Life challenges our expectations, disrupts plans and sends reeling into angry fits as we put on the brakes and make sudden changes. Emotions are power feeling affects in response to inner and outer environments. Anger is one of the most powerful emotions. While anger is natural, and even adaptive, we also know that anger can be disruptive, destroying dreams, hopes, and relationships. Often in reaction to disruptive and corrosive anger, we unconsciously repress it, burying the feeling, ignoring the message, and failing to acknowledge wrongs. Yet, repressed anger causes its own problems.
This maladaptive approach may solve some of our problems; but create a new set of life disturbing consequences. Anger is not the enemy. Expression is not the villain. Maladaptive responses and hurtful reactions are the assailant.
What is Repressed Anger ?
Repressed anger is anger that is unintentionally avoided. Our life experience may have taught that emotionally expressions, especially in the case of anger, is wrong. As a result, when we experience arousal, we attempt to avoid the uncomfortable feelings.
Often the term repressed anger is used interchangeably with suppressed anger. However, the two terms are fundamentally different. Repressed anger is largely an unconscious defense mechanism that buries unwanted emotions. Suppressed anger is a conscious effort to purposely avoid our manage anger.
Why We Experience Emotion?
A basic theory of emotion relies on the concept of homeostasis. Our body functions within boundaries. When balanced, we thrive. As we encounter stress, moving towards the edges of homeostatic balance, our body sounds an alarm through arousal, demanding action to bring systems back to a healthy normal.
These arousals begin as feeling affect, integrate with thought, and become what we define as emotion. For example, anger represents a movement away from our homeostatic balance. Something disrupted our normal, and we feel angry. We respond to the anger to right the ship and rebalance.
Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, explains in more scientific terms brain mechanism in play that motivate responses to bring our bodies back into balance. He wrote that “emotive responses originate in specific brain systems—sometimes in a specific region—responsible for commanding the varied components of the response: the chemical molecules that must be secreted, the visceral changes that must be accomplished, the movements of face, limbs, or whole body that are part of a particular emotion, be it fear, anger, or joy” (2019, Kindle location 1,707).
Survival Advantages of Anger
Damasio teaches that emotions are essential to homeostasis. He specifically identifies anger for its advantages to survival. He wrote that “anger has remained in the human emotion tool kit because it can, under certain circumstances, give an advantage to the angry subject by causing the adversary to recoil” (Kindle location 3,365). Adversaries compete and disrupt. They cause loss, hurt, and homeostatic disruption. Under certain circumstances, angry responses are necessary to promote wellness.
Anger when repressed fails to utilize this key emotion to protect our interest. “Anger is a life-supportive response intended to impact an unsupportive environment” (Heller & La Pierre, Kindle location 277)
Expressions of anger has many dangers. Damasio warns, “but even when it gives advantages anger tends to have high costs, especially when it escalates to ire and violent rage” (2019 Kindle location 3,367). Because anger is behind many cruel and unthinkable actions that anger is slapped with a stigmatizing label.
On the news this morning, a local station reported a roller rink was closing after two weeks of operation. The entertainment operation was marred by several fights in its short existence. Patrons couldn’t express anger in a healthy way. Anger quickly escalated, turning minor incidents into a hail storm of fists and fury. Fathers, sons, and daughters populate our prisons from inappropriate expressions of anger. It is no wonder that our brain seeks to protect against this obnoxious emotion, repressing the feeling and dodging destructive reactions.
Repressed Anger and Illness
We all experience incidents of emotion in reaction to our surrounding environments. Some environments are more hazardous than others, igniting more incidents of protective feeling reactions that stimulate behavioral responses.
According to the diathesis stress model, we have inherited vulnerabilities to these stresses. Undue exposures, exceeding our coping ability leads to defensive responses and sometimes mental and physical illness. We adapt through learning, either modeling of others or though our own interactions, ways to respond to environmental stresses.
Overwhelming experiences with anger met with negative consequences may lead to adopting unhealthy responses—such as repression. Slapped with the interpretation that anger is bad, our mind jumps through preprogrammed heuristics, stuffs the emotion, freeing us from the feared consequences.
Repressed Anger and Physical Health
Repressed anger doesn’t disappear. It still exists, stored in our physical body, negatively impacting wellness and wisdom.
Dr. Gabor Mate wrote in his classic book When the Body Says No that, “when emotions are repressed…this inhibition disarms the body’s defences against illness. Repression—dissociating emotions from awareness and relegating them to the unconscious realm—disorganizes and confuses our physiological defences so that in some people these defences go awry, becoming the destroyers of health rather than its protectors” (2011).
Heller and LaPierre explain, “symptoms of emotional dysregulation develop when we are unable to feel our emotions, when they overwhelm us, or when they remain unresolved” (2012). They explain “the life force is the energy that fuels healthy aggression, strength, self-expression, separation/individuation, fight-flight, passion, and sexuality. When the core expressions of the life force are not supported, when they are inadequately responded to or blocked from expression, sympathetic activation in the nervous system increases” (2012, Kindle location 276).
Leslie S. Greenberg, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, exhorts that “rather than attempting to control, interrupt, change, or avoid the experience of emotions, people need to learn to live in harmony with them. Overcontrolled anger or sadness saps energy” (2015).
Repression may relieve stress from conscious anger but depletes energy, stores unresolved emotion, damaging our bodies and weakening our resistance.
We Can Experience and Express Anger
We can express anger in appropriate ways. When environments threaten and hurt, we can respond, putting our foot down, expressing our anger over the injustice.
Greenberg explains that “expression of needs and disclosure of hurts often brings better results.” he warns that “expression of emotion, in ways appropriate to the context, is a highly complex skill of emotional intelligence, one that involves integrating prompts from both biology and culture” (2015).
Stopping the repression of anger is only the beginning. We will return to previous damaging expressions if we fail to integrate skills of assertive expression.
Greenberg continues, “expression is thus a socially mediated process, and awareness of emotion is not synonymous with expression. Learning when and how to express an emotion, and when it will not help, is all part of developing emotional intelligence” (2015).
Why Do We Repress Anger?
A key cause leading to anger suppression is early negative experiences of rejection. When parents or key figures in our lives reject our emotions as valid, often rewarding expressions with punitive punishments, we begin to repress. Heller and LaPierre explain, “when aggression, anger, and other forms of protest are ineffective, not possible, or dangerous, children adapt. At a certain point, if the lack of attunement persists, the chronic sympathetic arousal overloads the nervous system; children adapt through resignation, shutting down the angry protest as well as the need itself, and move into the parasympathetically dominant freeze response” (2012, Kindle location 291).
To exist in a toxic environment, where physical and emotional abuse reign, the victims surrender key aspects of themselves, sacrificing autonomy for safety. We sacrifice individual experience of emotion, giving up a key life force for directing and experiencing life.
Two Unhealthy Anger Expression Styles
We can express anger in a number of ways. Research has explored two basic styles:
Anger-In is internalizing the anger, focusing the hostility inward. Internalizing anger is suppressing expression, turning the anger inwards. Research has found that high levels of anger suppression lead to angry feelings being replaced with guilt, anxiety, and depression.
Instead of focusing on the elements thwarting our primary goals and disrupting our balance, the anger is turned inwards, blaming ourselves for the emotional arousal (Cox et. al. 2017). Anger-in may occur as a consequence of repressed anger.
In contrast to anger-in, anger-out is externalizing the anger, focusing the anger outward. Anger-out refers to expressing one’s anger outwardly in a negative manner. Anger-out expressions may involve the use of aggressive actions or words.
Individuals expressing anger outwardly choose targets directly or indirectly responsible for the arousal. They may also direct their anger to easy innocent victims that lack resources to defend against the angry attacks (Cox et. al. 2017).
Anger-In and Anger-Out styles are not mutually exclusive. We use both of them. However, we individually adopt styles that often utilizes one expression more than the other. We also fluctuate our patterns of expression within the context igniting the anger. We may internalize anger while at work but externalize while at home.
A study of sufferers of chronic pain found that the patients frequently experience anger. Interestingly, chronic pain sufferers, compared to healthy controls, “have frequently reported higher levels of anger suppression and/or hostility…” (Galvez-Sánchez, 2022).
Our patterns of expression may be unhealthy. Our intensity of expression may be unhealthy. Or the manner we express anger inward or outward may be unhealthy. The complexity of healthy expression, not to mention the maze of unconscious justifications and interpretations, is why many of us throw in our towel of resignation and repress the arousal, banning the frightening emotion.
Assertive Expression Preferred Over Repressed Anger
The challenge is do we express, suppress, or let our unconscious mind repress the anger. Aristotle wisely said, “anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” When things are not easy, we find alternate routes.
Most emotion research suggest assertive expressions of anger, following Aristotle’s advice, meaning anger must be directed at the correct object, in a manner that can be received, at the best time to deliver the message.
Assaultive, demeaning aggression rarely, if ever, fits this dictum. Suppression and repression, on the other hand, fails to address the problem, creating internal stresses.
Greenburg explains that “expression of emotion, in ways appropriate to the context, is a highly complex skill of emotional intelligence, one that involves integrating prompts from both biology and culture.” He continues, “learning when and how to express an emotion, and when it will not help, is all part of developing emotional intelligence” (2015, Kindle location 320-324).
Conditions for Healthy Expression of Anger
Gabor provides lists these essential conditions for healthy expressions of anger:
- The capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress.
- The ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries.
- The facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past. What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not to unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood. If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists.
- The awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others (2011, Kindle location 744-752).
Impulsive expressions of anger are not assertive. They don’t convey inner expressions of emotion in clear and understandable ways. Often these explosions are non-descriptive of core affect because the actor doesn’t recognize their own internal experience. Emotions often surge in heighten arousal without skillful interpretation and differentiation between emotions.
Healthy Expressions of Anger
Blindly, we feel arousal and react. Healthy expressions, according to Diana Fosha Ph.D. include:
- A sense of openness and coming forward.
- Cognitions associated with them are textured and specific, rather than global and stereotyped.
- Regardless of how painful they are, their expression provides eventual relief.
In contrast, Fosha explains unhealthy repression of emotions have these features:
- The inner direction of energy is controlled through constriction, withdrawal, and inhibition, or by tension or frustration.
- The generation of excessively thwarting or self-attacking inhibition of action.
- A sense of being closed off, held in, or out of control;
- sense of stasis or stagnation, of not getting anywhere; or a sense of deteriorating, sinking, falling, disintegrating, etc..
- cognitions associated with defensive or anxious affect are global and tend to remain so (2000, Kindle location: 1,864).
Assertive Expression and Relationship Communication Skills
Assertive expression of emotion is a key communication skill, integrated with empathy and understanding. Daniel Goleman in his best selling book Emotional Intelligence adds this instruction “relationships are a major focus, including learning to be a good listener and question-asker; distinguishing between what someone says or does and your own reactions and judgments; being assertive rather than angry or passive; and learning the arts of cooperation, conflict resolution, and negotiating compromise” (2005, Kindle location 5325).
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “we will always encounter occasional discomforting exchanges. The larger role a person plays in our life, the more importance we place on disagreements. Discomfort naturally flows when information signals trouble; we can address the discomfort together, discussing the issue, or blindly find relief through escapisms. By facing the discomfort, instead of recoiling and withdrawing, we coordinate differences, build bridges, and establish safety” (2017).
Fundamental Goal of Assertive Expression
The goal of assertiveness isn’t to manipulate or change the other person. Assertiveness creates vulnerability while protecting autonomous boundaries.
Author Adelyn Birch wrote, “assertiveness can be a terrifying prospect for those who have complied, appeased and avoided confrontation at all costs. Our irrational fear of rejection kicks in and silences us.” She continues, “assertiveness is communicating in a direct and honest way. That’s all it is. Boundaries communicate what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior from others. That’s all they are” (2014, Kindle location 396).
Jordan and Margaret Paul warn, “many people who have worked hard at learning how to express anger have been disappointed and puzzled when this did nothing to help their relationship. When the intent of anger is merely to blame, it will almost always be met with a defensive, protective response” (2002).
Assertiveness in communicating anger cannot force repair of ruptured relationships. Perhaps, we suppress or repress anger because the person we are angry with is dangerous and will arm him or herself with our autonomous expressions and later use our vulnerability to manipulate. Our suppressions may be healthy protections. Repressions, most likely, are not, blinding ourselves to the reality of our experience.
Assertive communication of anger, however, may uncover difficult realities, revealing the underlying character of the person hearing our sensitive disclosures of hurt and anger. Do they listen with empathy, validating our anger or do they scoff at our weakness, justify their insensitivity, and dismiss our primary needs?
Examples of Expression of Anger
- Why do you always do that. It makes me angry.
- You don’t care about me.
- You never do what I want.
Many maladaptive expressions utilize techniques beyond words. We may express anger through intimidation and name calling. Sometimes expressions are given in silence, or biting sarcasms.
- I feel upset about missing our date night. I was really looking forward to it.
- When you say that, it hurts.
- When you disrespect an honest and simple request, I feel angry, as if you don’t care about what I want.
The purpose of healthy, assertive expressions of anger is to create a segue into open discussion and problem resolution. Fosha explains, “the expression of the individual’s core emotions elicits a response from the other, which in turn produces a second wave of affects, the secondary affective reactions” (2000, Kindle location 1,322).
A Few Final Words On Repressed Anger
Successfully managing emotions is the foundation of wellness. Moreover, we can feel life, experience the richness of the life force flowing through our bodies without reacting in hurtful or destructive ways. In conclusion, as we develop skills of healthy regulation, we soar into a new realm of existence, flourishing in the emotional existence of life.
Birch, Adelyn (2014). Boundaries After a Pathological Relationship.
Cox, D., DeVore, B., Harrison, P., & Harrison, D. (2017). The effect of anger expression style on cardiovascular responses to lateralized cognitive stressors. Brain Informatics, 4(4), 231-239.
Damasio, Antonio (2019). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Vintage; Reprint edition
Fosha, Diana (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books.
Galvez-Sánchez, C., Reyes del Paso, G., Duschek, S., & Montoro, C. (2022). The Link between Fibromyalgia Syndrome and Anger: A Systematic Review Revealing Research Gaps. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 11(3)
Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Random House Publishing Group; 10th Anniversary edition
Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; Second edition
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition
Maté, Gabor (2011). When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley; 1st edition
Murphy, T. Franklin (2017) Emotional Communication. Flourishing Life Society. Published 8-2017. Accessed 2-28-2022.
Paul, Jordon; Paul, Margaret (2002). Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You. Hazelden Publishing; Second edition.