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  • Jenny Simon MC, LPC, PhD

Why am I so angry and reactive?

Anger is a healthy emotion. It says, “This is not okay.” However, anger aimed at another person can be an emotional abuse weapon. It is a form of control.

First things first, anger is a cover. It is a secondary response.

If we go backward from our anger response, we can see that we first feel attacked and then we defend with anger.

If we slow down and allow ourselves to feel, our first emotion is a version of inadequacy, helplessness, or powerlessness. We HATE feeling “less than.” We will go out of our way to not feel uncomfortable.

So, our second response is often anger or a verbal attack. We self-protect.

Our anger is old. Our fighting skills come in early.

Often, this cycle is born in childhood, from birth to age 8. This defense arrived when a caregiver used threats, control, intimidation, silence, or abandonment to engage with us. We never had an emotionally intelligent conversation about why our caregivers were angry or controlling.

We had limited life experience, and our anger was a reaction. “Ouch, you hurt me, I will retaliate,” like a dog who bites when someone steps on their tail. It is not the most skillful way to deal with our partner’s lateness or someone offering insight. We must do some self-awareness work to break free from this conditioning.

The fighter comes out when we sense that someone might SEE our wound or someone would point to it! We defend our weakness to the death; “How dare you show me something I don’t want to see.” This fighter self can be unskilled or very skilled in verbal combat. But no matter what, we defend in advance when someone gets too close and may expose the wound. We are protecting our shortcomings at all costs. We walk around with armor, which helps preserve our vulnerability, but it also doesn’t allow us to be soft, to care, to be honest, to have empathy. We protect ourselves.

We may think we have intimacy with others, but people walk on eggshells around us. People avoid sharing their truth with us; they don’t feel emotionally safe. People are nervous about setting us off, so they connect with us on a surface level. That is not intimacy; instead, we control the situation to avoid our pain.

The truth is that pain is a normal part of the human experience. We all will feel rejected, we all will feel inadequate, we all will feel bored. People are unfair. People will not meet our needs. Pain is a normal part of life. What is unhealthy is building a wall around us to avoid feeling pain. 

I wonder if we could stop in the moment of reaction and say, “What am I telling myself right now?” “Am I speaking to myself with some version of “I am messing up; I am not doing it right.” Can we dive in a bit and ask, is this true, “Am I really messing up, or is this just one person’s feedback?”  “Why is this pushing my buttons?” Forget what was said and ask, “What is this telling me about myself?”

Can we upgrade the operating system? Can we become more skillful in the ways we navigate pain?

In truth, we have nothing to defend against. We are protecting ourselves from an old feeling of not being good enough; it is from our youth and maybe not even valid in this adult situation. Notice when we are quick to anger, as we may be overly sensitive to the slightest critique or perceived feedback. We might translate discussions into, “I am being attacked because I am not enough,” and we might stop talking. When we become defensive, we wall up and shut off, and it’s unproductive. Both people feel unheard. Anger rises when someone pushes a nerve or discusses anything we are trying to protect. But what if our reaction is not always connected to what is happening now? Can we lower our quick-to-react impulse?

As a therapist, I always get asked, “What is the measurement of mental health? I can get blood work done to determine my numbers. I can get X-rays to look at bone density. I can monitor my blood sugar and my hormones. What is the measurement of mental health?” I tell them mental health is not a lack of depression, as we all get sad; it is not a lack of anxiety, as we all get worried. Mental health is accepting myself: good, bad, and ugly. It is the willingness to admit that I am sometimes lazy, a procrastinator, and selfish. We all have blemishes. Can we see our rough edges and be curious about them instead of protecting them?

When we preserve our early conditioning and say, “This is how I was raised,” it is like saying, “I like my unskillful ways of navigating the world.” The longer we hold on to our armor, the longer we stay irritable, insecure, and angry.

We must embrace all the aspects of ourselves, even the parts that make us uncomfortable. We all have blind spots, spots that we don’t know. We can’t grow and defend at the same time. Keeping the walls up stops us from being curious and learning. We say, “I recognize this feeling and will block it before I feel it.”

This reactivity and defensiveness influence our thinking, communication, and listening styles. Are we defending ourselves in advance? Are we prepared to fight anyone who gives us feedback? Are we always ready to battle? Our inner fighter says, “Don’t get too close; I am brilliant and will verbally fight you.”

(Here is a disclaimer: some people are verbally abusive, and with them, we might be right when we use anger to set boundaries.)

Nine times out of ten, anger is an ineffective operating tool in meaningful relationships. When we use anger with loved ones, they can’t hear us. Most people shut down around anger. Which is what anger was designed to do: silence people. We are like a porcupine ready to release its’ quills at the slightest vulnerability, “Don’t show me my weaknesses, get away from me, don’t get too close, I don’t want to see or feel that.” If we continue to use anger to shut people down, we will silence them. But ultimately, it is a lonely experience; in a walled fortress, we will end up sitting all by ourselves, defending the wound at all costs.

The braver action is to work with someone we trust to feel them and heal the wound. The lens of war needs to be reduced. The defense of the wound needs to be retired. What if we healed our feelings of inadequacy so there was nothing left to protect? We can see the world as a hostile place where people hurt and manipulate us, or we can allow a safe person to help heal this wound.

In addition, we must repair things when we attack our loved ones in anger. Talk about it. Ask for forgiveness.

So, let’s recap: the next time you react and feel frustrated, stop, and ask yourself, Am I in danger? Am I being attacked? The answer is probably no. Walk away or see if you can respond from a softer, heart response versus a head response.

After the argument has ended, ask, what prompted my sudden defense? Can you trace it back to an earlier time? What am I protecting? Do I manage others with my anger? Do I push people away before they see my insecurities? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might benefit from some trauma work, so you don’t have to keep defending and protecting the wound. I know we all hate conflict, but the longer we preserve our dysfunction, the longer it hurts us.


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