Up Close With Dr. E

Exposing hidden anger


“Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not easy.” This quote by Aristotle (384-322 BC), the Greek philosopher, helps us understand that of all the different emotions we humans can show, anger is perhaps the most difficult to master.

Like a sword with two razor sharp edges, anger has the power to take a life, or save a life. Righteous anger saves lives when one stands opposed to all forms of injustice — child abuse, racism, political corruption, while out-of-control anger can take a life through acts of violence. Of the many faces anger can show, from the slow burn of silent seething to road raging, there is one type which causes great fear and confusion. What is it? I use these two interchangeable terms: hidden or repressed anger.

Repression is a coping skill where scary, threatening, or painful events and feelings are stored in mental compartments located in the unconscious part of the mind. Wait. Did I just hear thousands of newspapers being crinkled up and tossed in the garbage, all over the word unconscious?

Hold your horses and do a simple exercise. Count back from 5: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Now ask yourself, are you, at this very moment, aware that you are breathing? Yes? Good. But were you aware before the countdown? No. The process you just did — taking an unconscious event (breathing), and bringing it into awareness, is what you will see next as you hear the story about an 8-year-old boy, Max.

Max has broad shoulders and a stocky build, just like his father. At 2 a.m., Max is awakened by the screams of his mother. As he races into the kitchen, he sees his father’s hands, like a vise grip, wrapped around his mother’s neck. Her face is purple. Max yells. His father releases his hands to swat at Max, but faster than a jack rabbit, Max bolts back to his room where he hides under his bed. The next morning, Max goes into the kitchen and sees his mother, alone, drinking coffee. As their eyes connect, she beckons him over to hug him, a mother-child union of tears.

Three questions: 1. What emotions would you predict Max will have when he next sees his father? Anger and fear. 2. Since his father is dangerous (violent), what mental coping skills can Max do to hide his anger and fear? Repression. 3. What effect will repressed anger have on Max as he grows up? Let us find out.

Max’s first visit to my office: Max’s mother, Cheryl, reports that she divorced Max’s father when Max was 12, and that his father moved six states away and has had no contact with Max for five years. The only man Max truly trusts is his wrestling coach. Max, now 18, is built like a tank, and is an outstanding wrestler. Cheryl states that a whole raft of problems have emerged with Max: declining grades, anger outbursts, headaches, backaches, social withdrawal.

When I bring Max back to my office, he unexpectedly opens up, like water gushing out of a burst water main: “Something bad is happening to me. It’s like I’ve got a maximum-security prison inside of my gut, but I’m losing control of the prisoners; they are escaping, and they are really bad dudes. Am I OK?” I decide to answer Max’s question by showing him the results of his psychological testing. I ask him, “Max, see these scores? That’s proof you are OK.” Max replies, “If I’m OK, why do I feel like I am such a bad person with horrible things inside me?” I continue: “See these high scores on the anger graph? This is called repressed anger. It means you have been holding anger inside your gut, and it needs to be released.”

I feel waves of relief wash over Max as he and I begin the process of bringing into his awareness, all the fear, hurt, anger, and rage he had buried. Max’s story teaches us that to heal from the emotional traumas he experienced, he had to first connect with others: his mother, his coach, his psychologist. Having done this, along with a little psychological guidance, his hidden anger could be exposed to the light of day and released.

The content of this article is for educational purposes only, not treatment. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.