Irritable, frustrated, aggressive, annoyed, stubborn, disrespectful – these are all symptoms we might associate with persons we’ve encountered who are what we describe as ‘angry’. But what exactly is anger?
Common Anger Issues Symptoms
Here are some common anger issues symptoms that are complicated, but treatable by counselors.
1. Silent and invisible anger
Ever have someone in your life who is incredibly mad, but they won’t say a word about why? Believe it or not, anger is not always displayed as some obvious, loud experience. Many people (if not all of us in the right situations) experience anger as a deep internal experience that can’t be detected on the surface at first.
That’s why people say, ‘it makes your blood boil’ about things that get you upset – because that’s what anger feels like! It feels like a burning sensation under the skin that is strong but hidden from the perspective of outsiders at first. For many people, anger can begin as a silent building up of emotions.
When I am told about a client’s trauma history or recent experiences of being bullied or humiliated, I look for indications of how their anger shows up in the room, because if I were them, I’d be mad! Humiliation, neglect, abuse – those are all significant reasons to feel angry. They’ve been robbed of something whether it’s been their dignity or their privileges, so where is their anger?
In my sessions, I do an exercise where I have my client take the Rubik’s Cube that is on my desk (yes, a Rubik’s Cube, because, it was the closest thing to me when I first experimented with this exercise) and I ask them to hide it somewhere in the room. I tell them I am going to watch where they put it, but that they should still hide it and put it out of sight from both of us.
The client will usually follow the instructions, get up, and place it behind a plant, or under the couch or in a drawer. I will then tell them that the thing they just hid is actually their ‘anger cube’. Then I will say jokingly, “So! It looks like your anger cube isn’t in the room anymore because I can’t see it! Can you? It must be gone because if it wasn’t, we’d be able to see it, right?”
Sometimes a client finds this to be an engaging conversation, other times they are confused. But ultimately it leads us into a conversation about how anger actually is still in the room, even when we can’t see it and it’s not obvious.
I then grab the Rubik’s Cube and ask them what they see. Some say colors, other say squares. We all eventually reach the same conclusion that the Rubik’s Cube is a whole made up of the sum of its parts. It’s a square, but it is also a square full of squares. It is a cube, but it is also a cube full of cubes.
In the same way, anger is a feeling, but it is also full of other feelings. Anger is an emotion, but it is also made up of many other emotions. And for that reason, anger is never just anger.
I then ask if they think that there’s a chance that they have some anger inside them right at that moment, even if it’s not obvious. I ask them, “where is your anger now?”
We begin to discuss how, and sure enough, their anger is somewhere. It’s towards this person, or that day, or that event. It’s there. It’s just not being talked about, which leads me to the next most crucial thing to understand about anger:
If anger isn’t being talked about, it’s being expressed.
And expression usually manifests itself as (complicated but treatable) symptom number two of anger: aggression.
2. Aggressive anger
Aggression is probably the most common symptom that comes to mind when we think of real anger because full-blown anger can be quite scary. We hit, kick, scream, throw, punch, slam, stomp. We are mad! And with the full unleashing of our anger can come a surge of adrenaline, that, if not properly directed, can become harmful.
But, again, if anger isn’t being talked about, it’s being expressed. Which is why, in therapy, we work with our clients to describe and examine what exactly is making them angry. In other words, we look at what is making up their anger cube.
I can only speak for myself, here, but if I’m being really honest about I have become angry in the past, it is usually because I was actually experiencing any number of negative feelings. I might have been feeling humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed, lonely, sad, hurt, betrayed – you name it!
Negative feelings can come together to create the perfect volcano that erupts. All it takes is one car accident that is cherry on top. An entire week or month’s worth of other feelings are suddenly let loose.
Anger is like a balloon being filled with air. If it keeps getting air put into it, with none let out and no relief, eventually it’s going to pop.
Another analogy I love is that anger is like an iceberg. Above the surface of the water, we see only part of the ice. We see the anger. But the unseen, below the surface portion of ice, is much bigger and is comprised of many, many other feelings besides anger that we do not realize make up the small visible portion we see.
This is my favorite diagram of the iceberg from the Gottman Institute:
The problem is that it’s usually only when someone snaps that we pay attention the most. We do not typically have the eyes to see the calm before the storm that is coming. Before we know it, we’re caught off guard by someone acting very aggressive.
This diagram is another one of my favorites, as it depicts the differences between overt and covert anger:
I also love that it captures the very real feeling that someone’s silent treatment can have on us. It can feel like murder to be stonewalled by someone! But on the other end of the spectrum, for someone expressing anger very loudly, it can quite literally lead to an act amounting to murder. Anger can become brutal either way if it goes unchecked long enough.
Lastly, a great way to gauge if someone’s anger is going beyond the point of safety and into aggression is to think of it like a ladder:
What can begin as ‘sneaky’ or silent anger, can escalate just three or four rungs up into overt blaming, shaming, and worse. Therefore, it’s good to pay attention to how anger can begin as a silent, internal battle.
Which brings me back to my first symptom, ‘silence’. If we are engaging one another in dialogue to try to understand what is making a person mad, and if they feel safe and invited to really open up and share, they begin to express their anger in a controlled, calm, verbal manner.
In therapy sometimes I’ll ask a client to replace the word anger every time it is used with a deeper, more accurate feeling. We will reflect together about a specific instance in which they felt themselves beginning to get angry and we will examine the experiences that eventually lead to blackout rages by first looking at what they remember and how it made them feel.
By talking about what they remember and how it made them feel we are integrating their right (emotional) and left (logical) hemispheres of their brain.
By doing so – by putting language to their felt experiences of ‘anger’ – the client is actually regaining control of their anger.
Again, when we talk about our anger, we are no longer needing to express it. The other key to this is that by talking about it we can normalize and neutralize the power anger has. Anger, when it becomes explosive or aggressive, can consume much of our attention.
When someone is angry, and they are flipping us off, swearing, yelling (you name it), we become fixated on that behavior because a) we are not sure if we need to go into survival mode to protect ourselves from this person because they are acting in a threatening way, and b) we feel they are being unpredictable. But… when it is broken down, anger actually can be quite predictable, and understanding this can neutralize its power.
Anger is nothing more than a culmination of feelings, chemicals in the brain and body, and circumstances. I admit that is simplifying it a bit, but the point is that whether I’m sitting with a 5-year-old who has frequent tantrums or an ex-gang member who recalls having blackout rages, the conversations are similar: “What do you remember?”, “Where did you first start to feel the anger in your body?”, “What happened next?”, etc. If we only look at anger when someone is angry, we will never actually understand their anger.
Anger is like a story unfolding. We must be willing to step back and examine the plot and see what it is made of in order to understand what made it unravel.
3. Self-focused vs. Others-focused Anger
One last anger issue symptom I’ll address is sort of a two in one. It’s the issue of self-focused versus others-focused anger. People don’t always immediately associate anger with depression, but if you really examine the depressed person’s thought processes, you might find that they have some inwardly turned anger.
Thoughts like, “I’m worthless” or “I can’t do anything right,” can begin as trite put-downs, but over time these can grow into insidious beliefs about one’s worth. If we let it go long enough, disappointment in one’s self can lead to outright beliefs that a person deserves to die, perhaps even by suicide, which is ultimately an act of self-hatred. It is the anger turned inward that grows until a person becomes convinced they don’t deserve to live.
The opposite of this is homicide. Homicide is the result of anger towards another person that builds up enough to the point where taking another person’s life seems justified. Either outcome is rooted in deep feelings of anger that originated somewhere. It’s worth understanding where they began by looking at the origins.
In conclusion, anger symptoms can seem complex, but they are treatable.
Not only that, but anger in and of itself is not a bad emotion.
Feelings are simply data about what needs of ours are or aren’t being met. Anger is more understood as a ‘bad’ thing because of the fruit it can produce in our words, actions, thoughts or feelings. But, there is such thing as righteous anger. Being angry at injustice is not bad, in and of itself.
Anger that is unbridled, however, can produce bad fruit. Scripture has verses about anger scattered all throughout it because it is such a common expression yet can involve significant effort to control it.
I will leave you with some of my favorite passages about anger from Scripture to chew on:
Be angry and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. – Ephesians 4:26-27
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. – James 1:19-20
A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression. – Proverbs 19:11
“Angry Face”, Courtesy of Andre Hunter, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Fragile, and Mad About It”, Courtesy of Morgan Basham, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Tip of the Iceberg”, Courtesy of Ezra Jeffrey, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Sand Through the Fingers”, Courtesy of Lyndsey Marie, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; https://cdn.gottman.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/The-Anger-Iceberg.pdf; https://rickthomas.net/portfolio/anger-spectrum/#