Anger is a natural and essential emotion which has its origins in aggression – a basic potential in all of us. We feel anger surfacing in the face of something being unsatisfactory – for example, if we’re deceived, insulted, threatened, attacked or made to feel powerless. Channelled appropriately, anger can push us to defend ourselves, express our needs, rectify injustices and generally make changes.

Given its fundamental nature and universality, anger will be somewhere present in almost all the psychological conditions that you’ll read about on this website and in many more conditions besides.

Anger only becomes a problem when it harms us or those around us. The instinctive way in which we express anger is through aggression but it’s not socially appropriate for anger to be vented every time we’re irritated or annoyed. When we harness our anger and express it assertively and constructively but not aggressively we have a fair chance of getting our needs met. But sometimes anger can become a characteristic of who we are, coming out too often or explosively or with physical violence. Or alternatively it may be mutely buried deep within us, contributing perhaps to depression, anxiety, passive aggression or high blood pressure. Either way, anger issues can damage us, our relationships and our work.

What are the signs of problem anger?

Some of the more common signs of a problem with anger include:

  • Involvement in fights or other physical violence
  • Frequent arguments
  • Explosive outbursts (for instance, shouting, swearing, hitting things, throwing objects, being verbally abusive)
  • An habitual impulse to lash out verbally or physically
  • Losing your temper while driving or road rage
  • Regular trouble with the authorities
  • Alcohol or drug use to stifle underlying anger
  • A rocking motion when sitting
  • A clenched jaw and teeth grinding
  • Passive aggression
  • Inward aggression

Passive aggression and inward aggression

Passive aggression is the indirect rather than direct expression of anger. It might manifest in ignoring people, being sarcastic or sulky, making cynical comments, deliberately performing tasks poorly or with thinly concealed aggression, back-biting and being excessively critical, refusing to cooperate with reasonable requests, doing work late and creating an atmosphere of latent hostility that makes others walk on eggshells.

Inward aggression, as the term implies, is anger turned inwards against the self. A person might, for example, withhold essential needs from themselves such as food or activities that could make them happy, isolate themselves from the world around them, be full of hatred for themselves, suffer from depression or engage in self-harm.

How do I know if I have a problem with anger?

It may be that if your problem is with controlling anger, you’re already aware that there’s something wrong. Others around you are very likely to be. If your problem is with buried anger, it may be less clear to you although, again, others may be well aware of it. As with many psychological difficulties, there are various online tests for problem anger. It’s usually a good idea, however, to have a conversation with a specialist, such as your doctor, in the first instance.

What are the causes of anger problems?

As I’ve said above, issues around anger can be present in a huge number of psychological difficulties which means that it’s impossible to give a catch-all answer to this question. In addition, psychoanalytic psychotherapy has no single overarching theory about anger. We can say some things, though, about the causes of anger problems.

Innate drives

It’s likely that some people are simply born with a stronger aggressive drive than others. This still has to be mastered, however.
I’ve mentioned that an aggressive drive is present in everyone. Just think of a hungry baby’s spectacular rage. In stressful situations and when our impulses are frustrated, we can all be catapulted back to those primitive states and feelings. Each person will control them or fail to control them depending on the success or otherwise of their emotional development in their formative years.

Parental messages

If people grow up with the parental message that acting out anger aggressively or violently is acceptable, that’s likely to influence the way they continue to behave as adults. Conversely, if the message in childhood is that anger is unacceptable, perhaps being punished, it may be driven underground. Similarly, witnessing dramatic outbursts of anger from parents can leave a child with an impression that anger is terrifying and destructive – including the child’s own anger. On the other hand, we know that a child witnessing parental violence can lead to re-enactment of the behaviour by the child.

Something missing at the centre

Another way of understanding anger problems is to see them as a kind of ‘disintegration’ of the core of oneself when problems are encountered with other people. (For what follows I’m making use of a helpful study of anger called Anger-Related Disorders, edited by Eva Feindler). Ideally, parents soothe, admire and validate children until they’ve internalized the capacity to do this for themselves when encountering criticism, frustration, failure and so on. If something goes wrong in parenting and this solidity doesn’t develop in a child, you may get ‘narcissistic’ rage when they come up against frustration and disappointment. If you like, the core self isn’t strong enough to deal with the slings and arrows of everyday life.

Something else missing at the centre

Linked to the above is the lack of another ability which may again lead to out-of-control behaviour. If all goes well, a mother reflects back to a small child his or her emotions, naming them and making sense of them for the child. If this doesn’t happen, the child can’t develop a coherent picture of their own mental states and those of others. There’s an inability to understand them, think about them and talk about them. A confusion arises about internal and external realities so the individual feels they must act out in reality what could otherwise just be imagined, thought about or talked about. Violence-prone individuals often show a confusion of reality and fantasy, thought and action, feelings and facts, body and mind, and self and other. They may act out in reality aggressive thoughts about another person.

There’s a close association between the inability to control strong emotions and the experience of trauma in childhood.

Anger management. What can be done about problem anger?

If there’s significant acting-out of anger, it’s advisable as a first step to bring the behaviour under control through a period of anger management therapy or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). I don’t offer these. Once that task has been achieved, however, a person may want to go deeper and explore the underlying causes of the anger problem – which is where analytic psychotherapy might be helpful. This will often take a good while longer than the treatments to control anger because problems don’t get established in people overnight and can’t therefore be resolved overnight. Although there can be no guarantees of success with any therapy, analytic psychotherapy does aim for deep and long-lasting change.

If you know someone who has difficulties with anger and could potentially be helped by psychotherapy, please note that the person themselves would need to contact me.

It’s important to be aware that a decision to take someone into therapy will depend, along with other factors, on the severity of their problems. Also, domestic violence is a distinct category of anger dysfunction and requires specialist treatment.