The Consequences of Built Up and Unresolved Anger
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Anger is often a misunderstood emotion and a lot of people see anger as a negative or bad emotion – something to suppress and not express. However, we wouldn’t have this emotion if it wasn’t helpful to us and served a purpose. So, what is the purpose of anger?
Anger is needed for us to be able to protect ourselves and have healthier relationships. Anger lets us know that someone has harmed us in some way, and it gives us the drive and energy to take an action to protect ourselves. That’s why anger can be so intense emotionally and physically, creating energy in our bodies similar to the fight or flight feeling with anxiety. All that energy is self-protective. If we did not have the ability to feel anger and take appropriate action when angry, we would be taken advantage of and harmed over and over again.
So what happens when we feel the anger that is justified, but are not able to protect ourselves for whatever the reason may be, and we keep getting harmed? Anger builds and it gets stuck inside us. This is what we would label as stored anger.* Here is the definition of stored anger and where it comes from in a person’s life:
Stored anger is the accumulation of anger that requires these three conditions:
1. Ongoing or significantly impactful instances of any of the following:
Physical abuse or harm
Emotional abuse or harm
Sexual abuse or assault
Social marginalization, oppression, discrimination
2. Inability to adequately protect self
3. Inability to leave the situation
When we build up a high level of stored anger, we can become quick to anger, escalating quickly, intensely, and often. We can also have a tendency to displace anger on the wrong person. These issues related to stored anger can lead to over-responding and/or to actions that may hurt others, hurt our close relationships, and/or lead to damage of property whether our own or others’. Sometimes the intensity and frequency of the anger alone is difficult on the person who is feeling it. A good number of people have some level of stored anger, but others have higher levels given what they have been through in life or due to trauma that has been passed down through generations. Having a high level of stored anger is like a balloon filled with a lot of air – it’s ready to pop at any moment.
While stored anger can have its downsides and negatives, it also is understandable given someone’s life experiences or intergenerational trauma. So if this is something you have felt or think you have seen in others, stop and ask yourself if you or this other person has experienced any of the conditions and situations stated above with the definition of stored anger. If possible, work towards greater understanding of the connection between what you or they have experienced, and how that has shaped the expression of anger; and along with greater understanding can hopefully leads towards greater compassion for yourself and for others. It is not to say that actions arising from stored anger should be encouraged or is okay, and it is important to set boundaries and limits to protect yourself from harm. However, it is the understanding of where this type of anger is coming from that may be the helpful part.
When someone experiencing stored anger feels ready, they can start working towards reducing the intensity of that emotion they have been carrying – this is the letting go of some of the air in the balloon so it is not so ready to pop. There are ways to work towards letting the anger go, but it can take time and sometimes the route to discharging that buildup of anger is a difficult and complicated process.
*The concept of stored anger comes from the therapeutic work of the co-facilitators of our anger management group, Samantha Franklin and Stanley Thiele, who both specialize in anger management in their individual practices.
Written by: Sam Franklin, MA, LMFT