Can Anger Be An Addiction?

By Steve K.

My reply to this question is that it can be for some of us in recovery.  Specifically, those of us who have experienced high levels of shaming (such as rejection, neglect, and emotional or physical/sexual abuse) in the developmental years of childhood and adolescence.

During my own upbringing, I experienced a lot of anger, criticism, and rejection from my parents, which I now realise is the true source of most of my anger. My anger is largely an attempt to communicate and release the underlying hurt, rejection, and fear resulting from my deep sense of shame.

In an article on anger, Leon Seltzer explains the function of anger:

It’s by now generally agreed upon that anger, as prevalent as it is in our species, is almost never a primary emotion. For underlying it are such core hurts as: feeling disregarded, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, and unlovable… these feelings are capable of engendering considerable emotional pain. It’s therefore understandable that so many of us might go to great lengths to find ways of distancing ourselves from them.

In fact, those of us who routinely use anger as a “cover up” to keep our more vulnerable feelings at bay, generally become so adept at dong so that we have little to no awareness of the dynamic driving our behavior… this is how all psychological defenses work. Simply put, they allow us to escape upsetting, shameful, or anxiety-laden feelings we may not have developed the emotional resources—or ego strength—to successfully cope with it. (1)

The problem with using anger as a defense mechanism is that it damages our relationships, which in addition to the resulting social isolation it creates, further injures our already low self-esteem. After an episode of rage we are often left feeling guilty, as well as feeling bad about ourselves. We feel guilty about what we say and do in anger, compounding shame about who we are.  Guilt, which some describe as a healthy sense of shame (2), is letting us know we’ve violated our boundaries. Toxic shame is the underlying feeling that we are worthless, lacking, and undeserving of love; it’s a cancer of the soul, our wounded heart, and ruinous of our relations with others.

As well as protecting us from the underlying pain of toxic shame and a deep sense of rejection, rage is also an attempt to right this wrong, to restore the ego’s sense of worth through its righteous indignation. It’s a dysfunctional strategy used to take us from feeling downtrodden and powerless, to feeling worthy and powerful. The greater the degree of our toxic shame, the more we depend upon psychological defenses. These are generally referred to in Twelve-Step language as “character defects,” our tendencies to resentment, fear, dishonesty, selfishness, criticism, arrogance, and a false sense of pride.

Toxic shame is so painful that we often prefer to feel angry and resentful instead. This dependency upon anger to protect our ego, is why some of us are addicted to anger or rage.

We can start to let go of our addiction to anger by becoming aware of its underlying pain. The healing process starts when we acknowledge the fear and hurt resulting from our toxic sense of shame.

In recovery we take inventory of our resentments, hurts, fears, and harms done towards others. We begin to uncover the ego’s insecurity and its self-centred defenses, and the number one offender is resentment due to our fear.

 “We fear that we will lose what we have, will not get what we need, will not have enough, will never be who we think we should be.  We fear we will not be happy. We fear we will not be content.” (3)

The greater our sense of shame, the more we suffer these fears, and the greater our dependency upon defensive anger.

As we develop self-awareness we start to understand the true nature of our rage. We stop blaming others and take responsibility for our feelings and actions. We slowly become more authentic in our relationships, admitting vulnerability, rather than covering up with anger. Now in recovery, we start to receive acceptance and support from others, for whom we truly are. We learn to love and accept ourselves, by not pretending any more.

If the original wound of shame came from a lack of empathy, acceptance, love, and security during our childhood, its healing must come from the quality of our current relationships. In recovery we must now develop honest, empathic, and loving attachments to others. By giving and receiving love, we learn to love and accept ourselves.

The greater our shame, though, the harder it is to let others get close to us. We can easily feel hurt and rejected by being triggered into our original pain. We then become defensive and resentful and return to pushing others away. We must learn that shame shapes our reality, often distorting what we see. We may need help from sponsors, friends, and therapists to uncover our shame and its poisonous lies, as we now admit our insecurity and fear, instead of expressing it through another guise.

The recovery road is hard and long but one we choose to travel. We practice acceptance as a virtue to heal our pain, letting go of our addiction to anger. We must develop faith in others, and in our ability to restore a healthy sense of ourselves, for it’s in the power of loving human connection and self-actualisation wherein our salvation lies.

 “The story of “Beauty and the Beast” well illustrates the theme of this article. What was once a beast filled with rage becomes the prince when at last he is loved for whom he is inside. In this way, we can all understand what makes us beautiful. It is after all love that forges beauty. It is compassion and acceptance that create health and heals the wounds of the soul created by shame and rage.” (4)



  1. ‘Anger – How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt and Fear’. By Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D.
  2. Psychotherapist, Hayley Merron, describes “healthy shame” as a vital part of self-consciousness and intrinsic to the development of a healthy self-concept.
  3. ‘Waiting – A Nonbelievers Higher Power’, p.32. By Marya Hornbacher.
  4. ‘Rage, Shame and the Death of Love’, written by Bill Cloke, Ph.D.


About the Author: Steven K.

Steve K has been a member of AA for the past 26 years and lives in Cheshire, which is in the N. West region of England. He would describe himself as an agnostic, although open to spirituality. His home group is the Macclesfield Saturday morning AA group and he regularly chairs the meeting. He has a background in advice and counselling work, mainly in the areas of mental health and social welfare law. Steve is currently involved in group facilitation work for a local addiction recovery project, writes for his blog 12stepphilosophy and regularly keeps fit through hill walking and running. He has self-published a book entitled “The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K.”  The Third edition is available in paperback from Amazon.


Original photography by Jan A.

 Audio Story

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georiga. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to

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Karen F.
Karen F.

I guess if a Higher Power can be a doorknob then anger can be an addiction.

Steve K

What’s your definition of the term addiction? Try putting some thought into the subject matter Karen. Ignorance does make me angry. Habitually relying or depending upon a behaviour (way of responding as a coping strategy), that has negative consequences and that’s difficult to control seems to fit the general definition of the term addiction to me. When you add to this that anger often has a short term payoff, and have some understanding of the neurobiology involved with the emotion of anger, then even more so.

Karen F.
Karen F.

What’s your definition of a Higher Power? Anything that turns you on? And an addiction: Any repetitive reaction/behavior? So you got angry because I disagreed with you? That’s an addiction? Pretty typical and predictable human behavior, as far as I am concerned, not an “addiction”. But kindly don’t insult people who disagree with you. Or maybe you think that typical and predictable behavior is an “addiction” too, so you really can’t help it.

There, I gave it some thought. But I will check with my Doorknob.

boyd p.
boyd p.

Curious!  Karen F. “cancel reply”, what does that signify?  I enjoyed Karen’s reply, but now its gone?  Is this a disappointing moment for the editors of this forum?


The following is a link to an interesting 42-minute talk about recovery with Tommy Rosen and Gabor Maté.  At 32 minutes and 40 seconds, Gabor discusses the ritual of television watching without conscious intent as a means of escape.  I find that spending too much time at the computer, another engaging blue screen, can be a process addiction that removes me from the up-close experience of challenges.  Rather than avoid a rough patch in my life with distraction, I’m learning to use tools of compassion for deep self-listening, writing and sharing with friends as a way to look into rather… Read more »

Steve K

Thanks to all who’ve offered constructive and thoughtful comments. At the beginning of my article I do emphasize that i’m referring to my own underlying issues in relation to my anger and my intention in writing this essay wasn’t to speak for others. My thoughts about shame and it’s relationship to anger and other defense mechanisms are in accordance with many psychologists and researchers in this area of study. Anger in my case is largely a habitual response to deeper hurts and serves a defensive function. It’s a transference to the present day activating event and therefore an unconscious process.… Read more »


Great article, thanks! Please Google images for “addiction tree” and there it is: one branch for the emotions/ feeling addicts, another branch for the thinking/ intellectualizing addicts, another branch for the activity addicts, a branch for the people addicts: sex & codependency, a branch for the substance abusers: alcohol, drugs, & food. A simple diagram, loaded with practical meaning for understanding all the very different personalities in our AA fellowship 🙂 We are people who normally would not mix 🙂 Hey, your article sounds just about identical to the ACA message in their “new” Big Red Book (published 2007). I… Read more »

Steve K

I’ve checked out the “addictions tree” diagram – brilliant! Thank you Gerald.

Anton Duerard
Anton Duerard

Steve, so glad you contributed this article, as it is a topic I strongly identify with.  Have been aware since early in sobriety, if not before, that I have a problem with anger.  Multiple times, with increasing frequency, I have been ‘ignited’ by some trivial irritation, and fly off the handle into a temper tantrum worthy of a three year old baby.  And after cooling off, I look back, asking myself, “WTF just happened??”     It’s probably not a coincidence that I’ve always been a withdrawn, isolated individual, and the anger flare-ups are just one indication among many of… Read more »


So refreshing to read this…. I live on Anglesey N Wales, not far from author… I too am a qualified retired counsellor… My recovery was absolutely served through AA and therapy. Not god. But kindness and acceptance from others and it’s  been a slow process… 39 yrs of abstinence in 12 step progs, I have learned to live with my “Hole in the Soul” I still get sad. Angry etc but it is FAR less destructive. I also think that there is a place for anger, appropriately expressed.. I spent years trying NOT to be angry and got angrier! Believing… Read more »