Anger as Avoidance

Anger. Most of us don’t like it. In fact, we often seek to deny we are experiencing or expressing it. But it’s a stubborn emotion and hard to conceal. Therefore, some may boldly pretend to be okay with their anger. But how could they really? After all, it is by definition “an intense emotional state induced by displeasure or ire” (Merriam-Webster). We feel distressed and agitated in such a state. It may cause us to act impulsively, in ways we later regret. And it’s generally something that is visible to others. How could we be okay with that?

Understanding Anger

There may be another sense in which we could be okay with our subjective experience of anger. In this sense, what we are okay with might be our relationship to our experience of anger, namely, that we see it for what it is. In seeing it for what it is, we are seeing its cause.

The cause is not the behavior (speech or action) of someone that we say “caused” us to become angry. At most, what someone might say or do is part of an overall situation (circumstances) that becomes a stimulus for our angry feelings.

As behavior, the words or actions of another person do not carry an inherent meaning that is causally connected to my angry reactions. The felt meaning of the words or actions for me are not fixed beforehand. We might argue that their socially prescribed meanings must include the potential for stimulating angry reactions in me. But it is I who must construe that meaning. Indeed, I may even need to attribute a malicious intent to the author of these words or acts to account for the full intensity of the anger I feel. My interpretations cause my feelings.

Why It’s Difficult to See the Cause

The anger-producing meaning I see in the words and acts of others’ is usually not something I’m aware of in the moment. In fact, the immediacy of reactive emotions like anger is attributable in part to their automaticity. For example, “When Judith excluded me from the to-list for the message about a meeting with ABC company, it was not a simple oversight; no, she was disrespecting me.” The offense is transformed from what may have been an administrative error, perhaps annoying, to act of intentional insult directed at me by Judith, which may further mean “she has no respect for me.” It’s now an assault on my character!

Indulging this anger sets up a negative mindset. Acting on it may be embarrassingly inappropriate and self-defeating. This interpretation is also avoidance-based. For what I’m truly troubled by are some long-standing vulnerabilities that cause me to over-interpret, misinterpret, and overreact to such experiences. If instead I was able to notice my anger-based reactions as they arise, and then invoke a reflective pause, which allows me to see what is making me angry (i.e., my own attributions of meaning and cause), I may see an approach strategy emerge.

From Avoidance to Approach

Using our example above, I might recognize, upon reflection, that the reason for Judith omitting me from the to-list is unclear. What may be very clear to me, however, is that I want to be in the meeting, and I have specific reasons for wanting to be included on such memos. Now I have a rational purpose and goal in mind for reaching out to Judith, and for approaching the issue. Of course, what I am approaching is more than my concerns about being omitted from a meeting invitation. I am also approaching my own insecurities and my vulnerabilities to indulge unnecessary anger rather than seeking what I want.

In this rather covert way our anger often conceals other primary emotions, which belies a problem of internal causes rather than external enemies. We tend to think of avoidance as it applies to an aversion to conflict or retreating in the face of a more dominant other. But avoiding the examination of our inner sources of anger-based reactions is equally if not more problematic. And shifting to an approach strategy that makes us conscious of these inner mind states produces healthy change. It weakens the old negative scripts that underlie our insecurities, and it builds more positive expectancies.