Human beings experience two primary emotions: love (which is soul-based) and fear (which is ego-based). All positive emotions stem from love, and all negative emotions stem from fear; the fear of isolation, because we are unfit to be loved. Which brings us to shame. Shame is our conscience, the voice of the soul that says I am less because of my actions; it is the painful belief that our behavior makes us unworthy of love and undeserving of acceptance—and by extension, all that we love is neither safe nor secure. This pain of legitimate shame is to alert us that we have fallen below our potential. In accepting responsibility, we not only cancel the emotional debt but we receive the benefit of enhanced self-esteem; and with it, the capacity to love and to be loved as well as a host of emotional dividends including trust in our future welfare (see Chapter 11 for elaboration). However, when we are confronted by either circumstance or conscience, and deny accountability, we will to varying degrees and levels of consciousness acquire a stain of shame—because we cannot lie to our deepest selves. (Part IV shows the process to free ourselves from shame and restore our feelings of self-worth to pristine condition.)
Therein lies the origin of anger: As the ego compensates for feelings of unresolved shame, we experience a counterfeit shame: I am less if you think I am less. Feeling rejected in any way (embarrassed, criticized, unwanted, mocked, and the like) is excruciatingly painful and intensely feared because it feels to us (the ego, the false self) like genuine shame. The egocentric psyche translates any rejection to mean that I am inadequate. I will not be safe and accepted because I am unworthy of love and undeserving of good. A further aberration explains misplaced shame, which is rooted in the corrupted belief that says: I am responsible for the behavior of others. In which case, we are never blameless for whatever is done to us, because we are a coconspirator—both victim and abuser. In Chapter 14 we explain that because children are egocentric by nature, it is normal for them to ascribe a failure within themselves as the reason behind the behavior of others. Therefore, if we, as children, grew up believing that we were never good enough to merit our parent’s love and approval, or we are mistreated, held to unrealistic expectations, or forced to assume responsibilities that weren’t ours, shame—the feeling that we have failed, fallen below our potential, is imprinted. We all transition to adulthood having absorbed some shame (which is why we feel ashamed for inherent flaws and faults, which we neither caused nor contributed to—and of course, that we all have); and the more damaging the childhood, the greater the ego and accompanying shame.
The ego is on the lookout for any situation that calls into question our worth, fearful that we are not lovable and may be rejected. Hence, the opposite of control—feeling vulnerable or even being stared at, let alone being disrespected or ridiculed, can send the egocentric psyche into overdrive. It becomes clear then why relationships, particularly with those closest to us, can result in unrelenting anger—it sets off so many emotional triggers. Take a simple scenario: a child does not listen to a parent.
• Guilt (Maybe I’ve done a poor job parenting.)
• Disrespect (How dare he not listen to me!)
• Rejection (He doesn’t love me.)
• Embarrassment (If others are around, what do they think of me?)
• Fear (What’s going to become of him? What will become of our relationship?)
• Injustice (After all I’ve done for him.)
Whenever there is a threat to our emotional (or physical) selves, the lower our self-esteem, in general—and how much the uncomfortable truth hits a raw nerve and affects our self-image, in particular—the more fearful we become of feeling that pain; as a result, our need to exert control surges. Authentic control is actuated when we rise above our nature and exercise selfcontrol, thus rendering the fear/pain mechanism inert. Anger is the illusion of control because physiologically, the release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline and the hormone adrenaline increases awareness, energy, and strength. Emotionally, anger redirects our attention away from the fear/pain, which also mimics the sensation that we have seized control. The reality, of course, is that we spiral out of control and become weaker with each intense, anger-driven thought or action. Our personality will dictate how our anger manifests and mirrors the fight-or-flight response to a physical threat.
• Assertive aggressive (fight): We come out fighting attempting to control the situation overtly.
• Passive aggressive (flight): Anger leaks out in more subtle ways. Unable to confront directly, we seek control stealthily.
• Surrender or Suppression (flight): We are unable to consciously acknowledge our anger, so we control it by either (a) telling ourselves that we are not worthy of asserting ourselves or (b) suppressing our emotions and telling ourselves that we are not angered to begin with.
• Immobilization (freeze): Feeling powerless, we close down to insulate ourselves from the pain. I can avoid. I can shut out the world. I will be safe. I will be in control.
The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction to a perceived threat, and is triggered whether the danger is real or imagined. For example, whether we see a bear in the woods or believe that we see one, the response is the same: The sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal gland, which releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into the bloodstream and reroutes the threat from the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) to the amygdala (the fear and anxiety response center). The moment, however, that we realize that there is no bear, the response disengages—because the danger no longer exists. Likewise, becoming aware that we are not experiencing shame, but its counterfeit, neutralizes the threat. We have nothing to fear and no need to exert control because the pain is not real. We are not in danger. We are already safe.
Copyright © 2018 by David Lieberman Ph.D. in Never Get Angry Again and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.