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)

 

References:

  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.

Artwork: 

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 lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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  1. Karen F. July 18, 2017 at 7:21 pm - Reply

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

    • Steve K July 18, 2017 at 10:24 pm Reply

      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. July 19, 2017 at 5:41 am Reply

        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. July 19, 2017 at 8:48 am Reply

          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?

  2. illona July 18, 2017 at 11:27 am - Reply

    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 than to numb out.

    https://tinyurl.com/ya2u7572

  3. Steve K July 17, 2017 at 1:05 am - Reply

    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. It’s an emotion that’s often very difficult to control and has damaging consequences for myself and others, and yet I continue to rely upon it. In this sense I feel it’s reasonable to suggest that anger can be an addictive process for some people.

    • Gerald July 17, 2017 at 4:23 pm Reply

      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 agree with their position: ACA is a recovery path that is advanced, way, way advanced over AA, for example, among other “addiction programs,” which the ACA BRB calls “Stage I recovery.”

      The childhood PTSD – that’s where it all comes from. You think being an atheist is radical and provocative in AA? Nah, not really. Atheism really only pisses off the religious a–holes.

      But try this kind of topic, an ACA topic, or something like “AA is just stage I recovery and there really is something called ‘graduating from the program.’ It’s called ACA, the Adult Children twelve step program.”

      Now you’ve just pissed off the whole room 🙂 🙂 🙂

      Thanks,

      Gerald, alcoholic, in Japan

      • Steve K July 18, 2017 at 1:24 am Reply

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

  4. Anton Duerard July 16, 2017 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    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 a prolonged immaturity.  At least my rage outbreaks only result in damaging inanimate objects so far.  But the one characteristic I’ve seen in other ‘more advanced’ AA members that “I would like to have” is their ability to gracefully and calmly deal with situations that I KNOW would instantly bring forth the “Mr. Hyde” demon that lurks within.

  5. Sue July 16, 2017 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    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 that “Anger is  the luxury of more normal folk” or similar! I thankyou for this share… so good to identify as I have been through this process, long understood character defects as  (a horri definition) defences against pain.

    a few of us have set up a secular NA meeting at 10am on Sunday GMT.

  6. life-j July 16, 2017 at 11:58 am - Reply

    Steve,

    Thanks. It could be over-simplifying things to call anger an addiction, though I do see a tendency to go to anger as the “best” way to avoid dealing with the more scary/vulnerable feelings I may have, and in that sense I can see how reaching for anger can be similar to reaching for a bottle.

    Looking back on my last bout with this cancer, my 5 month recover from surgery, there were a number of times where I felt particularly rejected or powerless over something relatively trivial, such as Jane not jumping over something it felt like I desperately needed right this f*** minute or the sky would fall, and I resorted to anger rather than stay with the real feelings of rejection and powerlessness, which I am aware are a bottomless pit of childhood hurts, rejection, fear, which it looks like I will never be able to root out, the best I can really hope to do is to be really aware of it, and keep working on not channeling it into acting out with anger.

  7. Roger C July 16, 2017 at 10:42 am - Reply

    We all experience anger, for many reasons, but it is silly to call it an addiction. Just saying. Don’t get angry.

  8. Joe C. July 16, 2017 at 10:12 am - Reply

    Anger as an addiction? If so, and it seems right to me, it is more like process addictions (sex, food, work/life balance) than like a substance abuse. Just like I need intimacy, nutrition and work, I need to be angry and process anger. It’s not like a substance I can swear off for life.

    i have nice-guy syndrome and I tend to deny or intellectualize my anger instead of expressing it. The result is I misdirect my rage. I get mad at banks, Donald Trump or traffic gridlock.

    For example, I binge-watch MSNBC. I feel like I have a vested interest in Trump being demonized and held to account for treason, fraud and racketeering. There is an investigation going on, true. But I am way ahead of the facts and fanticizimg about an outcome. Being civically engaged-good. Staying up until 3 AM and then underperforming in my more important duties the next day-bad.

    Remember, I’m not even American. Why am I over invested? Bob Muller is in charge, not me.

    My righteous indignation-as was well described by Steve- is camouflage. What personal hurt or injustice have I been quietly suffering, feigning being understanding or above it all? I have to be real. If anger is a flaw, I own that flaw and if I pretend I have translateded my human limits, I’m fucked. My hard on for Domald Trump is a symptom. It’s real but my over investment in it is what makes it s red-herring.

    Last night after working myself into an armchair political quarterback tizzy, I switched “brands of distraction” and watched an interview with Tommy Rosen and Gabor Mate who, unexpectedly, we’re talking about this very topic. At the end of it, I let go of my dark fantasy.

    Trump isn’t the devil. He has some narcissism, some overcompensating need for approval, some ADHD and he demonstrates many characteristics I have and which I am ashamed of.  I’ve spent a lot of time to say this essay and the comments it inspired are topical for me today. Thanks to one and all who contributed to this.

    Life is a constant balancing act, for me.

     

     

    • John H. July 16, 2017 at 3:32 pm Reply

      Hi Joe…I obviously don’t suffer from “nice guy syndrome” and therefore have no hang ups what so ever about expressing and communicating anger but I DO need to be aware of the fact that many folks don’t process these emotions easily and can therefore feel threatened and/or intimidated by those to whom the expression  of the rawer sentiments and convictions (such as my own militant atheism) is not problematic. What us less “sensitive” souls need to understand is that its extremely important, in a generic sense, not to specifically target anyone (particularly in the AA context) with gratuitous or unfocused anger.

      The AA sharing process (as opposed to the Oxford Group inspired Millennial Christian fundamentalism expressed in most of the s0-called “steps”) is inherently civilizing in many ways and helping the more aggressive people amongst us (like myself) tone some of our “stuff” down a bit is very useful for all parties concerned.

      As to Mr. Trump, as a real old hard shell American (dads family came in the 1680’s) I can say that this abbodimabale aberration has shaken me to my core and is one of the severest trials I have faced in my 30+ years around AA. My disgust for this person literally knows no bounds and I credit my exposure to the moderating climate in meetings for keeping me at least marginally sane in these incredibly difficult and tragic times here. As a lifelong denizen of Washington DC this is even more problematic with the terrible reality of this new world present 24/7. It’s real, it’s here and its worse than you can possibly imagine in Canada where a liberal/democratic government still is the norm.

      In my opinion anger is an extremely important emotion to cultivate and focus at this point in American history and, within the bounds of the law, I intend to keep mine burning white hot no matter what Mr. Bill Wilson says!

  9. Thomas B. July 16, 2017 at 8:49 am - Reply

    Thanks Steve for an illuminating article and Jan for your most appropriate photo art.

    I agree with the central premise you propose that anger is a defense against feelings of toxic shame, fear, and/or grief. I’ve been known to quip that “I am constitutionally incapable of pausing when agitated.” As I age and deepen in meditation, the anger/rage I experience has lessened somewhat, but it still at times can grip me with destructive force.

    I recently became aware of Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD), which I experienced, being the first born of a young mother who came of home in a dysfunctional family whose husband, my father, was in the US Navy during World War II. I attribute this as a corollary origin of the anger/rage I have experienced throughout my life.

    • Lance B. July 16, 2017 at 9:02 am Reply

      Interesting observation, Thomas.  And the 1942 milieu into which I was born sounds exactly the same.  Father in Navy, country scared, Mom scared, and somehow that communicated itself to her eldest son despite her best efforts to inculcate a sense of self worth in me.  Her fervent hope was that she could give me freedom from her feelings of inadequacy–and she couldn’t.

      To me this is another example of the way our stories become essential to the human connection Steve suggests we need in order to overcome anger.

      • Thomas B. July 16, 2017 at 3:35 pm Reply

        Thanks Lance — herein follows from the Introduction to my memoir recently published by AA Agnostica, Each Breath A Gift, A Story of Continuing Recovery, more information about DTD with a listing of symptoms:
        “In addition, I recently became aware of the syndrome Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD). Also, known as Complex PTSD, two psychiatrists instrumental in legitimizing PTSD during the 1980s, Judith Herman, MD and Bessel Van de Kolk, MD, strongly advocated for DTD to be included in DSM V, but it was not included as a separate diagnostic category. Elements of the syndrome, however, were incorporated as part of the revised PTSD diagnosis. They describe DTD as being relational, chronic and includes these clusters of symptoms:
        Emotional Regulation: May include persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive or inhibited anger, extreme fear or anxiety.
        Consciousness: Includes forgetting traumatic events, reliving traumatic events, or having episodes in which one feels detached from one’s mental processes or body (dissociation).
        Self-Perception: May include self-loathing, helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings.
        Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator: Examples include attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, or preoccupied with revenge.
        Relations with Others: Examples include isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer.
        One’s System of Meanings: May include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.
         
        Whew !~!~!
         
        When I first read about DTD, I was struck by how it is a most cogent and precise description of what I have often felt and perceived since earliest memories.”

        • Gerald July 17, 2017 at 4:03 pm Reply

          Thanks for talking about this. This is a big part of the ACA message in their BRB (Big Red Book) (Ours is blue, theirs is red). ACA’s BRB doesn’t distinguish between PTSD and DTD. They use the term PTSD to mean what is meant here by DTD.

  10. Jigsaw Relations July 16, 2017 at 8:48 am - Reply

    Yes, anger harms not only the other person, it harms everyone. The one who vents out is not spared from it.

  11. Lance B. July 16, 2017 at 8:43 am - Reply

    One of the things Bill W. got very right in the big book, it seems to me, is the problem of fear and anger.  I suspect he had the insight the fear is the underlying cause, but listed it after anger in his 3 subject fourth step description to avoid rejection by his primarily male audience.  And his emphasis on fear without going into what led to it as you have done, Steve, led to poignant descriptions such as “an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it.”  Trains of circumstances and all followed by the incredible but memorable “…ought to be classed with stealing.”

    To me that is probably the most valuable discussion in that book;  it told me more about Lance than anything else that I recall offhand.   He managed to say it in a way most alcoholics can understand and accept.

    Your article digs into even deeper foundational material, looking a bit at what led to the fear.  And that is legitimate 4th step stuff since I believe understanding my motivations improves my chances to leave escape behind.  Either anger or booze.  The big book encourages us to do the same thing, but does not deal with anger as an addiction to replace some of the valuable functions of alcohol in my life.

    Another good suggestion for topic at this morning’s lone labelled secular meeting in Montana.  Thanks.

  12. boyd p. July 16, 2017 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Sorting and understanding the roots of anger is a useful journey, though in my experience much will remain a mystery.  My father found AA when I was six, 1950, Buffalo, NY.  Mom toughed it out.  Don’t have a clue how bad it got as he hit bottom. He has passed (’72). She doesn’t want to talk about it.  “It’s over and past”.

    My current management method is to identify any evidence of irritation in the moment and ask why.  Do I get any benefit in that moment from acting out?  Nip it in the bud.   The answer so far is almost never.

    Is there any place for anger in my life?  Maybe not.

  13. edward calhoun July 16, 2017 at 7:36 am - Reply

    WOW – – My anger was often a danger to others – not sure I much agree with the “why” for my anger.    I did a 2 hr a week anger management program every friday AM for over a year at the local VA hospital, it opened my eyes to help me deal with and disapate much /most of my inner anger.  Much of my anger was expressed during my inner self to road rage – – I am (was) a professional driver (semi  truck) and I admit that at times my road rage has been a danger to others.  I seem to have really gotten over, yes OVER most of my road anger and also am able to let go of anger quickly. (most of the time)  I disagree as to why my type of person feels anger for the most part.  My anger is often in judgement of how I (inner self) view – how it “should” be and I want to set in right.  I would be more than happy to debate what anger is and can be with any “learned” shrink or other academic.

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