This is one of the most recent articles by Dr. Rifkin, published in Going Bonkers Magazine.
The sound the computer made crashing into the wall was really loud. Sarah jumped out of the chair where she was sitting and reading a magazine. Her husband, Joseph, had just thrown his new computer across the room, causing it to put a hole in the wall and sending shards of plastic and hardware flying. Sarah's heart was racing. She had only asked him to go and check on their sons who were upstairs playing video games.
Yes, Joseph had been stressed lately with job pressures, but she hadn't said or done anything to upset him. She started to ask him what was wrong, but Joseph stormed out of the house. What would make Joseph explode with such anger?
Everyone has anger, whether they admit it or not. Anger is energy that develops in response to the injuries that we experience in daily living. When used effectively, it's expressed as healthy, assertive behavior. Despite its explosive bad rap, anger is an important and healthy emotion.
To understand anger, we must first begin with understanding the place anger holds in the context of our emotions. Emotions are electro-biochemical reactions that take place in our bodies and provide us with the information and energy we need in order to take care of ourselves, as we navigate and survive the world around us.
For example, after an emotional, physical or psychological injury, your body generates energy (anger) as a way to attend to or fix the injury. Likewise, it may produce fear, as a defense against being injured again, or sadness, as a way to grieve or mourn the injury.
People who explode with anger can hurt themselves and others. They use their anger energy to break things, or yell, or act in irrational and harmful ways. Sometimes, really intense angry explosions are caused by an underlying mood disorder, like major depression or bipolar mood disorder.
Major depression (or unipolar depression) is very common, and can be recognized by having at least five of the following symptoms for at least two weeks:
1. Depressed mood nearly every day, most of the day.
2. Loss of interest or pleasure in most activities.
3. Significant gain or loss of weight.
4. Being physically agitated or lethargic.
5. Being tired or not having enoughenergy.
6. Sleeping too little or too much.
7. Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt.
8. Inability to concentrate effectively.
9. Recurrent thoughts of death and/or suicide.
10. The severity of the major depression is related to how many symptoms the person has and how long it has been going on. Depression can be single episodes or a hronic condition.
In bipolar disorder there has been a history of both major depression and also some indication of a manic or hypomanic episode. One of the ways you can tell if someone is experiencing some level of mania is by noticing if they have an irritable, elevated or expansive mood for at least a week. During that time, they will have three or four of the following symptoms:
1. An inflated sense of self.
2. A markedly decreased need for sleep.
3. Being unusually talkative and hard to stop.
4. Racing thoughts or extremely loose connections in their thoughts.
5. Becoming highly distractible.
6. A significant and sudden increase in achieving goals or intense physical agitation.
7. Impulsive pursuit of pleasure without regard for the consequences of their behavior.
People who are suffering from bipolar mood disorder may have very intense and frequent fluctuations in mood. This condition can wear on them, and be part
of the injury that they experience.
A third common cause of explosive anger, beyond normal life stresses and injuries, is from difficult relationship dynamics. The most common of those is what I call a Passive-Aggressive/ Hostile/Dependent Relationship. In these relationships, one of the partners expresses their anger though passive aggression.
Passive-aggressive behavior is anger that is expressed, for example, by not doing something you agreed to do. This tends to draw anger at them from their partner. Since all relationships are based on agreements, passive-aggressive anger tends to break down and destroy relationships. The passive aggressive partner in a relationship may frequently ask, in a very pained tone,
"Why are you so angry all the time?"
Sarah and Joseph's story, continued…
While Joseph was obviously the angry, explosive partner, Sarah, appearing innocent as she quietly read her magazine, was the angry, passive-aggressive partner.
Joseph was stressed out with work and needed to work much of the evening to get a report out that was due in the morning. He had told Sarah this and was expecting that she would tend to the boys. Sarah had a pattern of not listening when Joseph would complain about his stresses at work. He had been so stressed for so long that she simply got tired of listening to him complain.
After crashing his computer against the wall, Joseph had cooled off by taking a walk around the neighborhood. Upon his return, Sarah approached him with disbelief. She genuinely wanted to know what was wrong and why Joseph had gotten so upset. When he explained that she hadn't seemed to hear his needs and concerns, Sarah got defensive and Joseph started to get angry again. Sarah told him that if he was wrecking the computer, he obviously had a serious problem with anger. She thought he should talk to a therapist and get help with anger management. Joseph couldn't deny that he needed help with his anger, since all Sarah needed to do was to point to the hole in the wall as proof. If he was exploding with such dynamic force, clearly he needed help. Joseph went to meet with Dr. Jones.
After completing a thorough history of Joseph, Dr. Jones uncovered his distant and demanding parents, who expected him to be the best in his class at school, yet were unavailable for any real emotional closeness or support. Dr. Jones also was able to rule out major depression or bipolar disorder as preliminary diagnoses. This led her to ask more about the nature of Joseph's marriage to Sarah, to see if she could discover the injury that had led to his explosive outburst.
She asked Joseph to invite Sarah to come in. Dr. Jones discovered that Sarah had
grown up as the only child of two alcoholic parents who had divorced when she was seven. She had lived with her mother through high school, always keeping her distance from her parents who were frequently drunk and easily angered. Sarah had learned not to need much or to give much emotionally, and to make her self scarce at home. Dr. Jones asked Sarah to begin to look at how the emotional dynamics from her childhood family had played out in her current family and marriage. Sarah could see that she had a history of maintaining emotional distance, and how she had been passive-aggressive in her marriage. However, Sarah still blamed Joseph for acting out his anger. Dr. Jones agreed that what Joseph had done was destructive and unacceptable. She made it clear to Sarah that she intended to continue to work with Joseph on learning to express his emotions to Sarah before they became explosive. But she wanted Sarah to understand that, in order for him to be able to make the changes he needed to make, Sarah would have to make changes as well, in regards to her passive-aggression and emotional withdrawal from their marriage.
Over the course of the next year, Sarah and Joseph continued to work towards an acceptance of each others' feelings, and towards becoming more responsible in understanding, owning, and expressing their own emotions in healthy ways.
Whether angry explosions are the result of major depression, bipolar disorder,
passive-aggressive/hostile dependent relationships or other life injuries, it's
important to remember that behind every explosion of anger is an injury. It's that injury that needs to be uncovered, acknowledged, and addressed.