Unresolved Aggression (The Problem Of Anger)

As discussed in the chapters on symptomatology and sources of conflict, both men and women had serious difficulties in expressing, regulating, and resolving aggressive feelings, thoughts, and impulses. Two questions come to mind in the attempt to understand the dynamics of this problem, which questions may actually be pointing in the same direction. Firstly, what psychological experiences contribute to the accumulation of rage reactions of such proportion as to alarm the patient and occasionally result in a drastic affective release? This question looks into the failure of these angry affects to fuse with or be neutralized by libidinal elements in the person’s ego. Secondly, what psychological experiences have obstructed an efficacious repression and sublimation of aggressive impulses?

Early and late childhood of the patients were like placid pools masking turbulent cross-currents of conflicting and changing emotions. There were several rather obvious data and observations from which conclusions may be made. One was the conscious suppression by parents of expressions of anger in their children. Crying as a way of communicating anger or displeasure was not allowed to go on without some attempt to stop it. The crying infant or child was immediately attended to and pacified. The greatly pro longed emotional attachment of child to mother, with curtailment of the child’s autonomy, deprived him of the experience in self-mastery, so crucial in developing an internal system of controls. At the same time, the imposition of this relationship was described by some patients as “devouring.” The child was force-fed, was told what was good or nor good for him, what he should or should not feel. It was fertile ground for rage reactions, since one’s self-esteem became completely dependent on another person who could not at all times be consistently giving.

It is in fact a trait of this very close relationship that inconsistencies become more glaring because of the continuous emphasis on being a good child. A mabait child never gets angry. The child learns quite early that there are inconsistencies. Although he is taught elaborate, often subtle ways to deny anger, ignore hurt to himself and avoid hurting others, he is exposed at the same time to instances which make him feel hurt and angry. And from the way others around him react, especially his parents, he knows that they, too, do get hurt and angry. What happens when anger rears its ugly head, whether justifiably or not? He promptly denies it or else risks being punished. Sometimes, however, a burst of anger brings someone who quickly tries to pacify it. Punishment and pacification, translated in adult terms, are experienced as blame and love. A display of anger or its equivalent (crying, withdrawal, etc.) meant one would either be punished (blame) or pacified (reassurance, love). The unpredictability with which one gets the first or second consequence is related to the inconsistency with which anger, or aggression, is dealt with by the parents.

These two alternatives—blame and love—are key issues in proneness to rage. If one examines closely the circumstances which provoke anger, they are likely to be on one or both of these counts. They are also mutually exclusive. If one is blame-worthy, one cannot be lovable. If one is loved, one should not be blamed. The two, of course, are intimately related to self-esteem; an injury, real or threatened, to self-esteem may be safely assumed in all emotional distress. In the end, it is to salvage or to repair self-esteem that the steps to release anger are taken. The intermediate steps are concerned with avoiding the feeling of being blamed and with the procurement of love or any of its derivatives—acceptance, approval, or recognition. Failure to absolve oneself of blame or to procure these affectional supplies generates increasing frustration with rising levels of anger, hostility, and resentment. At the same time, the barometer of self-esteem goes down to critical levels.