Anger: The Pseudo Emotion?



John C. Rhead



Anger seems to serve as a blockade to prevent direct experiences of some sort of constellation of emotion which centers on fear and pain.  Such a blockade serves at least two functions. 


First, it allows the displacement of fear/pain in response to the belief that such emotional experience is inherently noxious and/or dangerous and should therefore be avoided whenever possible. 


Second, it prevents the incapacitation of the fight/flight response.  Strong pain (i.e. heartbreak) and fear (i.e. terror) can impair both cognitive and motor activities.  When an event triggers such a feeling, it is important to retain one's capacity for fight (either verbal or physical) and flight (either emotional [i.e. withdrawal] or physical [leave the scene]) until one is able to assess the degree of danger present. 


For example:  Somebody makes a derogatory remark about you (or your mother, or your ethnic group, etc.).  To imagine that the person actually believes what they said is inherently painful for most of us.  The fleeting thought that they might be right is both painful and frightening (as in, maybe I really am inherently unlovable).  Also, to imagine that they would want to hurt us as badly as such a remark almost inevitably would is also painful.  At this point the primary type of blockade (to prevent feeling the fear and pain which has been elicited) might be accomplished by getting angry.


The secondary type of blockade would occur to the extent that it is unclear whether the person making the derogatory remark has both the capacity and the intention of harming the person to whom the remark was directed.  Until it is clear that at least one of these characteristics is not present, it is quite adaptive to block the strong feelings of pain and/or fear in order maintain one's capacity to defend one's self (fight) and/or to get away from the source of the threat of harm (flight). 


Another example would be the response of a soldier to  unexpected loud sounds or fast movements while on the battlefield.  Until it is clear whether such sounds or movement represent an imminent threat to his life it is better not to feel too much of the terror of facing death and the enormous pain of knowing that someone else thinks so poorly of him as to attempt to kill him.  The PTSD vet who is given to sudden outbursts of intense anger (i.e. rage) after the war is over reflects his ongoing difficulty in knowing when there is genuine danger and his consequent need to maintain his flight and fight options under almost all circumstances.


More subtle examples occur in all intimate relationships.  As such relationships develop there is an unavoidable enhancement of vulnerability.  One is vulnerable because the other knows more about one's wounds and can apply salt to them anytime they want, and also simply because the other becomes more important in one's life and and can therefore cause pain by withdrawing themselves (or fear by threatening to do so).  To some extent such vulnerability evolves from the simple fact of hanging out together over time, and occurs if one spends 20 years sharing a bed and raising children with another person or if one spends 20 years of 40-hour weeks sitting at the next desk in an office.  Even without the conscious intention of revealing more of oneself (the choice to nurture intimacy), a certain amount of who one really is just leaks out during unguarded moments over time.  In fact, it is the type of vulnerability which has not been consciously chosen which is most likely to lead to anger. 


Both the marital and the martial areas have chronic versions of anger which congeal over time into hatred.  If a person is exposed to experiences as a child which would lead him or her to believe that angry people are always dangerous (e.g. a parent who only showed anger in conjunction with violence), and then marries a person with similar developmental experiences, the intimacy of marriage will probably create a vicious circle of anger which will spiral down into hatred.  That is, each time one spouse gets angry over any trivial thing, the other will assume that there is real danger and will get angry in return.  This return anger will set off still greater anger in the first spouse, which will in turn escalate the anger in the second spouse, etc.  Such an emotional gridlock is sometimes resolved temporarily by flight (e.g. storming out of the house) rather than fight (e.g. spouse abuse).  However, if the dynamic is not explored and understood it will almost inevitably lead to either divorce (ultimate flight) or a marriage which is stabilized in hatred (chronic anger).


Similarly, the soldier has identified a certain category of other people as "the enemy," and rightly believes that they intend to do him harm.  His perception of this intention on the part of the enemy would lead to incapacitating pain and fear, an incapacitation which could cost him his life if he were not successful in blocking it somehow.  Again, the easiest way to block it is anger, and if one stays on the battlefield for any period of time, this anger will become chronic and will turn into hatred.  Being on the battlefield can be both literal as well as figurative, in that the civilians residing in a country which is fighting a war on foreign soil still feel the threat from "the enemy," and hence still tend to react with anger and then hatred.


Ultimately it is interesting to consider whether anger is a "real" emotion or is simply a psuedo-emotion which came into existence only for the purposes of blockading fear and pain.

Given the subjective intensity and reality of anger when it is experienced, this seems preposterously hypothetical.  On the other hand, the implications of such an hypothesis are significant enough that it seems worth raising.



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