How we deal with stress, disappointments, and frustration determines the essence of our personality. In this chapter we consider frustration and aggression. Anger may do more harm than any other emotion. First of all it is very common and, secondly, it upsets at least two people--the aggressor and the aggressed against. There are two problems: how to prevent or control your own anger and how to handle someone aggressing against you. This chapter attends more to self-control.
The overall effects of anger are enormous (Nay, 1996). Frustration tells us "I'm not getting what I want" and eventually anger is related to violence, crime, spouse and child abuse, divorce, stormy relationships, poor working conditions, poor physical health (headaches, hypertension, GI disturbances, heart attacks), emotional disorders, and so on.
Just how widespread is hostility? Very! Psychology Today (1983) asked, "If you could secretly push a button and thereby eliminate any person with no repercussions to yourself, would you press that button?" 69% of responding males said yes, 56% of women. Men would most often kill the U. S. president or some public figure; women would kill bosses, ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends and former partners of current lovers. Another survey of college students during the 80's indicated that 15% agreed that "if we could wipe out the Soviet Union, and be sure they wouldn't be able to retaliate, we should do it." That action could result in over 100 million deaths! The respondents seemed to realize the great loss of life because 26% said, "the United States should be willing to accept 25 million to 50 million casualties in order to engage in nuclear war." What an interesting combination of intelligence and mass violence in the same species. In light of the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, this kind of pugnacious, arrogant, uncaring thinking is really scary. The problem isn't stupid thinking as much as it is self-centered mean-spiritedness.
Great atrocities are attributed to crazed men--Hitler, Stalin, terrorists, etc. But, several psychological studies cited in this and the next chapter suggest that ordinary people can rather easily become evil enough to discriminate against, hurt, and brutalize others. Likewise, Goldhagen (1995) has documented that ordinary Germans by the thousands rounded up and executed Jews by the millions. It isn't just the prejudiced and deranged that brutalize. There is scary evidence that almost all of us might, under the right conditions, develop a tolerance or a rationalization for injustice. Even the most moral among us may look the other way (certainly the many murderers in Germany and Russia talked to priests, ministers, town officials, etc.). We strongly resist thinking of ourselves as potentially mean, but we have no trouble believing that others are immoral. Storr (1994) attempts to explain intense human hatred and cruelty to others, such as genocide and racial or religious conflict.
The crime rate soars in the U.S. and our prisons overflow; infidelity and spouse abuse are high; 1 in 5 women has been raped, 683,000 women were raped in 1990 (30% were less than 11!); our murder rate is several times higher than most other countries. We are prejudiced. We distrust and dislike others. Even within the family--supposedly our refuge, our safe place, our source of love--there is much violence. Between 1/4 and 1/2 of all wives have been physically battered which causes great psychological trauma too (Goodman, Koss, & Russo, 1993). Physical fights have occurred within 12-16% of all marriages during the last year. In 50% of these instances it is mutual violence, i.e. both try to beat up on the other. But children 3 to 17 are the most violent: 20% per year actually abuse their parents, 93-95% are a "little physical" with parents. In addition, last year 10% of children were dangerously and severely aggressive with siblings. Nearly one third of us fight with our siblings. About 25% of all murders are by teenagers. There are 1.2 million cases of child abuse per year. Pogrebin (1983) says we are a child-hating society.
One in eight high school students are involved in an abusive "love" relationship right now. 40% of youths have been in a fight in the last year; 10% were in four or more fights last year. 25% of young males have carried a weapon at least one day in the last month (of that 25%, 60% carried a knife and 25% a gun). Boys and men are much more likely to carry a weapon than a female, but don't assume that only men act violently. Recent studies suggest that college (not high school) women are more likely than men to kick, push, bite, and slap in anger, especially when they are jealous. Hostile, aggressive young people tend to come from broken, angry, violent homes.
We will study more about how anger develops. Is it innate? Certainly most three-year-olds can throw a temper tantrum without any formal training and often even without observing a model. Is it learned? Why are the abused sometimes abusers? Does having a temper and being aggressive yield payoffs? You bet. How do we learn to suppress aggression? How can we learn to forgive others?
Anger can be the result of hurt pride, of unreasonable expectations, or of repeated hostile fantasies. Besides getting our way, we may unconsciously use anger to blame others for our own shortcomings, to justify oppressing others, to boost our own sagging egos, to conceal other feelings, and to handle other emotions (as when we become aggressive when we are afraid). Any situation that frustrates us, especially when we think someone else is to blame for our loss, is a potential trigger for anger and aggression.
So, what is frustration? It is the feeling we get when we don't get what we want, when something interferes with our gaining a desired and expected goal. It can be physical (a flat tire), our own limitations (paralysis after an accident), our choices (an unprepared for and flunked exam), others' actions (parental restrictions or torturing a political prisoner), others' motives (deception for a self-serving purpose), or society's injustice (born into poverty and finding no way out).
Anger is feeling mad in response to frustration or injury. You don't like what has happened and usually you'd like to get revenge. Anger is an emotional-physiological-cognitive internal state; it is separate from the behavior it might prompt. In some instances, angry emotions are beneficial; if we are being taken advantage of, anger motivates us to take action (not necessarily aggressive) to correct the situation. Aggression is action, i.e. attacking someone or a group. It is intended to harm someone. It can be a verbal attack--insults, threats, sarcasm, or attributing nasty motives to them--or a physical punishment or restriction. What about thoughts and fantasies in which we humiliate or brutally assault our enemies? Is that aggression? What about violent dreams? Such thoughts and dreams suggest anger, of course, but are not aggression as I have defined it here.
While aggression is usually a result of anger, it may be "cold" and calculated, for example, the bomber pilot, the judge who sentences a criminal, the unfaithful spouse, the merchant who overprices a product, or the unemotional gang attack. To clarify aggression, some writers have classified it according to its purpose: instrumental aggression (to get some reward, not to get revenge), hostile aggression (to hurt someone or get revenge), and annoyance aggression (to stop an irritant). When our aggression becomes so extreme that we lose self-control, it is said that we are in a rage.
Aggression must be distinguished from assertiveness which is tactfully and rationally standing up for your own rights; indeed, assertiveness is designed not to hurt others (see chapter 8).
Anger can also be distinguished from hostility which is a chronic state of anger. Anger is a temporary response, which we all have, to a particular frustrating situation; hostility is a permanent personality characteristic which certain people have.
This chapter will provide (1) signs of anger, (2) theories about how and why aggression develops, and (3) means of preventing or coping with anger (in yourself and in others).
We know when we are very mad, but anger and aggression come in many forms, some quite subtle. Look inside yourself for more anger. This list (Madlow, 1972) of behaviors and verbal comments said to others or only thought to ourselves may help you uncover some resentments you were not aware of:
Direct behavioral signs:
- Assaultive: physical and verbal cruelty, rage, slapping, shoving, kicking, hitting, threaten with a knife or gun, etc.
- Aggression: overly critical, fault finding, name-calling, accusing someone of having immoral or despicable traits or motives, nagging, whining, sarcasm, prejudice, flashes of temper.
- Hurtful: malicious gossip, stealing, trouble-making.
- Rebellious: anti-social behavior, open defiance, refusal to talk.
Direct verbal or cognitive signs:
- Open hatred and insults: "I hate your guts;" "I'm really mad;" "You're so damn stupid."
- Contempt and disgust: "You're a selfish SOB;" "You are a spineless wimp, you'll never amount to anything."
- Critical: "If you really cared about me, you'd...;"
"You can't trust _______."
- Suspicious: "You haven't been fair;" "You cheated!"
- Blaming: "They have been trying to cause me trouble."
- I don't get the respect I deserve: "They just don't respect the owner (or boss or teacher or doctor) any more."
- Revengeful: "I wish I could really hurt him."
- Name calling: "Guys are jerks;" "Women are bitches;" "Politicians are self-serving liars."
- Less intense but clear: "Well, I'm a little annoyed;" "I'm fed up with...;" "I've had it!" "You're a pain." "I don't want to be around you."
Thinly veiled behavioral signs:
- Distrustful, skeptical.
- Argumentative, irritable, indirectly challenging.
- Resentful, jealous, envious.
- Disruptive, uncooperative, or distracting actions.
- Unforgiving or unsympathetic attitude.
- Sulky, sullen, pouting.
- Passively resistant, interferes with progress.
- Given to sarcasm, cynical humor, and teasing.
- Judgmental, has a superior or holier-than-thou attitude.
Thinly veiled verbal signs:
- "No, I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed, annoyed, disgusted, put out, or irritated."
- "You don't know what you are talking about;" "Don't make me laugh."
- "Don't push me, I'll do it when I get good and ready."
- "Well, they aren't my kind of people."
- "Would you buy a used car from him?"
- "You could improve on..."
- "Unlike Social Work, my major admits only the best students."
Indirect behavioral signs:
- Withdrawal: quiet remoteness, silence, little communication especially about feelings.
- Psychosomatic disorders: tiredness, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease. Actually, college students with high Hostility scores had, 20 years later, become more overweight with higher cholesterol and hypertension, had drunk more coffee and alcohol, had smoked more cigarettes, and generally had poorer health (Friedman, 1991). See chapter 5 for a discussion of psychogenic disorders.
- Depression and guilt.
- Serious mental illness: paranoid schizophrenia.
- Accident-proneness and self-defeating or addictive behavior, such as drinking, over-eating, or drugs.
- Vigorous, distracting activity (exercising or cleaning).
- Excessively submissive, deferring behavior.
Indirect verbal signs:
- "I just don't want to talk."
- "I'm disappointed in our relationship."
- "I feel bad all the time."
- "If you had just lost some weight."
- "I'm really swamped with work, can't we do something about it?"
- "Why does this always happen to me?"
- "No, I'm not angry about anything--I just cry all the time."