Sunday, July 3, 2016

Anger in (and not in) the time of Trump and Brexit

Anger is our most neurotic emotion. That means several things: People have high or explosive anger far beyond what a situation warrants, yet they may justify it as normal and appropriate. They call a complex feeling – whose roots, trunk and branches are fear and pain and sad hurt – “anger” (which is pretty much the leaves). They feel anger about the wrong person. And they feel it about reasons that are not the reasons.

People do sometimes have right and true anger. If a friend or stranger were to call your wife an ugly whore, you’d be right to be angry. If you reacted otherwise, with pity or fear, humor or compassion or saintly tolerance, you would probably be a very mentally sick person, out of touch with your body feeling and numbed by repression and ideas that warp your truth.

Some examples of neurotic anger:

Beyond what a situation warrants 
In slow-moving traffic, a distracted driver veers a few inches into your lane. You grab a handful of pennies from the coin cup and fling them at the car.

A complex feeling mislabeled

A “cyclical batterer,”* you see your wife with a stylish new hairdo. Engulfed in terrible feeling that you label rage, because you “know” she must be wanting to look good for some other man, you shove her against the wall and hurl venomous accusations at her.

The wrong person

In childhood, you were a victim of your father’s extreme physical abuse and shaming. Because the shame and abuse dissolved your self-esteem and braked your psychological maturing, you continue into your adult life needing to be “something” in his eyes and remaining covertly petrified of him, making your repressed pain and rage leak out in wrong directions. Home from work, you throw a man-tantrum – stomping about the house and ripping your shirt off – because your wife and kids have left the living room un-picked-up from the previous day. In the middle of the tantrum, the phone rings. You hear your father’s voice, something in you turns, and in a calm, subtly younger voice, you respond: “Hi, dad . . . Sure, I can come over and help you work on the truck.”

Reasons that are not the reasons

* You feel mocking, contemptuous anger toward “New Age” interests such as yoga, reiki, meditation, chakras, “spirituality.” You don't believe in therapy. * Someone tells you that “they’re rioting in Myanmar” and you get angry about the “ignorant armies clashing by night” in Third World countries. * You are angry at God or “life” that children get terminal diseases, that your marriage is unhappy, that your adult child doesn’t write to you. * Like H. L. Mencken’s puritan** who suffers “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” you rail against victimless crimes such as gambling and recreational drug use.

Anger seems like a monolith – a single experience, and a self-justified one, when it is so often smoke-and-mirrors and a veneer that covers other, deeper meanings in our life. Nowadays it is even a daily headline, where so many people are angry in their world, with their world that they want to use the democratic process to bend entire countries to their will.

I will propose a casual principle, to help us understand a lesser grasped nature of anger. Most of our anger is hurt that has never healed. And as it’s never healed, it is past pain that is carried into the present. It is the power and success that our childhood powerlessness and failure became.

It is not hard to know this if we sink inside to the sensation we call anger. In this feeling will be history. Were you enraged at the moment your father broke a promise to take you somewhere or buy you something? No – you were hurt. If that eventually semi-morphed to anger, it’s because disappointments became normal in your home, an unhealed wound. Were you initially angry to realize that your parents enjoyed your sibling’s personality more than yours? No – you were drowning, and anger may have been the feeling that pulled you slightly above the waves. Hurt and anger remain fused as we get older, in various blends that sometimes seem only like hurt – we believe we have no anger – sometimes only like anger: The tough guy thinks he’s just pissed off when his wife gets a higher paying job than he. Christine Lawson’s “waif” borderline personality*** may be a piteous, weepy girl-woman in the therapist’s office for an entire year before the claws come out.

Past in our present, weakness behind our power, pain and injury that lives and disappears in our anger. We think we are in the “here-and-now,” in the moment, but can you feel your child’s hand if yours is scarred? Can you see the world clearly if your eyes have been scarred? There is a secondary principle. Our thoughts are so often the polluted smoke from these underground forces. They carry lost messages from the past. This is most obvious when anger is most disembodied, attaches to everything and nothing – to words like “liberal” or “the rich”; to other people’s religions or tastes, to wholesale prejudices, the “different,” or when it is simply one’s sense of life. A happy-go-lucky teen, whom I worked with at a Residential Treatment Center, came to see that under the surface he “was always angry.”

As a therapist I’ve come to live a paradox: I touch people’s blood and soul most every day but outside of the office feel unconnected and unheard and not a full member of their world. I cannot help but see what I believe are underlying motivations to what they do, but their eyes and words are high above the surface on a plane of clouds, symbolic ideas, screen feelings. Don’t they want to know where they come from, what their feelings really mean?

Why they think they hate?

Anger can be real but is mostly a body delusion, so often meaning other than what it seems. Amazing, the power such a delusion has in the world.

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* Cyclical batterer – a type of domestically violent abuser. See Donald G. Dutton, Ph.D.’s book, The Batterer – a Psychological Profile.
** One of many of Mencken’s trenchant quotes:
*** Understanding the Borderline Mother, Christine Ann Lawson.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.