How Anger Works

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Anger is a rich emotion that is both useful and troublesome. It is possible to understand anger is a deep way and to bring clarity into oneself and into situations where confusion, trouble, and helplessness once reigned. Relationship skills are also enhanced with the clarity and insights revealed by understanding how anger works. It is also possible to develop a new way of looking at what most people call “evil,” but that is another topic.

Anger can be used to keep the world away and sometimes this can be helpful and sometimes it is harmful to oneself and others. Anger can often have a self-righteous quality to it where we fortify our defenses by feeling and proclaiming that we are right! This can be troublesome in interpersonal relations such as social, intimate and family interactions. Understanding how anger works can be liberating. It can make conflict safe by reducing violent behavior.

On the other hand, many people, especially women, have been conditioned so that they cannot express or feel any anger at all. In these cases people may not be able to tolerate anger in others, even in their own children.

I would like to speak here about expressed anger, rather than suppressed or repressed anger. First of all, it is important to realize that there is anger with hatred, and there is anger without hatred. How do we tell the difference? Well, it’s not easy for most of us. Often the first step is to hear about this distinction – someone points out to us the fact that anger can be hooked into hatred, or can be free from hatred. One kind of anger is rather hot and confused and dangerous, the other kind is somewhat cool and clear.

Upon hearing this for the first time you might not believe it or you might feel puzzled. You may not, at first, be able to see this in yourself, unaided, but it is relatively easy to observe in others. For example, some people respond to perceived slights with wounded rage while another person will just laugh it off. This observation alone shows that anger works differently in people. And there is a reason for that which is not generally understood.

The person with a rage response is still carrying an undetected, unresolved, and unhealed emotional wound received in childhood. The source of anger with hatred, whether it occurs in a parent, a politician, a criminal, or a lover is an unhealed inner emotional wound. In order to admit to carrying an inner wound, a difficult thing to do for many, one will be interested in and committed to engaging an inner life. Otherwise we are hopelessly stuck in projection, unaware of yourself and always blaming the other person as the source and cause of your anger. In this case, the confused thinking mind attributes the “cause” of anger to others – he did this, she did that to me – it’s their fault! Although this unfortunate blind cycle can continue, tragically, through one’s entire life it can also be seen through, changed and healed. The hard part is that sometimes other people re art fault and this clouds the issue of understanding and healing our own anger-with-hatred. The point here is that other people’s perceived faults are irrelevant to our own healing.

In contrast to anger with hatred, anger without hatred and without blame is not a problem. It is simply a clear and healthy expression of a violation of boundaries, like when someone steps on your toe. When invasion of one’s boundaries is inappropriate to dignity, privacy, etc., then anger brings focus, clarity, and energy to properly identify what’s going on. Simply naming what’s happening is helpful in acknowledging healthy boundaries.

Often situations of closeness or intimacy can activate an internalized wound and trigger a cloud of hatred to spring forth, attached to the anger. The reason why anger brings out hatred is that the original wounding was never recognized or grieved when it was happening. It was caused by repeated, neglect, deception, abuse or emotional distance in the family of origin that had failed to mirror loving-kindness and understanding during crucial developmental stages of childhood. The original hurt, frustration, anger and injustice was never acknowledged properly and we remain stuck there.

Canadian psychiatrist Gabor Mate, MD says,

“When you’re a child and your parents can’t handle your feelings, you learn to suppress them to maintain your relationship with your parents. But what was a coping response in the child becomes a source of illness in the adult.”

Since hurt is always at the bottom of anger with hatred then this acting out anger is also a mask. What is it hiding? It effectively covers up the deep hurt from childhood and renders that buried pain inaccessible. You can’t feel it. You don’t want to feel it. It is this buried and inaccessible hurt that feeds the sick, unhealed anger – the anger with hatred that continuously gives rise to blaming, shaming and complaining.

Hatred is the reeling of wanting to hurt, harm or kill someone. It’s about unconscious revenge for perceived injustice. The lack of awareness, the ignorance, of the connection between anger and mask is what gives rise to violence of al kinds. “The most violent element in society is ignorance,” said Emma Goldman. Always hidden beneath anger with hatred is old hurt. When we start to see this we can start to heal. In one of my Nonviolent Communication (NVC) practice groups a participant said, “Anger is a sideshow for hurt.”

For many people the early pain of rejection or emotional abuse is so great that this connection with buried anger cannot be made at all. Nor is there interest in making it known. Psychopathic serial killers and self-righteous religious fundamentalists are what I think of in this extreme territory. But the same basic pattern of rigidity is there in most of us. The wall is so solid. For most people the wall can be taken down, brick by brick. The anger, in this case, has served its role as a survival tool long ago and now it can usefully be relived and seen as a signal which is saying: Hey, I’m hurting, I need help, I don’t want to continue hurting myself and others, or being right…it feels terrible, like molten lead…and it’s so isolating! Once a person sees how dysfunctional and harmful they are with the hatred/anger/self-hatred loop then that glimpse can provide the ground for increasing self-reflection and self-insight. One can actually learn how to create connection with self and other instead of the old life-alienating habits of thinking, behavior and communication.

The way to work with destructive and harmful anger is to educate oneself about it. There are many resources for this in our society. The helping professions, self-help books, NVC, and the 12-step programs are some places where clues and insights may be found. Erich Neumann wrote a wonderful book about scapegoating and blame titled Depth Psychology and the New Ethic. The new ethic is simply to become willing to study oneself, see oneself, “know thyself,” heal thyself physician! This program of self-reflection requires, for example, giving up blaming, shaming and complaining. It’s not an easy path and calls upon strong motivation. As Anais Nin, wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

The first step is to surrender, to realize that you are powerless over your disease and your pain. Recognizing that you have a dis/ease, and that it’s not your fault, is the first step. How to work with anger is to recognize its source in ourselves and to own it, to take responsibility for it. Without this first humble step of surrender and of ownership nothing can happen. It’s not your fault, but you own it. This is often the hardest part to grasp; a difficult middle ground where things are neither black nor white. We surrender black and white toxic thinking and open to the truth of body feelings.

The next step is to see and feel how a pool of hurt underlies your, or somebody else’s, misdirected anger. But this inner seeing must be accompanied by an outer seeing as well. The outer signal to look for is blame, which is a most significant obstacle to healing. You are always blaming others. Blame is the extreme toxic self-poison. It’s cousin, resentment, is the final killer that keeps you down, ignorant and blocked from a dawning inner life of relative freedom. Scapegoating is an age-old tool of ignorance; like blame it is outer directed, a powerful distraction to healing. But inner awareness is our birthright. It is the joy of healing. It opens the door to genuine compassion, self-insight and self-worth, intimacy, confidence, love and a living feeling sense of connection and appropriate boundaries. It is the seed of wisdom.

To summarize, anger with hatred comes from an unhealed wound. It comes from legitimate unacknowledged pain, shame, hurt and emotional abuse and neglect that continually blocked our healthy emotional development as a child. We are still stuck back there somehow. Healing with emotional awareness is about recovering from this. It is not about blaming parents or siblings. It is about seeing and owning the tragedy of the hurt you have inherited, the needs and care and understanding you missed. It is about working directly with and through the grief of all that now in the present moment. Some call it re-parenting or waking up. Grief is the doorway to awareness, to grace, to surrender, to an awareness of deep emotions that is necessary to fulfill our human capacity. Robert Bly said, in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, “The person who has eaten his shadow spreads calmness, and shows more grief than anger.”


 1. The Wisdom of Imperfection -a short book by Brene Brown.

2. Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, shame and empathy:

…23 million views and counting, this contains an important message.

3. Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw.

4. The Surprising Purpose of Anger in Living Nonviolent Communication -Practical Tools to Connect and Communicate Skillfully in Every Situationby Marshall Rosenberg.

 5. Nonviolent Communication –A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg.

6. The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford.

7. Undefended Love by Jett Psaris and Marlene

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