The Knot of Anger (Feb 17 2021)

I once observed a scene where two young boys had found a black dog – a border collie – and were playing a game of prodding it with a stick to see what it would do. The collie was curled up tight in his basket, and I could see him becoming more and more agitated by this unwelcome attention, trying to ignore the taunts and hold back his natural urge to protect himself – he knew that he was not supposed to react, to snap or bite. I could feel the tension building and sure enough the boys gave one too many prods of the stick and the dog couldn’t help himself. He lunged out from his tight ball, his jaws snapping only inches from one of the boys hands. It was only a shadow of his unfettered response, and was over in a split second. I don’t think he intended to make contact with the boys but was communicating in dog language. If I was Dr Dolittle and translated into English, it seemed pretty clear he was angry and was saying, ‘Enough!’.

Human Anger

Human anger is not so different. It is often associated with hurt, and also with boundaries. When we are stung by something that someone close to us says, like the dog we may feel anger and lash out – a response of aggression at the hurt we have felt. What separates us from animals is that we are much more inclined to have an expectation of behaviour from another person than an animal would – we expect certain things and when they do not meet our expectation, we can end up feeling that sharp sting of pain or hurt. We also often try to hold back our aggressive tendencies, but in so doing, hold back the emotion itself – which can lead to things bottling up.

Containing anger

I am driving and my young son in the back of the car screams at an unbearable pitch. I have asked him several times to be quiet but he persists and the sound is painful to my senses. I have an urge, like the dog, to lash out. But I also have ideals about the kind of parent I want to be and how children should be treated, so I dutifully contain my feelings and try to concentrate on driving. If I am feeling calm and well supported in my life I can hopefully manage to contain these feelings, or find a healthy way of dealing with the situation.

Historic factors

However what if we bring some other elements into this scene. What if in my family when I was a child people used to take out their anger on me by shouting at me? People shouting at each other may then feel very normal to me and there may be an automatic reaction within me to do the same toward my child. Frustratingly, this mechanism can completely by-pass whatever idealistic notions I may have about parenting.

What if my needs as a child were not met and I was frequently ignored? Staying calm when someone ignores my requests may be particularly hard for me because I may feel a sharp sting of rejection or loneliness.

Structural Factors

Add to this perhaps some of what I term ‘structural factors’*. For example what if my relationship with my partner is in a bad way and I am not feeling supported or loved. I am carrying the burden of working to pay the rent, but I am feeling very alone in it. In fact, if I’m honest, I’ve been feeling really low and am not finding enjoyment in life. I haven’t slept well for weeks; I wake up worrying about anything and everything and cant get back to sleep. I’ve been doing a lot of driving this week and I feel trapped inside the car. My back is aching in the seat.

Lashing out

Add all these factors together and my nervous system is over-stretched, my perceptions super-sensitised. When my son screams, the sound explodes in my head, my system simply cannot bear the noise. In my aloneness and pain, I fail to see him as a child. Instead I see him as not respecting me and choosing to not listen to my requests. It feels like someone is pushing a stick into a wound. My anger bursts out.

Anger Spiral

After this response, perhaps seeing shock and hurt on my son’s face, I may become flooded with guilt, shame, and confusion about what I have done. These feelings can be more painful than the anger itself. Now the one I’m angry at is me. These feelings add to my aloneness and low mood, making it more likely that I will not be able to hold back the anger next time it arises. I may become terrified of my own anger. Thus an anger spiral may become established that seems bewildering, and overwhelming.

Undoing the Knot

These are the kinds of cycles that can form around this powerful emotion, and of course each of us will experience it differently – I offer these scenarios only as general illustrations. I hoped to show here the strands that can accumulate to form what may then look like an intractable problem. On our own, we may be too engrossed in the feelings, and lack the compassion for ourselves to stand back from what is going on. It is my belief, and experience, that with the support of someone caring and non-judgemental, it is possible to distinguish the different strands and steadily unravel the knot.

* Note: The Covid lockdowns have caused many of us to experience increased pressure at home, for example having to home school on top of work obligations. I believe this has increased these structural factors significantly.