menu/ ANGER + FRUSTRATION
By Clay Tucker-Ladd

How we deal with stress, disappointments, and frustration determines the essence of our personality. Anger may do more harm than any other emotion. First of all it is very common and, secondly, it upsets at least two people - the aggressor and the aggressed against.

There are two problems: how to prevent or control your own anger and how to handle someone aggressing against you. The overall effects of anger are enormous. Frustration tells us: "I'm not getting what I want!" and eventually anger is related to violence, crime, spouse and child abuse, divorce, stormy relationships, poor working conditions, poor physical health (headaches, hypertension, GI disturbances, heart attacks), emotional disorders, and so on.

how do we learn to suppress aggression?

We learn to genuinely forgive others. This takes a lot of work and understanding.

Anger can be the result of hurt pride, of unreasonable expectations, or of repeated hostile fantasies. Besides getting our way, we may unconsciously use anger to blame others for our own shortcomings, to justify oppressing others, to boost our own sagging egos, to conceal other feelings, and to handle other emotions (as when we become aggressive when we are afraid).

Any situation that frustrates us, especially when we think someone else is to blame for our loss, is a potential trigger for anger and aggression.

what is frustration?

It is the feeling we get when we don't get what we want, when something interferes with our gaining a desired and expected goal. It can be physical (a flat tire), our own limitations (paralysis after an accident), our choices (an unprepared for and flunked exam), others' actions (parental restrictions or torturing a political prisoner), others' motives (deception for a self-serving purpose), or society's injustice (born into poverty and finding no way out).

Anger is feeling mad in response to frustration or injury. You don't like what has happened and usually you'd like to get revenge. Anger is an emotional-physiological-cognitive internal state; it is separate from the behavior it might prompt. In some instances, angry emotions are beneficial; if we are being taken advantage of, anger motivates us to take action (not necessarily aggressive) to correct the situation.

recognizing anger

We know when we are very mad, but anger and aggression come in many forms, some quite subtle. Look inside yourself for more anger. This list (Madlow, 1972) of behaviors and verbal comments said to others or only thought to ourselves may help you uncover some resentments you were not aware of ...

Direct behavioral signs:

- ASSAULTIVE Physical and verbal cruelty, rage, slapping, shoving, kicking, hitting, threaten with a weapon, etc.;

- AGGRESSION Overly critical, fault finding, name-calling, accusing someone of having immoral or despicable traits or motives, nagging, whining, sarcasm, prejudice, flashes of temper;

- HURTFUL Malicious gossip, stealing, trouble-making;

- REBELLIOUS Anti-social behavior, open defiance, refusal to talk;

- DIRECT Verbal or cognitive signs;

- OPEN HATRED + INSULTS "I hate your guts!" "I'm really mad!" "You're so stupid!";

- CONTEMPT + DISGUST "You're a selfish SOB!" "You are a spineless wimp!" "You'll never amount to anything!";

- CRITICAL "If you really cared about me, you'd [fill in blank]!" "You can't trust [fill in blank]!";

- SUSPICIOUS "You haven't been fair!" "You cheated!";

- BLAMING "They've been trying to cause me trouble!" "I don't get the respect I deserve!";

- VENGEFUL "I wish I could really hurt him!";

- NAME CALLING "Guys are jerks!" "Women are bitches!" "Politicians are self-serving liars!"; and

- LESS INTENSE BUT CLEAR "Well, I'm a little annoyed ..." "I'm fed up with [fill in blank] ..." "I've had it!" "You're a pain!" "I don't want to be around you!"

Thinly veiled behavioral signs:

- Distrustful, skeptical;

- Argumentative, irritable, indirectly challenging;

- Resentful, jealous, envious;

- Disruptive, uncooperative, or distracting actions;

- Unforgiving or unsympathetic attitude;

- Sulky, sullen, pouting;

- Passively resistant, interferes with progress;

- Given to sarcasm, cynical humor, and teasing;

- Judgmental, has a superior or holier-than-thou attitude;

Thinly veiled verbal signs:

- "No, I'm not mad - I'm just disappointed / annoyed / disgusted / put out / irritated."

- "You don't know what you're talking about."

- "Don't make me laugh!"

- "Don't push me, I'll do it when I get good and ready!"

- "Well, they aren't my kind of people."

- "Would you buy a used car from him?"

- "You could improve on [fill in blank]."

- "Unlike Social Work, my major admits only the best students."

Indirect behavioral signs:

- WITHDRAWAL Quiet remoteness, silence, little communication especially about feelings; or

- PSYCHOSOMATIC DISORDERS Tiredness, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease.

Actually, college students with high hostility scores had, 20 years later, become more overweight with higher cholesterol and hypertension, had drunk more coffee and alcohol, had smoked more cigarettes, and generally had poorer health (Friedman, 1991).

signs of anger

- Depression and guilt;

- Serious mental illness;

- Paranoid schizophrenia;

- Accident-proneness;

- Self-defeating or addictive behavior, such as drinking, over-eating, or drugs;

- Vigorous, distracting activity (exercising or cleaning);

- Excessively submissive, deferring behavior; or

- Crying.

Indirect verbal signs:

- "I just don't want to talk."

- "I'm disappointed in our relationship."

- "I feel bad all the time."

- "If you had just lost some weight ..."

- "I'm really swamped with work, can't we do something about it?"

- "Why does this always happen to me?"

- "No, I'm not angry about anything - I just cry all the time."

hidden anger

It is obvious from these "signs of anger" that anger is frequently a concealed or disguised emotion. And why not? Getting mad is scary ... and potentially dangerous.

One common way of expressing suppressed anger has been given a special name: passive-aggressiveness. It is releasing your anger by being passive or subtly oppositional. For example, such a person may be "tired," unresponsive, act like he/she "doesn't understand," be late frequently, exaggerate others' faults, pretend to agree ("sure, whatever"), be tearful, be argumentative, be forgetful, deny anger ("Nothing's wrong ..."), procrastinate, and frequently be clumsy or sick (Hankins, 1993).

There is another related form of concealed anger: feeling like a victim.

Feeling victimized assumes that someone or some situation has mistreated you. But a person who specializes in constantly feeling like a victim may not identify or accuse his/her abuser. Instead, he/she generally feels that the world is against him/her, that others vaguely intend to make him/her miserable.

Victims usually feel helpless; therefore, they take little responsibility for what has happened to them. They think they were terribly mistreated in the past but they now seem unable to accept love and support, e.g. if you offer them help, they never get enough or if you try to cheer them up, it seldom works.

A victim is much more likely to sulk, pout, look unhappy, or lay a guilt trip on something than to get angry. They play games: "Why does it always happen to me?" or "Yes, but ..." (Noone's ideas or suggestions will do any good).

The self-pitying, pessimistic, sad, jealous victim is surely sitting on a mass of hostility. Both the passive-aggressive and the victim are likely to be aware of their anger, even though it is largely denied.

Anger expresses itself in many forms:

- Cynic;

- Naysayer;

- Critic;

- Bigot, etc.

Potter-Efron & Potter-Efron (1995) describe ten different styles of expressing anger; this may help you identify your type and help you stop it.

how angry are you?

There are so many frustrations in our daily lives, one could easily become chronically irritated. Perhaps more important than the variety of things that anger us, is:

    - The intensity of our anger; and

    - The degree of control we have over our anger.

That is, how close are we to losing control? About two-thirds of the students in my classes feel the need to gain more control over their anger. How much of a temper do you have? Ask yourself these kind of questions:

    - Do you have a quick or a hot temper?

    - Do you suppress or hide your anger (passive-aggressive or victim)?

    - Do you get irritated when someone gets in your way?

    - When someone fails to give you credit for your work?

    - When someone criticizes your looks or opinions or work?

    - When someone gives themselves advantages over you?

    - Do you get angry at yourself when you make a foolish mistake?

    - When you do poorly in front of others?

    - When you put off important things?

    - When you do something against your morals or better judgment?

    - Do you drink alcohol or use drugs?

    - Do you get angry or mellow when you are high?

Research clearly shows that alcohol and drugs are linked with aggression.

Drinking decreases our judgment and increases our impulsiveness, so watch out. You probably have a pretty accurate picture of your temper. But check your opinion against the opinion of you held by relatives and friends.

self-hatred and understanding

Theodore Rubin (1975) discusses self-hatred, defined as disliking any part of our selves.

It involves all of our distortions of our real self, any self-put down, or any exaggeration of one's goodness or ability. When we distort or deny what we really are, it suggests we don't like ourselves. This dislike of self starts in infancy.

Babies have all kinds of habits, needs, and emotions that parents prohibit. As a child, we all learned that parts of ourselves were "bad". This self-hatred becomes automated in the form of depression, which both punishes us and drowns out other feelings, too.

Parents who are rejecting, neglectful, overdemanding, overprotective, overly punitive, or overbearing increase the self-hatred in a child.

"I'm not good enough" becomes a central part of the self-concept.

Such a child may be a "good girl / boy" but fear and rage may exist within, even when feeling empty and lifeless. Sometimes the self-hatred is conscious but the connection between self-criticism and other problems (depression, anxiety, fatigue) is unconscious.

Sometimes the self-hatred is unconscious and we feel badly without knowing why.

a dislike of people who are different

Research has shown that, in general, we like people like ourselves and dislike people who are different (Byrne, 1969). We naturally like people who reward us and dislike people who punish us; and, similarity is rewarding.

If groups are competitive, critical, and punishing of each other, the dislike and aggression between the groups grow. Groups and cultures tend to create ingroups and outgroups. Thus, Hitler used the existing hostility against Jews to unite, motivate, and deceive the German people in the 1930's.

Likewise, the U.S. and Russia used distrust of each other during the "Cold War" to unite each country into uncooperative, hostile but mighty nations. And each person is expected to conform to his/her group's beliefs. Imagine trying during the 1980's to defend communistic ideas among Archie Bunkers, businessmen, or the Moral Majority. Or try to defend blacks among whites or whites among blacks - and see the hostility quickly rise towards you.

In short, ingroups are valued.

Outgroups are devalued, stereotyped, and scapegoated. Sometimes the minority that is discriminated against by the majority culture turns the anger inward, resulting in self-destructive behavior, such as low self-esteem, self-blame (like abused women), alcoholism, drug abuse, and passive-resistance to the dominant culture's ideals of success.

Certainly for a white northern European culture to believe that African, Chinese, and Indian cultures and histories are unimportant and inferior, is to be ignorant and disrespectful. Being poor is enough to make you mad, but to have your ancestors deceived, neglected, and disgraced is too much. Let's hope conditions improve before the wrath is unleashed outward.

In milder forms, chauvinists may also be hostile, e.g. the male who puts down his wife and demands she attend to his every need; the angry, threatening, autocratic boss or teacher who enjoys seeing the worker or student break into a cold sweat.

Boredom is another source of hostility, according to Fromm.

When life loses its meaning because we are only a cog in a wheel, our reaction to the senselessness and helplessness is anger. We feel cheated; we had hoped for more in life; the powerlessness hurts. Hurting others or making them mad are ways of proving one still has power, a means of showing "I'm somebody."

Hauck described a woman who had been insulted and abused by an alcoholic husband for 30 years. She hated him. He had wasted enormous amounts of needed money on drinks. He was self-centered. When she sought help from a Rational-Emotive therapist, he told her, "Your husband is sick. You are demanding that he change, but he can't."

With the therapist's help she started to see her husband as emotionally ill instead of mean. She stopped getting upset and critical or nasty with her husband. As a result, the husband stopped fighting (but not drinking). The woman realized she had been insisting that the world (especially her husband) be different than it was.

She had created her own angry misery by saying, "Ain't it awful! Things must be different."

anger-generating fantasies

First, something happens to make us mad - someone cheats or insults us, a child rebels, our lover shows a lot of attention to someone else. We think about it a lot; we talk about it; it becomes an obsession, like a movie played over and over.

The more we think about it, the angrier we get.

Moreover, just waiting five minutes helps women get over their anger, but not men. Zillmann speculates that men may be more prone than women to ruminate about the mistreatments they have suffered and / or about their inability (or wished-for ability) to retaliate against their annoyer. Thus, men hold anger longer than women.

It is not uncommon to meet a person who is still, years later, seething with anger towards a former spouse or a tyrannical parent or boss. Presumably the unpleasant memories maintain the hostility which, in turn, fuels more aggressive fantasies and perhaps ulcers, distrust of others, and so on.

There seem to be two elements in anger-building:

    - Obsessive hostile fantasies; and

    - A lack of creative imagination or fantasy.

For example, extremely violent persons often ruminate almost continuously about how awful the hated person is. Also, they think of only violent solutions to the problem.

On the other hand, research has consistently shown that people who are frequently aggressive have a very limited ability to think of different or more creative ways of handling the anger-making situation or person (Singer, 1984).

putting others down

Eric Berne (1964), founder of Transactional Analysis (TA), wrote a very popular book, Games People Play. One kind of game is to put others down, which certainly is aggressive. The payoffs of such games are building one's ego, denying responsibility for one's problems, reaffirming one's opinion that other people are "not okay", and expressing some of one's anger.

Some of these put-down games involve blaming others ("If it weren't for you ..."), demeaning others ("I know your blemish ..." "Men only want sex ..." "Yes, but you're wrong ..."), and revenge ("Now I've got you!").

According to TA, it is the "child" part of us that enjoys playing these hurtful games, which are carried out unconsciously. The rational "adult" part of us may never become aware of the destructive, hostile games being played by the "child" part. But if the "adult" part can gain some insight, it could stop the games. If insight happened, however, there would surely be an internal struggle between the "adult" and the "child," resulting in stress and irritability.

If your logical "adult" realizes your "child's" motives and stops the "child" from playing these games, the "child" is likely to resent losing some of its fun. But at least the aggression-generating thoughts and experiences of the game are eliminated.

psychological put-downs

Games are unconscious but we may consciously put-down or degrade or insult another person by "mind reading" or "psychologizing," i.e. attempting to analyze and explain their behavior. First of all, most people resent someone else (unless it's their therapist) telling them what they really think or feel and what their unconscious motives really are.

Secondly, many of these psychological speculations are negative. Alan Gurman and David Rice, well known marital therapists, provide many examples.

Psychological explanations:

    - "He is still a baby and wants to be cared for."

    - "She needs attention all the time, she flirts with everyone."

    - "He is afraid I'll be more successful than he is, that's why he wants me to stay home."

    - "You're just trying to make me mad so you'll have an excuse to go drinking."

Psychological name-calling:

Accusations about the other person's ability or desire to change:

    - "You're sick, you must want to be unhappy."

    - "You don't care about me, you don't want to change."

    - "You just don't care how I feel."

Accusations of poor insight:

    - "I have more and more to do at work, why can't you understand that and stop bitching?"

    - "Can't you see I'm upset and want to be left alone."

    - "You just don't get it, do you?"

Blaming permanent characteristics (or human nature) in the other person:

    - "He has a terrible temper."

    - "She is super-sensitive."

    - "All women are scatterbrained."

    - "Men are so insensitive."

    - "Boy, are you stupid!"

Psychological concepts are often misused. These aggressive remarks are likely to hurt others and harm relationships. The attitude underlying such statements is not acceptance, tolerance, understanding and unconditional positive regard. It is anger and hostility.

First recognize these resentments and pet peeves and then learn to understand the causes of the resented behaviors. To truly understand is to forgive.

The relationship between anger and other emotions - anxiety, guilt, depression, dependency, and sex. There are very complex interactions between anger and several other emotions.

A classical substitution of one feeling for another is when a person cries, a sign usually of sadness, instead of showing anger. My experience in counseling is that when a woman cries, she is really mad about 75% of the time. Check this out.

Anger turned inward on the self is another classical dynamic explaining depression.

Some psychologists have suggested the reverse, namely, that the pain of depression causes anger. All these connections are likely. There are some interesting, often tragic, relationships between sexual feelings and aggression: bondage, sadism, rape, masochism, and the use of sexual swear words when angry.

Impotence and frigidity commonly reflect anger.

Pornography and prostitution are usually for men's pleasure and profit, while these activities degrade and abuse women. It has been shown, for instance, that males are more aggressive towards females than males after watching an erotic film. The relationship between erotica and aggression is complex, however. Disgusting or crude pornography increases our aggression.

Several other factors within certain subcultures create stress:

- Having strong conflicts between values, such as believing in white or male superiority and equal opportunities;

- Feeling unjustly treated and deprived;

- Experiencing economic, racial, sexual, or other prejudices; and

- Believing the "establishment" (e.g. police or courts) is handling some local situation badly.

marital conflict

The traditional marriage vows are emotionally moving and express a noble commitment: "I take thee, for better or for worse ... until death do us part."

However, we often come to dislike many things about our partner, leading to serious conflicts. Indeed, although all start with sincere intentions, almost 50% of all marriages end in divorce, in spite of enormous pressures to stay married.

why the pressures?

If marriage is considered a sacred public pledge or even "a union made in heaven," then divorce might be regarded a sin (like in the Catholic church) or, at least, a violation of a solemn promise. In addition to external pressures from family and divorce courts, there are also intense personal needs to "make it work" because it seems as though "you have failed" if your marriage fails. Many marriages fail but do not end in divorce - the so called "empty shell" marriage.

These marriages may not have intense conflicts; indeed, they may be void of feelings. There must be disappointment in such marriages, however. Let's look at some of the sources of conflict in the traditional marriage.

Most married people initially try to build a smooth, close, safe relationship, preferably one without friction. In this process, sometimes the roles for husband and wife become very rigidly defined; there is no freedom, no room for growth or change.

Sometimes people think they need to pretend to be or feel some way to appeal to their spouse; there is little honesty and intimacy if you think your spouse may not accept you as you really are, i.e. for better or for worse.

Fullerton (1977), in the mid-70's, explained how "the perfect wife" becomes sad and angry. A woman with self-doubts may be unusually anxious to please her new husband. She tries to do everything the way he would want it done.

She believes: "if I'm the good, perfect wife, I will be loved." Eventually being perfect with housecleaning and diapers and children gets tiresome and boring. She becomes resentful. Some evening when her husband arrives home from work late and finds her still mopping the floor, he asks, "Are you still cleaning?" She bursts into tears.

She cries because it is either go into a rage against her husband (which she - the perfect wife - can't do) or turn her anger inward on herself. She increases the self-criticism, clings more desperately to the husband, and feels more and more like crying.

The 1970's "perfect wife" was also prone to be jealous. According to Fullerton, a female was likely to get her sense of worth from a male - her father, her boyfriend, her husband, and later her sons. She may have gone from being Daddy's little girl to being someone's wife without ever becoming a person.

She was dependent on her looks and on being a "good girl" and "perfect wife" in order to be loved. She saw her husband as having strength and purpose; he was her whole life. Even when he was at work, she carried on an inner dialogue with him. She made her decisions in terms of what he would want and expect.

Being so needy and unsure of her worth, naturally she would be jealous of anything that took his time - his work, his friends, his interests, etc. She was too insecure and too "perfect" to confront him, but eventually the jealousy may burst through, especially if she imagined another woman is involved.

Once a jealous rage has occurred, it tended to reoccur. If he was innocent, it would be hard to prove. If she found out there is another woman, she was crushed. She felt betrayed, lost, scared, worthless, and angry. She might decide all men are no good or she might look for another one who desires her.

Women are changing but any woman over 40 can remember those times.

Husbands may become angry, threatened, and jealous too. An insecure male may, just like the wife, become dependent on his wife's adoration. She makes him feel good about himself. He may want her to "stay home" (too many men out there in the work place). He is jealous of anyone or anything that gets her attention.

Tragically, that sometimes includes their own first born child.

The man may be ashamed to admit feeling resentful of his own child. Yet, he feels left out and betrayed; the wife is bewildered and unable to relieve his pain because the problem is inside him - his self-doubt (Fullerton, 1977). Men still want to be in control; they haven't changed as much as women have since the 1970's.

This causes more problems - girls / women are becoming more independent, boys / men are remaining dependent, tough, macho, and violent. Our culture is still inclined to say, "Boys will be boys," but male possessiveness, dominance, and violence must be condemned and changed. In some families marital conflict is denied but gets expressed against another family member, often the oldest or the second child.

This displaced hostility is very harmful to the child because there is no way to escape (since the child has no control over the real source of the anger). The child may be accused of bad traits a parent has (projection) or of bad traits one parent resents in the other partner. For example, if the wife feels the husband is a liar and a cheat, she may accuse the son of these traits and ask her husband to punish the son (indirectly letting the husband know how much she resents those traits).

The husband's shame may get turned into self-righteous wrath with the son.

The parental expectations of the son to be dishonest may also become self-fulfilling prophecies, with the son saying to himself "if they never believe me anyhow, I might as well lie."

No one expects his/her marriage to be like this.

And, in fact, the problems of a two-career marriage without children would be quite different. But, even though financially better off, the dual career family has its own unique problems.

dealing with the "intimate enemy"

Like scapegoating, many marital or lovers' quarrels conceal the real conflict.

Arguments over money may really be about who has the most power or about not getting enough attention or recognition. In the last section of this chapter we will learn about the possibility of honest, open "fair fighting" with The Intimate Enemy (your spouse), according to Bach and Wyden (1968).

This kind of "fighting" can confront us with the truth, stripping away phoniness and deception, and giving us a chance to deal with the real problems realistically. (It may also encourage criticism and the expression of raw emotions that damage the relationship, depending on the personalities involved.


All close relationships experience some friction. No thinking person will always agree with us.


The thrill of being with your lover wears off. Certain wishes and dreams about marriage will not come true. Partners want things from us we can't or won't give. Criticism and resentment tend to be expressed in irritating ways.

So many human traits annoy us; we tell ourselves that people and things should be different. It is frustrating when we can't understand why someone does what they do. What was "cute" when dating may become very irritating, e.g. a partner's loudness or bossiness or indecisiveness. Even good traits, like being understanding or rational or in control of your temper, can be infuriating to a partner who is ashamed of his/her emotionality.

A partner may accept one of your traits, say shyness, until he/she meets a good-looking, outgoing person, then he/she may suddenly resent it. Maslow (1971) had a "Grumble Theory" that says "the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence and dead on our side."

He felt life was a series of ups and downs; accomplishments and relationships only give us a temporary high, soon we are taking them for granted and grumbling again.

Marriage is an example: John and Jane were in love, got married, had two beautiful children. They are supposed to be blissfully happy, but after several years they take each other for granted - their grass looks brown and uninteresting. So, John is attracted to other women who tell him how talented and interesting he is. Jane is also attracted to successful, attentive males and to a challenging, exciting career.

The risk is that John and / or Jane will turn the unexciting "taken for granted" feelings into active dislike or disdain - "I can't stand Jane!" or "I hate being at home!" Maslow observed that high level self-actualizers focused on getting on with living according to their values and avoided blaming and resenting others or discounting the past.

Few of us are self-actualizers, however.

When hostility builds inside, eventually it gets released - sometimes on the wrong person or issue. Often the tirade is a repetitious emotional harangue, obviously venting the anger rather than communicating. It may include vicious, nasty, cutting, insulting, offensive accusations. Both people are likely to become hostile and start playing "hard ball."

In addition to the release of the poison - which may be hard to forgive - the fighters are usually trying, albeit ineffectively, to change each other. Have you ever noticed how hard we work to change others and how little we work on changing our expectations of others?

Copyright 2006 Clay Tucker-Ladd

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