Thursday, September 11, 2008

Question of the Week #28: Justifiable Anger

Dear Faithful Readers,

Many times people have told me about incidents involving a behavior that can be spectacularly harmful in relationships – justifiable anger.

The thinking usually goes something like this: “I’m hurt and I’m really ticked off. This person has messed up big-time and I have been treated horribly. I’m not going to stand for it.”

So the angry person unloads on them, hurling whatever nastiness comes to mind. And they know they are justified in doing so. It doesn’t matter how hurtful or spiteful the words are because the other person deserves it!! “How could they do that to me? Well they’re going to get what they deserve.”

I’ve heard of people in such a state hurling insults, using every nasty name in the book, uttering threats of physical violence, divorce, and just whatever springs to mind. It seems that when some people enter this state, all forms of reasonableness go out the window.

Then at some point the tide turns, the crisis is over, and the person calms down. Now what?

I’ve heard about crushing guilt for all the nastiness, along with promises they didn’t mean any of it and sobbing pleas for forgiveness.

I’ve also heard how the nastiness can elicit apologies from the person being attacked –anything to end the tirade – following which the attacker feels even more certain they were justified and no apology ever ensues.

In either case the threats and nastiness are still out there. The hurt can hide away in the soul and last days, months, even a lifetime, regardless of how many apologies follow the tirade.

Have you encountered this type of behavior? I believe it is incredibly common, so I won’t be surprised if many readers have been on one end or the other (perhaps both at the same time) of such an exchange. Do you think limitless anger can be justified? Does everyone do this to some extent on occasion? In what ways have you seen people affected by this? How would you suggest people could avoid this kind of scenario?

I’d love to hear about your opinions and experiences.

All the best,


  1. Oh boy. *shudders* I can be guilty of this. I have to REALLY keep my temper in check otherwise I will totally jump into the nasty pool. My man can be guilty of this too. We've learned not to take it personally (through a lot of counseling together) and we eventually get to the issue at hand :) No, it's not healthy at all to behave this way. We try to be very conscious of whether we should be pissed or not and try to solve it without hurtling insults at each other especially now that we have a kid. It's not good for a kid to grow up hearing that. It's definitely a work in progress for us because we both realize we don't like being in that pool.

  2. This is the kind of anger I received from my father, usually accompanied by corporal punishment, often purporting to be righteous anger about something I'd done wrong. I've never forgotten the anger, and as an adult now, I don't think I will ever be able to be close to him because of it. If I had children, they would never be alone with him. I've carefully avoided people like that since.

  3. When Mike was telling me that he was only eating cup of soup at the station, and sleeping on a cot because he was working so much overtime, and that he had to siphon gas out of his lawnmower to put into his suburban...

    His friends were telling me that he was so stressed out and depressed and withdrawing from everyone with his fears of his home maybe going into foreclosure, and losing weight...

    Because I knew of his pride - and also that he had once told me he was 'bordeline suicidal', and he had a guun, being a cop -- I behind his back paid his year's worth of overdue property taxes, and hs real estate agent's estimates approximate fee and closing costs in advance (yes she agreed, and no, I didn't know it was illegal of her to do so at the time)...

    I tried to do it all anonymously to save his pride, even though it put me into debt to do so, and hoped the real estate agent could just come up with some plausible excuse saying she had worked with the bank and they had covered it, or something...

    He found out.

    And came to my house in a total rage. Accused me of stalking him, told me he was doing just fine, that I had no right to control his life, he didn't trust me because I had violated his privacy, and that he would pay me back when he got his income tax return the following April, that there would be an envelope on my front door.

    He never paid me back a penny.

    Nor did he ever acknowledge that I had done something for him that only a family member does for another family member in a crisis; or act like he appreciated the gesture in any way, shape or form once his shock had worn off.

    I certainly learned not to do anything like that again. The grateful sobbing people interviewd in People Magazine who are so thrilled to be helped when they are in trouble, well, that certianly wasn't MY experience with trying to be a guardian angel.

  4. I wrote a blog last week about the medical bloggers and how nasty they can be to their commenters. I saw some of the sites I was talking about on my Feedjit, but they didn't comment on my piece. Then I went over to a blogger that I really like and discovered that my name was gone from her blog roll. There are more ways than verbal to be nasty. I guess this could be called "a sin of omission". I guess it is okay to attack a fellow blogger in your own comment section, but not to write anything in your own site. Sometimes, the world is just tough.

  5. Anonymous12:07 PM

    Ah, the great injustice of justifiable anger. In all relationships, it seems, there are times when it flares up. Andrew is right in that it generally comes from pent up, bottled up frustration. When the volcano erupts it does enormous damage and when an individual reaches the point of terminal rage, all rational goes out the window. Tone can be forgiven, volume and expression can as well. However, the infamous "I said some things I didn't mean" verbiage cannot. The person on the receiving end of one of these events takes it to heart, believes the message. It must be true, or why would it be delivered with such ferocity? What I like to call TERMINAL ANGER does more to tear down relationships that even physical violence. Words cut, they define and they influence. If you are prone to this kind of anger, get some professional help and learn to identify when the kettle is about to boil over. It is okay to be angry, but not to use that anger as a weapon.

  6. I think it'd be a rare human being who hasn't experienced and expressed justifiable anger at some point, if not towards a parent, sibling, partner or associate, then perhaps towards an authority figure of some kind.

    Anger is an acceptable outlet, maybe even a necessary one in some cases, but the key is to keep the anger focused on it's cause and not to widen the field. It's hard to do this, I know. It's so easy to begin with a particular complaint then allow it to snowball into past complaints, perceived personality defects, threats, and so on, gaining power as the anger grows.

    Andrew asks:
    Have you encountered this type of behavior?
    Yes, my late partner, a delightful guy, had a pretty dramatic temper, mostly it exploded in my mother's direction causing her to do likewise - I was "pig in the middle", which in early days caused me to explode too. But I learned to stay quiet and try later to mend fences, concealed my own hurt because I loved them both dearly, and I knew beyond doubt that they loved me. It was part and parcel of who they were.

    Do you think limitless anger can be justified?
    No, but some personalities seem to have it hard-wired into their nature. If a regular feature of life, they ought to seek help - but I'd bet most wouldn't do so - they always feel justified.

    Does everyone do this to some extent on occasion?
    I think so, "some extent" being the operative words. One person's limitless rage might seem like a mild tiff to another.

    How would you suggest people could avoid this kind of scenario?
    Communication, communication, communication - before things erupt. But at least one of the parties has to be of a slightly milder nature to initiate "diplomacy". I suppose it's the personal level of what occurs when war threatens internationally.

  7. In the heat of battle there are no limits when the brain is pulsing for war.
    Mopst times I walk away from a battle and come back coller but still ready to fight with a well thought out battle plan.
    No one can walk away totally from a problem but a strategic retreat to regroup before hand can place you in a better possition instead of burning the house down to save the bedroom.

    BUT, that said in m y younger days I had been known to attack with both barrels first and then try and clean up the mess.

    I think it takes years of experience to learn to deal with these situations situations.

  8. For me limitless anger can't be justified. You might try to justify your anger by saying that your parents had it, your father was that way and so on . But there is no justification, it does not matter what you went through, you were a child then, now you are an adult and you can decide.
    If you can't let go, forgive and move on, you are still dwelling on self-pity. You haven't grown up.
    Growing up means that you can take responsibility for your feelings, and actions.
    As the Dalai Lama says: If you are able to recognize the moment when anger arises, you will be able to distinguish the part of your mind that is feeling anger. This will divide your mind in two parts-one part will be feeling anger while the other will be trying to observe. Therefore anger cannot dominate the entire mind. You are able to recognize that anger is harmful and maybe develop an antidote to it. View your anger objectively. Try to see the positive side of the anger-causing person or event.
    Plus from my personal experience, anger can be use constructively. Use your anger for example to reach your goals, to get the job, to make the sale. Start transforming your negative anger into an ally.

  9. Justifiable anger. Anger has to have an outlet, or it can fester and become depression or resentment. If the person on the receiving end of such an outburst is, indeed, in the wrong, then I don't feel an apology from the angry party is necessary.

    Violence, however, must not be tolerated!

    And it IS okay to go to bed angry...sometimes fatigue and being overwrought can exacerbate perceived feelings of "being done wrong". Looking at the problem, after a good rest, can give a person a clearer perspective to then discuss the issue without so much hostility.

  10. Both guilty of it and the recipient of it. His tirades, with either no apologies or very weak ones that included statements like "... but it's both our faults" are what helped kill my first marriage. My tirades leave me spent and feeling ultra-guilty, so I've learned to find alternatives - I walk. I drive off and sit in the car in a parking lot. I clean like crazy (I can spit-shine an eight-room house in ten minutes flat on a head of steam!). And I rehearse in my head the scenario and thankfully, I try to understand the root of the anger. Why am I feeling out of control? I can't say it works every time - it doesn't. Sometimes I just let loose. We all do. We're fallible creatures. The best we can do is to forgive ourselves and learn to look at our anger for what it is - insecurity, control issues, fear, etc.

  11. It doesn't work to tell yourself that you are going to do better and not get angry any more. What we have to understand is something that we teach in a family business about understanding emotions. We teach that emotions produce action. That's a principle.

    So -- we are angry because of something that we are feeling or thinking, or a combination of the two. When we look at it like that, we can figure out the root of why we are so angry. Then we can know what the real problem is.

    I tell my kids all the time -- you are not guilty for your emotions. Sure, you may indeed be very, very angry! That's all right. The principle, though, is that emotions produce action. If your emotions are producing an action that is hurtful to someone else, you ARE responsible for that. End of discussion.

    I have found that when we realize that we're not guilty for emotions, but responsible for the actions, we are more able to change, and do that in a non-threatening manner.

    Janet Summit

  12. Justifiable anger. This is something I'm working on. I always feel as if I should not be angry. No matter what. And when I feel myself getting angry I sort of back away from the situation as quickly as possible. I know that it is a result of being around people of limitless anger for most of my life, but at 52, I've got to figure out how not to be afraid of anger. My own and anyone else's.