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Interventions for Leaving a Violent Relationship
Violent Relationships continuing education psychology CEUs

Section 18
Primal Beliefs about Anger

CEU Question 18 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Domestic Violence
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Our beliefs and information-processing systems play a decisive role in determining our feelings and behavior. We interpret and misinterpret signals from others according to our values, rules, and beliefs. When we overemphasize the significance of personal success, or national superiority, we slip into the trap of regarding individual competitors, members of outgroups, or citizens of other nations as less worthy than ourselves. Primitive mechanisms for processing information, retained from our evolutionary experience, prejudice our judgments about people who differ from us. Cognitive biases may also lead us to indiscriminately attribute malice to anyone whose actions or beliefs conflict with ours. As the vise of our cognitive apparatus tightens, we tend to squeeze these people into the Enemy category: the angry spouse, the member of a religious or racial minority, the outspoken political revolutionary. It becomes increasingly difficult to observe others reflectively, objectively, and with perspective.

The predilection to become excessively or inappropriately angry and violent may be understood in terms of this primal thinking. The patterns are primal not only in the sense of being basic but also because they probably originate in primordial times, when they would have been useful to our animal and human ancestors in dealing with dangerous problems with other individuals or groups.

People generally believe that their anger is their first response to an offense; their initial interpretation preceding their angry response, however, is so rapid and often so subtle that they may not be aware of it. Upon reflection and introspection, however, they can almost recognize that their initial emotional response is a distressed feeling rather than anger. With training, they can generally "catch" the meaning of an event leading to their distress.

The hostility sequence thus proceeds from the interpretation of a transgression to anger and then to hostile verbal or physical action. For many years I believed that the anger followed immediately after the interpretation of being wronged. Several years ago, however, I observed that patients who focused on their feelings following a noxious experience noted a fleeting hurt or anxious feeling before they experienced anger. Close examination revealed the common theme leading to the distress that preceded the experience of anger: the perception of being diminished in some way. If the individual evaluates this distress as wrongfully caused by another person, his behavioral system is mobilized in preparation for counterattack. A simplified version of the stages in the development of hostility can be represented in this diagram:


If we perceive that a threat or loss is simply due to an impersonal situation-for example, sickness or an economic crisis-we feel upset or unhappy but not angry. If we conclude that some person or group is at fault, however, then we feel angry and are impelled to retaliate to undo the wrong. We may even feel angry at an inanimate object when we feel that it is unfairly impinging on us (such as a chair that shouldn't be there, or a glass that shouldn't have fallen from our grip). Our subjective feeling ranges in quality and intensity from being miffed to being enraged. Although the term "anger" is often used in common parlance to express not only a person's feeling but also his or her destructive behavior, I reserve the term simply for the feeling. I will use the term "hostile aggression" to refer to the behavior.

When we are mobilized to fight or to counterattack, we may inhibit our actions out of concern for the consequences. Nonetheless, as long as our image of the transgressor persists, our biological attack systems remain activated, expressed physiologically by an increase in the heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, and growing tension of the muscles. Our mobilization to fight also includes our display of intimidating facial expressions, such as scowling and staring.

Problems arise in interpersonal relations when we misinterpret or exaggerate what seems to be a transgression. Say we believe that somebody has disparaged us, deceived us, or challenged a cherished value. This violation rouses us to counterattack in order to terminate the damage and punish the offender. We all have specific vulnerabilities that predispose us to overreact to situations that impinge on them. These vulnerable areas actually consist of problematic beliefs, such as, "If somebody doesn't show respect, it means I appear weak," or, "If my wife doesn't express appreciation to me, it means she doesn't care," or, "If my spouse rejects me, I am helpless."

To protect ourselves from discrimination, coercion, injustice, and abandonment, we construct rules regarding equality, freedom, fairness, and rejection. If we perceive that we are receiving unfair treatment or that our freedom is curtailed, not only are we diminished by it, but we become vulnerable to further disparagement. We may seek to retaliate and punish the violator, even if we have not sustained any damage, in order to reinstate the balance of power. Whether we have been damaged or not, we determine the nature of the offense, weigh the pros and cons of desired retaliation, and decide on what form of remedial action to take.

We use these formulas to monitor and evaluate our interpersonal transactions, but because they are exaggerated and rigid they lead to unnecessary distress. Faulty beliefs are embedded in a network of self-protective compensatory demands: "People must show me respect," or, "My wife should consistently demonstrate she cares." If these injunctions are violated, then another set of coercive retaliatory beliefs is activated. "I should punish anybody who doesn't show me respect," or, "I should withdraw from my wife if she is not responsive." Beliefs that protect what we consider vital to our existence or our identity assume a primal form, such as, "Somebody who slurs my honor is my enemy."

The primal beliefs are often extreme and can lead to violence. Hank, a construction worker who believed, "If somebody doesn't show respect, I should beat him up," got into a number of fights on the job, at bars, and at other social gatherings. Sometimes he extended the same rule to his wife and struck her when she scolded him. One such event led to his entry into couples' therapy, where he recognized that his sense of vulnerability underlay his drive to preserve his macho image at all costs. When he realized that giving in to his impulse to hurt people was generally regarded as a sign of weakness, not strength, he was more motivated to control his behavior. We have found clinically that a number of abusive people have a defective image of themselves, for which they compensate by attempting to intimidate others.
- Beck, A.T., PhD. (1999). Prisoners of Hate. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Chen, J., Walters, M. L., Gilbert, L. K., & Patel, N. (2020). Sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence by sexual orientation, United States. Psychology of Violence, 10(1), 110–119.

Crossman, K. A., & Hardesty, J. L. (2018). Placing coercive control at the center: What are the processes of coercive control and what makes control coercive? Psychology of Violence, 8(2), 196–206.

Dichter, M. E., Thomas, K. A., Crits-Christoph, P., Ogden, S. N., & Rhodes, K. V. (2018). Coercive control in intimate partner violence: Relationship with women’s experience of violence, use of violence, and danger. Psychology of Violence, 8(5), 596–604. 

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 18
When threats are perceived as impersonal one feels upset or unhappy, but if one concludes that some person or group is at fault, how does one tend to feel? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.

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