Dynamics of Anger
People have different ways of noticing and handling their anger, with many varying degrees of awareness. I start by considering what can happen when somebody is engaged in what I crudely call ‘unhelpful’ habits which may themselves become a vicious circle. I build on this by describing a downward spiral which may then be the consequence and the subsequent potential for learning.
Vicious Circle of Anger
This captures what might broadly be called the negative consequences of pushing one’s anger to one side. I offer a model, then an explanation:
Feeling Angry. This could be anywhere on a spectrum ranging from irritation to fury.
Refraining. Not expressing the anger to the right person, in the right place, in the right way.
Intensifying. There is unfinished business; an important need is unmet.
Suppressing. The sense of frustration is blocked. There may then also be anger about the suppression itself.
– As always this may take place with degrees of awareness.
– The process may lead to a vicious circle, where energy blocks energy and options become increasingly less evident.
– The daily, even minute-by-minute habits within the cycle may be part of a wider, perhaps even life pattern of habits, as illustrated here, adapted from Mavis Klein. (Klein 1980):
For example, an in-the-moment habit of putting one’s hand to one’s mouth may be part of a wider inclination to be reticent in expressing the need for support in advance of team meetings which itself might be part of a wider life habit of always putting the needs of others first. Hence the potential value sometimes of the in-the-moment intervention of the ‘helper’ – coach, counsellor, therapist – inviting the client to focus on one apparently small, superficially insignificant act. This would be a very different intervention from “How might you choose to feel differently……”. The former is based more on the helper and helped walking, metaphorically speaking, hand-in-hand seeing where they might go, with either taking the initiative. The latter is where the helper is one-step ahead, leading and with an idea of the route ahead. (Phillips 2006). In no way am I suggesting that one intervention is better than the other. They are simply different; it is obviously important for the helper to pay attention to such distinctions and their appropriateness in the context of the contract. Without such attention a lower risk negative outcome is that the helper drifts unwittingly from exploration to explanation and from explanation to justification; that is, pressurising the client to agree with her. A higher risk negative outcome is that the helper opens up some deeply rooted unfinished business within the client; he is left in turmoil, possible without awareness. He may then be expected to take a short walk down the corridor and seamlessly recommence his management of the customer service team.
There are many mechanisms which can support the pushing away of one’s anger, occurring anywhere in the cycle. I offer a brief outline of a number of them, knowing that many are extensively described in the literature of the ‘helping professions’:
– Procrastination; giving oneself multiple reasons why ‘now is not a good time’
– Minimisation; making it less important than it really is.
– Catastrophising; imagining the hugely disastrous consequences which would inevitably be the consequence of any action.
– Redefinition; this comes from transactional analysis and refers to answering a question different from the one which was posed. “What do you want to do about this?” “Well of course there are so many wants in my life at the moment, for example…….”. In being elusive with another there is the risk of being elusive with oneself.
– Projection; attributing to others unacknowledged aspects of self. “They always seem so angry in that department!”.
– Being busy; an obsession with the ‘to-do list’ can block intimacy with self and others.
– Retroflection; turning the anger on oneself, perhaps leading to guilt or shame; this may also be fuelled by a ‘fear of being found out’; that is, impostor syndrome. (Clarkson 1994).
– De-skilling self; for example, as a therapist she handles the client’s moodiness and mood swings with great competence; she is also a skilled specialist supervisor under these circumstances. However when formally in her team leader role she somehow loses her rich repertoire of conflict handling skills. It is almost as if she drops them at the door just as she enters the team room.
Sometimes there is a cloudiness which is generated by the circle; there seem to be so many angles, potential points of view and the process of engagement, withdrawal and back again can generate a massive urge for certainty. This may manifest itself in seeking or creating circumstances where ‘I know I am absolutely in the right and am totally correct in being angry’.
For example, on an occasion when I reached this point I found myself being pushy as a pedestrian when arriving at zebra crossings. One Friday evening I stepped purposefully out onto the crossing, not waiting for the driver, who was a few metres away, in any way to acknowledge that he had seen me, but I certainly was not going to hang about waiting for him; after all, I was in the right! Perhaps inevitably he did not stop. So I was delighted to be able to scream at him what an idiot he was. Luckily although looking a bit surprised, he was in no way belligerent. I was also amused, intrigued and irritated with myself a few minutes later when I started making excuses for the driver – well, it was a bit gloomy, perhaps he had had a tiring week, etc, etc. I later realised that my amusement was an internal gallows transaction where I was making funny that which had been potentially self-destructive. (Steiner 1975).
I now consider a particular feature of the vicious circle where it strengthens to the extent of becoming a downward spiral.
Downward Spiral of Anger
In the downward spiral of anger the person has a sense of being increasingly trapped. The sharper the experience then the more the person feels unable to do anything about it, whilst feeling she must do something about it. She has a sense of becoming smaller, whilst yearning to take up more space. She may feel strongly ambivalent, such as ‘stick with’ and ‘move on’ whilst the various other opposites may intensify: hope and despair, life and death, light and dark. This can change minute-by-minute. Broadly it can have some similarities with experiencing unrequited love; wanting, perhaps even longing to see the other person, whilst almost immediately hating her because the prospect conjures up the prospect of so much pain and anger. ‘Hate does not have as its purpose to destroy the object, but rather to preserve and maintain it’. (Barfort 2010). Arguably all feelings, particularly if intense carry within them their antithesis; the dialectic.
There can also be a Catch 22 where the person feels angry when faced with the choice of whether to be angry or not. More particularly perhaps when forgiveness is being portrayed as the better, indeed ultimately necessary alternative.
Another strand in this sharpening of contrasts can be that the anger intensifies just as its desperately sought-after origins become increasingly intangible and transient; the reasons for the anger seem to be everywhere, yet nowhere.
The experience of profound contrasts can ultimately be a source of valuable insights. At a practical level it may prompt a shift from questions about ‘doing’ to those around ‘being’. For example, rather than ‘What can I do to be more successful in my job?’, it is ‘I now know I have changed and I do not want to do this type of work anymore’. Similarly in personal life, rather than, ‘How can I make this relationship work?’, it is ‘I do not want to be in this relationship anymore’; that is, ‘double-loop’ learning. (Argyris and Schon 1978). At a visceral or psychodynamic level a person may realise that an important step is about loving self, indeed loving self for being rather than always looking for love and approval from others. Such unconditional love may have been missing in childhood from Mum. Mum may now anyway be unwilling or unable to say sorry.
These moments of learning can sometimes be experienced as an ‘epistemological break’; that is, a completely different basis for understanding the world. (Morris 1991).
|Seeing self and the world from a totally different perspective|
I illustrate it thus:
Fig 3. Epistemological Break
In making this point I run the risk of suggesting, or being seen to suggest that somehow the best sort of learning has to be transformational. If transformation is set as the gold standard then it risks nurturing a multiplicity of ways in which, paradoxically, learning may be stifled:
- Grandiosity; ‘I bet my means of transformation is bigger and lasts longer than yours’. (Sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar).
- Self- contempt; ‘I now know that my gold is merely gilt and that my gilt is merely guilt’.
- Silo construction and consolidation. (Phillips 2007).
I would stress therefore that invaluable learning can be achieved without necessarily experiencing the depths of the spiral. Equally key can be, for example, gifts from the universe which offer helpful insights without a sense of total collapse and the need for total reconstruction. Such gifts could be an overheard conversation which resonates, a long lost friend getting in touch, elderly Auntie Jane talking about her family life as a teenager and offering some very different views on those stories which over the years had become the accepted truths about Mum and Dad. The artist, Nicola White also has an interesting story on this theme of gifts from the universe; her words offering both a conclusion and a starting point in relation to this paper.
‘Then one day in 2014, I had an epiphany. I went out for a walk one lunchtime, close to tears about an office related matter. I walked a different route to the one I normally took and suddenly found myself looking at a huge blackboard that said, ‘Before I die I want to…..’. People had filled in lots of answers: move to Spain, play the cello, see the Northern Lights. I picked up the chalk next to the board and wrote, ‘I am going to be an artist and quit the bank’. (White 2016). She currently has an exhibition, Words from the Water.
Argyris, C and Schon, D. (1978). Organizational Learning. A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, Mass. Addison-Wesley.
Barfort, M.K. (2010). The Power of Hate in Therapy. Play and Power. Mortensen, KV. and Grunbaum, L. (eds) London. Karnac.
Clarkson, P. (1994). The Achilles Syndrome. Overcoming the Secret Fear of Failure. Element.
Klein, M. (1980). Lives People Live. A textbook of transactional analysis. Chichester. Wiley.
Morris, B. (1991). Western Conceptions of the Individual. New York. Berg.
Phillips, K. (2006). Intuition in Coaching. Manchester. KPA. (downloadable at www.keriphillips.com)
Phillips, K. (2007). Creative Coaching; Doing and Being. Manchester. KPA. (downloadable at www.keriphillips.com).
Steiner, C. (1975). Scripts People Live. Grove Press.
White, N (2016). A Message in a Bottle Changed My Life. The Daily Telegraph. 24 September. 2016.
©Keri Phillips 2016.
Keri Phillips is a coach, coaching supervisor and transactional analyst with experience of individual, team and organisation development in the private and public sectors, local and global.
www.keriphillips.com for downloadable books and papers on a variety of topics, including: betrayal, intuition, creative coaching, transition, transactional analysis, exploring culture, reparenting self, envy, vulnerability, MBTI and the Shadow.
for short blogs on coaching theory and practice, including: creating your own coaching supervision models, the power of play in coaching, corridor, coffee and calendar coaching and codes of ethics, some perspectives on ending, integrated and introjected values.