Isolated vs compounded anger
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
This is part two of a three part series on anger.
In the first post we learned about what Dr. Gabor Maté identified as two types of anger: healthy and unhealthy, as well as how anger boosts the immune system. Personally, I don't love the label "unhealthy" in front of any emotion. I think it gives yet another reason to be emotion-adverse in a society that is already highly emotion-adverse. Feeling and expressing any emotional material, even what Dr. Maté would call "unhealthy" anger, is a huge step up from the norm of denying its existence. So, I've decided to rename these two types of anger as isolated anger and compounded anger.
Maté stated that the purpose of healthy anger (or isolated anger) is boundary defense and self-protection. It surfaces in the moment to help us respond to potential danger, and then it leaves. Unhealthy anger (or compounded anger) consists of "recruiting negative memories from the past and projecting them into the future."
Identifying and understanding isolated and compounded anger
Research shows that the physiology of pure, uninterrupted emotion is completed in about 90 seconds. This means that our bodies can process the energy of anger in about 90 seconds; it rises to alert to a perceived threat, moves through, and then it's over. There may be an outward action or behavior such as saying "no" or walking away, or there may not. There is no interruption of the energy of anger from the mind or the body. The body is not tensing against the anger, the mind is not analyzing or evaluating the anger, and so on. This is isolated anger. You might compare it to healthy digestion (though digestion takes far longer than 90 seconds); you eat a meal, it gets broken down, your body absorbs what it needs, and the rest makes its exit with no trouble.
Characteristics of isolated anger
Its sensations are easy to track in your body because your mind isn't over-involved. Ex."I feel hot, my throat is constricted, and I feel energy rising up into my arms"
It isn't connected to other emotion
You're not trying to suppress it or resist it
You are able to be present with it
It's easy to soothe, either by yourself or by others
Focusing on it helps it to dissipate
There's not a lot of story around it
It's easy to let go of
You don't feel drawn to talking about it, rehashing it, or telling multiple people about it
It doesn't occur to you to complain about it
If you do remember it or rehash it, there isn't an emotional "charge" around it but rather a sense of neutrality, curiosity, or even humor
When emotion gets interrupted in some way, it takes a lot longer than 90 seconds to move through. It can take hours, days, or even years. Compounded anger is anger that arises, but it gets interrupted in some way and isn't completed. It could be that the mind comes in to ruminate on the situation, or the muscles constrict in opposition. The next time anger rises you will experience not only the anger of the present but the anger that is stuck in your system from the past. Anger gets compounded on top of anger. Using the previous example of interrupted digestion, every time you eat, you'll become even more blocked up. Pretty soon you will have no idea what the original cause of the upset to your digestion was. You may even erroneously think that what you ate today is the problem when the issue started a week ago.
Characteristics of compounded anger
It's difficult to track in your body. This could be because your mind becomes very loud, or because the sensations are too overwhelming, or because as soon as you try to track it, it disappears
You notice yourself stewing, ruminating, or having imaginary conversations about it in your head long after the event
You have a hard time being present with the feeling and start to distract yourself by intellectualizing, rationalizing, or other defenses
There are "shoulds" around it such as "I shouldn't be angry," "they shouldn't have done that," or "I should get over it"
You are fighting with yourself about it or feel conflicted internally
You feel as if you must defend your anger to yourself or others, or you try to hide it from yourself or others
It's connected to other emotions such as anxiety, fear, or grief
There's a lot of story around it
You can't stop thinking about it
It makes you dwell on past situations
You have trouble understanding or explaining why it bothers you
You feel as if you just can't let it go
You are talking to everyone you know about it instead of just one or two trusted people, or you can't talk about it at all
When you talk about it you are mostly complaining
Attempts to soothe it make it worse
Focusing on it only makes it worse
The intensity of the anger doesn't seem to make sense when you consider the facts of the situation
The drive to survive
Since our body's main goal is to stay alive, it does two things with this undigested anger. One, it knows that holding onto old emotion (or food!) isn't healthy. The body will look for opportunities to purge that sludgy old residue. And two, the body keeps a record of all the situations that created the anger in the first place (see my blog post on implicit memory). It holds on to the past hurts and upsets that haven't been healed so it can alert us when we are in danger of getting salt in the wound.
The body has two seemingly opposite drives; it wants to get rid of the old anger and hold onto it at the same time. This can create a lot of internal conflict and pressure. If you've ever tried to clean out your closet, you know how stressful it can be to decide whether to hang on to that adorable shirt you've only worn once in the last three years.
Here's the issue: while these drives are meant to protect us, if they continue uninterrupted for too long, they can really hurt us. We can develop depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and other illnesses. And neither one represents "healthy" anger because we're not dealing with the root of the anger. We're experiencing the emotional residue of anger from the past.
Step 1: Awareness
So, what can be done about this? The first thing is to become aware. It took me about three months to become aware that the anger I was feeling about situations at work had more to do with past hurts than the present. It doesn't mean there wasn't legitimate anger in response to what was going on at work. I had every right to be angry and upon reflection recognized that there were times I was experiencing isolated anger. I only recognized that I also had compounded anger after I had complained to my husband about it for the 36th time and thought, "Oh yeah…there's more going on here." Don't beat yourself up about being unaware; these things take time.
One of the tricky things about identifying which bucket your anger is falling into is that all physiological states, including emotion, exist on a spectrum. Your body is always in process; it is never the same from one moment to the next. Even when things get stuck, there is always change happening. To paraphrase the old saying, "You never step into the same river twice;" the river is never the same, and you are never the same. We can get even more jammed up if we are trying to know with 100% certainty which type of anger we are experiencing because our state is constantly changing. It's especially important to not strive too hard to "do anger right." In fact that's a surefire way to move your anger along the spectrum toward "compound" anger!
Part of the reason it's so difficult to become aware that our anger might be compounded is the thinking mind. The ability to think is an amazing tool. We can do so many things because we can think. But when it comes to emotions, the thinking mind becomes a real pain in the butt. The thinking mind likes to analyze, rationalize, control, predict, make meaning, and solve problems. It's uncomfortable with ambiguity and it craves certainty. The thinking mind is one of the main ways that emotions get obstructed in our bodies. When we start to feel an emotion, especially an intense one like anger, the mind likes to get involved and tell us why we should be angry or why we shouldn't be angry. It likes to remind us of what that person said or did, how big of a jerk they are, how they were trying to hurt us, and how they will probably hurt us again. Or it likes to tell us that anger is bad, it means we're a bad person, how we should be kind to everyone always, and how we need to be "nice." While the mind is just doing its job, these thoughts serve to take us away from our raw experience of the emotion. That's when we get into trouble. People love to blame anger for a lot of bad outcomes, but it's what we do with anger that's the real problem.
Step 2: Compassion -- if changing emotional patterns was so easy, everyone would do it
The next thing is to be compassionate with yourself and recognize that compounded anger surfacing is an opportunity to heal old wounds. Part of building compassion is understanding that your patterns around anger are automatic, and they began when you were very young. This doesn't mean you can't change them, but in case you haven't noticed, it's difficult! If changing emotional patterns was so easy, everyone would do it. Just as nobody in their right mind would choose to have bad digestion, I don't know anyone who would consciously choose to harbor anger. The tendency toward having compounded anger isn't your choice, just as your digestion isn't your choice.
Emotional responses happen automatically, just like our digestion, heartbeat, and body temperature. Consider how babies and young children don't have any problem experiencing pure emotion. They have no preconceived ideas about emotions being "good" or "bad" just as they have no problem peeing in a diaper, spitting up their food or drooling.
This doesn't mean we don't have influence over our emotional responses or other physiological processes. We don't tell our heart to beat, but we can influence it by taking a brisk walk or controlling our breathing . Similarly, we can influence our emotions in a variety of ways. But, it's important to understand that our physiology eats our good intentions for breakfast every day -- and that's a great thing! Suppose you were responsible for your heartbeat—what would happen when you fell asleep? This doesn't mean we don't have any responsibility at all for our heartbeat. We can still choose what food we put in our body, how much we move, whether we smoke, and so on. This is an important distinction to make. We are not completely off the hook, but we have way less control over these things than we'd like to think. And if you've ever tried to change your diet, or exercise more, or quit smoking, you know what a challenge it is. Again, if it was easy everyone would do it.
Once you've become aware of, and offered yourself compassion for, the fact that you are experiencing compounded anger, you can go to work to heal the old hurt that’s at the root of it all. This is the topic for the next post.