When anger trumps compassion

compassionate-700x500   Can compassion  be learned or is it something inherent in certain people? Often times, patients will say they are understanding and empathetic to a particular individual in his or her life, but the actions demonstrated run counter to what is being said. I’ve begun to notice a trend in some of my patients, one that ties into my initial question of compassion: anger, resentment and hostility are usually the expressed before compassion.

One patient of mine, we’ll call him Eric*, came to see me and told me about a friend of his who needed a favor: money. Eric’s friend was in a hole and wanted to borrow some cash to buy Christmas gifts for her family members. As Eric continued to tell the story, he seemed to become enraged at the thought that his friend was asking him for money! As I let Eric continue on with his story and his remarks on the friend’s character and how he no longer saw this individual in a positive way, he mentioned how sorry he was for her. However, his tone, facial expressions and initial reaction said something completely different. When Eric was done presenting his case for why he was mad, I asked him why he appeared so angry and did not show much compassion for someone who was down on her luck. After all, Eric’s story is similar to his friend’s in terms of life experiences. I noticed Eric becoming a bit angry with me for questioning his compassion, or lack thereof. What was I to make of this? Did Eric think I did not believe he was genuinely compassionate? Did I fail to validate his anger? Possibly. After all, I can identify with Eric’s reaction as many of us probably can. People, sometimes even friends, ask us for favors we do not want to perform and we become angry with them. But why?

While it might be specific to Eric’s case, I’ll make the argument that what happened was a narcissistic injury and then a narcissistic rage (something that is common). Eric felt insulted and undermined, thinking that his friend wanted to take advantage of him, use him for her own gain. He unconsciously might have felt the same feelings as he did with an earlier experience in his life- one that produced anger, shame and hostility toward a needy individual. Perhaps Eric thought his individuality was being undermined. Maybe he wanted retaliation and was trying to gain the upper hand as a reaction to a prior feud.

All are possibilities, but for the work moving forward, it is important to see if compassion is ever the primary emotion. It will be important to explore the reasons for the conflict: verbalizing compassion, demonstrating anger.

Compassion is a hybrid of both nature and nurture. We are all products of our environments and often model what was mirrored for us as children. If compassion and sympathy were two emotions that were absent from childhood, it should not be expected that an individual will know how to have these feelings.

My work with Eric and other patients who present similar issues will require me to have compassion and and patience while I seek to  gain trust to explore the anger.


*name has been changed to protect the identity of the patient


Understanding anger

anger-management-manchester      Can you name a society or culture where aggression is not present? Somewhere where the need to express aggressive drives, whether physically or verbally ceases to exist? The answer is you cannot, because aggression is ubiquitous. When Freud came up with his aggressive drive, he was writing from a biological perspective. For him, aggression was a human drive that we all had in us. This is a good start, but aggression takes on a more important, more consequential form when we look at one’s character development, i.e. personality.

While it is true that the aggressive drive in us needs to be released, whether through argument, fighting or exercising, how we come to understand, know and deal with anger is more complicated. What is less understood is that not all aggressive expressions are a result of anger. Children often times are scorned or punished for “acting out.” This is routinely seen as aggression in our society. But, what if the acting out is caused by something unknown or uncomfortable to the child? What if the child is suffering from anxiety or a fear that cannot be verbalized? What if the child feels an innate sense of helplessness? This all leads to an outward expression of the emotions, but the emotions are caused by anxiety, not anger. As a result, the child is yelled at and disciplined for misbehaving. His symptoms scream anger, but his underlying character is anxiety.

In many cases, one’s own anger presents a great deal of conflict. Anger has a unique relationship to sex, depression, our idealized sense of self and relationships. Sometimes, the anger within cannot be consciously accepted. As Karen Horney writes in The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, “The main reasons why awareness of hostility may be unbearable are that one may love or need a person at the same time that one is hostile toward him, that one may not want to see the reasons, such as envy or possessiveness, which have prompted the hostility, or that it may be frightening to recognize within one’s self hostility toward anyone.” These three points are all conflicts that one must confront. As a rhetorical question, how many of you have been in a relationship where suddenly you are overcome with feelings of anger or hostility toward a partner’s remarks or actions, but know you cannot react, because you are dependent in some way on the relationship?

Aggression or hostility is present in the bedroom as well. I am not talking about whips and chains, but more in terms of one partner routinely dominating the other, usually out of the need to humiliate or punish. This is aggression. Often, this aggression will lead to neurotic formations in one’s personality. It can be viewed as a power struggle, although both parties are unaware of this.

If one were to analyze him or herself, there are certain areas of anger to explore that include the possibility of anger within (anger directed at the self), jealousy, events in the past and childhood experiences. We tend to think of anger turned inward as depression (This is what Freud said), but it is the result of a conflict. One can be angry at himself for failing to compromise, failing to love or failing to live up to his idealized self. The symptoms might be helplessness, sadness and a lack of motivation, but the real problem is one of anger, one of resentment.

Anger has many forms, and most are nonverbal. The passive aggressive can do as much harm to a relationship as physical actions. Aggression in adults can lead to over-assertivness in the workplace, poor boundary setting and hostile friendships. As I have written before, these personality traits are rooted in our unconscious neurotic conflicts and can create serious relational issues if left unexplored.