if that gives the other guy pause, makes him feel that he may be able to win a fight but that he will get hurt in the process, so that he's better off treating you with a certain degree of respect as long as you are not actually threatening his superiority. So you can reasonably get made at being mistreated by a superior, by a god, such as when the god or fate or whatever has killed your father.

    So it takes more than loss to explain anger. Anger is adaptive, not something to be avoided at all cost. It can be misplaced, excessive, pathological, maladaptive... it's a tool that can be misused and can misfunction. Even exploding into anger can be useful. Using anger is an important skill. Anger is not just something to be blown off, feared, denigrated or medicated.

  2. I agree with Dr. Pulier's comments. We are both saying that like atomic energy, anger should be harnessed usefully, if not always peacefully. I think that one of the worst effects on a young male adult of his anger is his tendency to "act-out" which usually causes him an enormous amount of damage.