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Angry baby

The presidential election is just around the corner and emotions are running high. Clearly, there is a great deal of outrage and disgust surrounding the two most controversial figures in the running: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Anger is a normal emotion for all human beings to feel and whether you are a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or conservative, a pro-lifer or pro-choicer, religious or not, there is nothing like politics to divide us into two kinds of angry people: the actively-aggressive and the passively-aggressive.

Active-aggressors take direct action to fix the problem that stirred their anger. They see an injustice and channel all of their angry energy into making it right. Morally, of course, there are right and wrong ways to take action. Anger that leads to the violation of the rights of others is generally considered wrong in our society. However, in some respects our culture has thrown the baby out with the bath water (in an actively-aggressive way of course!). We’ve been told that any form of active-aggression is wrong, that the healthiest individuals don’t take strong stands on anything, work hard not to offend anyone directly or indirectly, and stuff their beliefs, their feelings, and their actions into channels that look neat and tidy on the surface. In short, we are told to sweep our dirt under the carpet.

The problem is that the pressure of that stuffed anger becomes an explosive time-bomb. For example, I knew a lady who was the sweetest person you could ever meet. No person and no situation ever seemed to rile her…until, that is, she got into her car. I was shocked when I discovered that she had been in a physical altercation at a local grocery store when someone cut into her parking space. When I asked her about it later, she said, “I don’t know. Something just came over me.” I wondered how she could act so aggressively over something so petty and yet never seemed upset by the major conflicts in her personal life. It wasn’t that she was immune to anger, she had just learned to suppress it. Like anyone else, however, she had a breaking point.

Passive-aggressors are those who displace their anger onto something unrelated to the inciting problem or who act in ways that don’t clearly convey their anger to the offender. There are certainly times when passive aggression can be healthy. When we channel our anger into something productive, even if it is unrelated, we at least have something positive to show for it. A long run, an hour hitting the weights, a piece of artwork, an impassioned talk with a friend, or a deeper determination to complete a project at the office are great ways to deal indirectly with the problems in our lives for which there are no solutions. When we feel powerless, we can channel that anger elsewhere.

Passive-aggression becomes a problem when the displacement of our actions ends up producing more problems than good in our lives. When our boss reprimands us at work and we come home and shout at our children, we’ve just made our home life as bad as our work life. When our favorite sports hero gets injured in the big game and we punch the wall, our busted hand does nothing to help him heal faster.

The other problem with passive-aggression is that it can postpone our acceptance of responsibility for our anger until a later time when the stakes are much higher. For example, we might be able to get away with the silent treatment of a friend who has hurt us. In the short term, it allows us to avoid being vulnerable and facing the pain of conflict. However, this response prolonged over time leads to a growing tension in the relationship that may result in either a slow tearing away of the connection we have or an explosive blowup that does irreparable damage to the friendship.

So how do we decide what to do with our rage? First we must understand what generates it. I believe there are three major causes of anger:

  1. A sense of injustice – If we believe that something that has, is, or will happen to us is unjust, we are likely to feel anger.
  2. A sense of meaninglessness – If we believe that the circumstances we’ve had to endure are pointless, we will become angry.
  3. A sense of helplessness – If we believe that there is no way out of our circumstances, that we are destined to endure forever the cards we have been dealt, that we cannot overcome our injustices or bring purpose and meaning to our situation, we will struggle with anger.

So how do we deal with the anger:

  1. Find a way to bring justice to your circumstances. If you have strong beliefs about a moral or ethical issue you have faced, actively look to make it right. Perhaps you cannot make it right for yourself, but you can for others. Join an organization or volunteer where you can help others overcome their injustices and through this, bring some justice to your own experience as well.
  2. Find a way to bring meaning to your circumstances. Viktor Frankl is best known for his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he describes his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Those who survived emotionally were the ones who found meaning out of an otherwise meaningless situation. A simple example in our lives would be getting caught in stand-still traffic and reminding ourselves that this traffic could have saved us from something more terrible down the road.
  3. Find a way to fight helplessness with courage and serenity. I like the serenity prayer which says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” There is something extremely valuable and freeing in knowing you have done everything you can do to fix something and then accepting the ultimate outcome, no matter what happens. It can transform rage into a peaceful contentment like no other.

So the next time you feel angry, ask yourself what is driving it. Ask yourself how you are wanting to deal with it: passively or actively. Then decide that you will bring justice, meaning, courage, and serenity to the situation, whatever it may be.

Question: What have been the most effective ways to deal with anger in your own life?

To be alive is to be motivated. At any given moment in time, you have one of two motivating factors influencing you:

1. The pursuit of a reward: Greek philosophers like Aristotle would tell us that there is no such thing as a completely selfless act. Humans ever and always are motivated by the pursuit of their own good. There is really nothing wrong with this. To ignore “The Self” is to cease to exist. When someone says, “I didn’t want to do X, but I did it anyway,” they are deceiving themselves. The reality is that they did want to do X, but their statement acknowledges the fact that it was not for the direct pleasure but a reward beyond the pain. This is an important concept to understand if you are going to understand what motivates you in life. Many people endure painful experiences in the hope that it will produce something positive in the end. When we do stupid stuff, we are acknowledging ahead of time that the end result will not be good, but we are willing to sacrifice the future for the immediate pleasure of the moment.

 
2. The avoidance of pain: No one likes to hurt. Even people that intentionally cut on themselves or engage in some self-destructive activity are ultimately attempting to avoid pain. The truth is they subject themselves to a lesser pain to avoid something they imagine would be unbearable. For instance, individuals who struggle with eating disorders will often say that their malnutrition and hunger pains allow them to avoid a sense of helplessness or lack of control. It is the lack of control that is unbearable to them, not the sense of starvation!

 
This is the logic behind The Death Drive, a concept articulated by Freud, but named byWilhelm Stekel using the greek word, Thanatos. Thanatos in Greek mythology was the God of Death. In psychological terms, it is the counterintuitive urge within us to destroy. Think about why when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or on the top of the Empire State Building you are both compelled and repulsed by the possibility of jumping. Imagine a child building a sand castle on an ocean shore. When they have completed it, their next action is often to stomp all over it! As humans, we are fascinated by that moment when all things come to an end.

 

I believe there are two reasons for this destructive urge within us:

 
1. Aggressive Power: The first reason humans do stupid stuff is to foster an innate desire to assert power and control over a situation, even if that means destruction. “Because I can” is a phrase repeated by many an individual who willing engages in a destructive act. In essence, the action becomes an adolescent-like retort to every parent of society: “You can’t tell me what to do!!” Sometimes we speed, steal, lie, cheat, get drunk, curse, or fight simply because someone tells us not to. We want freedom, even if we are restricted to the freedom of self-destruction.

 

2. Immediate Redemption: The second reason people often choose to do stupid stuff is to experience immediate redemption. Everybody enjoys the do-over, the mulligan, the clean slate, or the false start. We all need a second chance, but when things get messy, we find it easier to change plans, locations, relationships, jobs, and all other circumstances to avoid ongoing suffering. Unfortunately, Redemption’s road is often long and arduous and the people who look for the quick fix or escape often find themselves repeating the same struggles over and over again.

The Death drive can be channeled in two directions:

 

1. An Inward Focus:We see this inwardly destructive tendency in those who consciously or unconsciously enter abusive relationships similar to those of their past. They find some sense of power in the familiarity of the situation, even if it is self-destructive in nature. They also hope for a do-over, a chance to fix a problem that has surfaced in a current relationship with the same old solutions they tried in a previous one.

 
2. An Outward Focus: The outwardly focused death-drive becomes a means of asserting power aggressively over others. Abusers often act on this drive. The 90’s rock band, Nickleback, had a song wherein the lead singer describes his love of all the degrading things his girlfriend does during their sexual encounters only to conclude in the chorus that the challenge of “figuring her out” was not as difficult as he thought it would be. Ironically, the last verse of the song twists his love for her into hatred. The implication is that he is now on to the next conquest, thus feeding his inner desire for the do-over, a new opportunity to assert his control and assuage his own helplessness and shame by inflicting it on others.

 
Feodor Dostoyevsky, the brilliant Russian novelist who wrote Crime and Punishment, provides a powerful description, if not explanation, of the death drive in action through his character, Nastasya Filipovna, in his novel, The Idiot. Though loved and proposed to by the purest and most noble character in the story, Prince Myshkin, she chooses instead to debase herself with the vilest individuals in society. Dostoevsky reflects on her behavior through Myshkin’s character:
“She ran away from me. Do you know what for? Simply to show me that she was a degraded creature. But the most awful thing is that perhaps she didn’t even know herself that she only wanted to prove that to me, but ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say, to herself at once, ‘There, you’ve done something shameful again, so you’re a degraded creature!’ …Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful, unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on some one.”

So how do we fight against the death drive?

 
1. Confront your rage: People who do stupid things to themselves or to others usually harbor a deep-seated anger. Counseling can help to uproot this anger and begin to address it in a healthy way. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. The only way you will be able to stop punishing yourself or someone else is to acknowledge and be aware of the source of your anger and begin the process of managing it successfully.

 
2. Commit to the long-haul: There is no quick fix. Slow down and accept some of the momentary suffering that you may be experiencing. Some of the stupidest things we do are actions taken to relieve immediate suffering without taking the time to consider what our current pain might be teaching us for the long-term successes waiting for us.

 
Question: What about you? Where does the death drive rear its ugly head in your life? What solutions have you found for overcoming our human tendency to do stupid stuff in the moment? I hope you remember that there is always redemption to be had. It just might be a little farther down the road than you originally thought. I hope you can say that it is worth the wait!

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I am a board certified psychiatrist, author, speaker in private practice with Southwest Clinical and Forensics in Dallas Tx. I also serve as an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have a passion for helping people through painful circumstances, be they physical illnesses of the brain, psychological conditions of the mind, social problems of everyday life, and/or spiritual crises of faith and worldview.

Disclaimer

All information provided is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a professional evaluation or treatment. If you are experiencing emotional distress, please contact a mental health professional. Dr. Henderson cannot respond to inquiries about prescription refills, or medical or psychiatric emergencies over the internet. If you are a patient in need of assistance, please contact Dr. Henderson’s office directly, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

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