The Laramee Filter: pseudorandom thoughts, subsequently put on the Internet.
Tom Laramee
Date Published:
June 22nd, 2022 at 10am
Word Count:
1,822 (12:30 read time)

My Theory On Why Angry People Having So Much Trouble Being Less Angry

(My Theory On Why Angry People Rarely Heal Their Anger)

I've wanted to write something intelligent about the subject of anger for many years now[1]. As far a I can tell, it's a ubiquitous emotion; universally possessed, universally experienced[2]. I find it fascinating because it can galvanize a person into action, to effect significant and positive change, while at the same time it can cause people to destroy themselves and/or the people around them.

A Couple Of Things We Already Know

There are many well-trodden takes on anger. For example: modern forms of misogyny rely on the belief that "women are too emotional", casting men as the more rational gender, whereas the truth is that men have normalized the emotions that have been historically convenient for men to express, like anger or pride, and therefore view them as "rational". At the same time, nearly all other emotions (sadness, fear, empathy, love, sympathy, etc) have been classified as "irrational". Conveniently enough (one could argue "by design"), this set of "nearly all other emotions" contains many stereotypically female emotions. Fear, sadness, and empathy are viewed as both signs of weakness and as irrational in our male-dominated society.

You'll likely have to admit that nobody ever walked out of a corporate meeting during which a male VP/President/C-level officer got really angry and subsequently accused said male of being irrational. Not only that: it's nearly celebrated. Same with the political class. Military. Law. Construction and Contracting. Technology. Medicine. Etc.

Another oft-described take on anger is the successful corporate woman (and this includes anyone who succeeds in a male-dominated field like medicine, law, any C-level officer, etc) who, when she asserts herself and/or speaks out is labelled a bitch, whereas not only is similar behavior tolerated from her male colleagues, it's essentially expected (and sometimes required).

Obviously, a lot about anger is already understood. Anger, like a lot of things, can be used as a tool: for control by some, and to marginalize others. Standards for anger (for angry behavior anyways), insomuch as they even exist, are subjectively/unfairly applied.

On the Exchange of Anger Between Two People

The topic I wanted to write about is the exchange, or interchange, of anger between two individuals. Specifically: why are people who are chronically angry unable to find healing through the expression of anger with the people around them?

We all know that anger is sadness turned outwards, and in turn, sadness is anger turned inwards. Whenever I see/her someone yelling/expressing their anger in a visceral way, I don't see anger, I see pain. I don't see an expression of power, I see an attempted grasp for power. I don't see someone telling me something, I see someone asking me for something. The same goes for deep sadness. When I see someone experiencing profound sadness, I see anger turned in on itself. I see anger with no external path, thereby turned inwards, in a sort of suffocating, self-defeating cycle.

Anger either explodes, or it implodes. It doesn't abide.

And people who express anger are therefore expressing pain. Part of what's at play here is I believe that that healing of pain can only truly happen in the presence of other people: we actually need other people to understand our pain in order to transcend it.

So what goes so wrong during the expression of anger/pain?

The theory I have is that there's a massive imbalance during the exchange of anger between two people. I could also describe it as a significant imbalance between the levels of "action" and "reaction".

The scenario here is the most common one: person A and person B are talking. They disagree. Person A feels aggrieved and becomes angry. Person A raises their voice, perhaps/likely feels unheard and/or disrespected. Person B begins their retreat,or advance. They either shut down, or get angry in response. This, in turn, causes person A to up the ante, likely get even angrier, which accelerates the cycle. Person B retreats even more, or escalates even more. Sometimes this ends in a shouting match. Person B is no longer capable of listening (and perhaps it's unreasonable to ask them to at that point anyways).

This cyclical exchange happens so frequently we hardly even notice it. It's a scene you've watched in countless movies.

It's difficult for me to describe the aforementioned "massive imbalance" using words. I may need to resort to a diagram for clarification, which I guarantee will be spectacularly unscientific (though it may look vaguely scientific to the passing eye). I'll first try to describe my theory in words and endeavor to add a diagram later.

There are two things to look at during an expression of anger: (1) action and (2) reaction. The action is the expression of anger, and reaction is the reaction to said anger. We all understand that anger has a massive continuum of expressions, beginning a mild irritation ("can you please put down the toilet seat / I've asked many times" to straight up, direct anger ("i don't understand / this is bullshit!") to PTSD-level hostility (a fist pounding on a tabletop, a door slammed shut on the way out, verbal threats, white-hot rage, etc). And everything in between.

Coming from someone who has been angry on and off for his entire life, I can tell you that, from the perspective of an angry person, it can be incredibly hard to dial anger down from it's initial level, even to one level lower. It takes a lot of self-control. The internal machinations are intense, so trying to dial it back and find a form of expression that might be decently received is a struggle (sometimes a Sisyphean one at that).

On the reaction side, there's also a rich continuum. Advanced students of anger can see it as an expression of pain, and meet said expression with (a) acceptance and (b) empathy. However, the vast majority of us are not advanced students, and so the reaction will likely involve walls of defense, or walls of offense. Everything from simply shutting down (no reaction), to fighting back (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), to even upping the ante (getting more angry than the person who is angry at us).

(Note i said "angry at us" and not "angry with us", as I also think that anger is almost universally misdirected. We express it in the safety of people whom we trust not to leave us when we get angry. Think about how many times you've "saved up" your anger all day and brought it home to your partner/spouse, only to let loose on them for the slightest misdeed. They've done nothing to earn your ire, and yet, they're the recipient of it. Why is this the case? It's because they're safe. They're a soft landing for you as you fall. You implicitly understand that they won't leave you when you become angry, unlike a boss who might fire you, or a relative to whom you might become estranged. In this way, anger is nearly universally misdirected.)
My Theory On the Imbalance Of the Exchange

My theory is that from the perspective of someone expressing anger, no matter what the level of anger expressed, the reaction is always the same, and it's always a form of rejection and/or denial.

Various forms of rejection might look like denial of your right to be angry ("I don't see why you're getting so angry" / "You have no right to be angry with me right now"), to usurping your right to express yourself ("You're angry?!? Well so am I! Let me tell you all of the reasons why I'm so angry...")[3].

Now, from the perspective of the angry person, no matter how much we've dialed it down, no matter how much effort we've made to control our expression of anger; to find the "right" words, to articulate using the "right" tone of voice, to finding the "right" body language .. no matter how much progress we've made along any path to healing: none of this effort/progress is ever reflected in the reaction to anger.

And that, my friends, is the crux of my theory. It's not like someone should win some kind of award for controlling their anger, but it sometimes feels quite hopeless, as any expression of anger yields the same level (or force) of reaction. And in the ultimate irony: this rejection/reaction is decidedly feelings-hurting, and so it causes more pain and can lead to more anger.

In [literally] everyone's defense, it's not all that easy to react gracefully to anger[4]. I suspect that anger triggers something deep inside us (mostly fight or flight), and it's visceral, and emotional, and it could indeed be the best reaction to either shut down (to try to not further exacerbate the situation), or to remove yourself from the situation entirely (if there's physical danger).

So it's no wonder that overall, people fare so poorly when on the receiving end of anger.

And this is the frustrating part. It ends up acting like a de facto disincentive to actually trying to cultivate more healthy expressions of anger. If every reaction is the same, then why should I make an effort to try to "steer" my anger in a more palatable direction?

And that's my thesis. It's a feedback loop, and angry people receive feedback that's incredibly difficult to accept, which is that it doesn't matter how angry you are (or are not), you will be rejected in any/all cases.

That, my friends, is why people don't heal from anger. We're taught that it's intractable, one angry exchange at a time.

[1] Will I succeed? Only you can be the judge.
[2] Ironically enough: if you know one of those people who's always saying things like "It's all good", well, I can guarantee that under the thin veneer of laid-back-ness is some significant/palpable anger.
[3] One of my favorite ideas on how to handle a discussion involving anger is John Gottman's. I forget the reference, but to paraphrase: "If person A brings up a topic for discussion, and said topic makes them angry, or sad, or anxious, etc, it's against the rules for their partner to respond with a grievance of their own. In other words: one topic at a time, and when your partner sits you down to express something painful, your introduction of your own distinct/separate topic is a form of denial. It's a de facto rejection of your partner's right to express themselves. TLDR: Wait your turn.
[4] I'm well-aware that in making the case that angry people are worthy of sympathy I'm taking quite a risk. Not only is this group of people viewed unsympathetically, it's largely viewed with antipathy.