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The more one regards a distressing act as intentional or due to the negligence, indifference, or deficiency of the offender, the stronger the reaction. However, people who are particularly prone to react to situations with anger have little awareness of either the transient hurt feeling prior to the anger or the rapid "automatic thoughts" preceding both the pain and the anger. The thoughts that precede the distress may be self-deflating ("I made a bad mistake"), self-doubting ("Can't I do anything right?"), fearful ("I may lose my job"), or disappointing ("He doesn't respect or appreciate me"). I have referred to these kinds of thoughts as "hidden fears" and "secret doubts".
We are generally influenced by how others perceive us or how we think they perceive us. Conclusions such as, "She disapproves of me," affect our image not only of our critic but of ourselves as well. We form an idea about the impression we make on other people, our self-presentation. When we are involved in interactions with others, we tend to project this image onto them and assume that this is the way that they see us. If they mistreat us, our projected interpersonal image may be that of a "pushover" or "slob" or "misfit." Our self-image may shift from, "I appear to be a misfit," to, "I am a misfit." Since the way people perceive us is associated with how much they value us, the debasing of our social image produces psychic pain. The effect of criticism or insult is analogous to that of a physical attack: we become aroused to fend off the attack or to retaliate. In this way we minimize the psychological impact of the blow. If we can discredit the "attacker," the effect on our self-esteem is lessened.
Louise's initial construction of her boss's "criticism" led to her feeling hurt. Her later reconstruction of her boss's behavior led to anger, and even hatred. Between her hurt and anger came a shift of the focus to the person who "caused" her pain and his presumed fault in not appreciating her more. Thoughts like, "He has no business treating me this way," and, "He has a lot of nerve after all I've done for him," made him the wrongdoer and prompted the transition from downgrading herself to downgrading him. The change in her construction allowed her to move from feeling hurt to feeling angry. Her angry feeling, while still distressing, was far more acceptable than her hurt and replaced her sense of vulnerability with a sense of power. In a way it served the same function as a verbal counterattack, even though the retaliation was confined simply to thinking and imagining revenge.
A different kind of "offense" can lead to anger and a desire to punish the offender. Louise became angry not only when she considered herself unfairly treated by a superior but also when her subordinates did not live up to her expectations. One day she flared up at her assistant, Phil, for not having attended promptly to an assignment. Even in this situation, Louise was initially distressed. When she noted her assistant's omission, she had a medley of rapid thoughts and feelings: "He let me down; I'd counted on him." These were followed by a pang of disappointment. The next rapid sequence, "What will he do next? I can't trust him," led to a spurt of anxiety. Louise's anxious and hurt feelings were overshadowed by the next set of thoughts- "He should not have made the mistake. . . . He should have been more careful. . . . He's irresponsible"- which led to anger.
Here again we observe the sequence:
LOSS AND FEAR - DISTRESS - SHIFT OF FOCUS TO THE "OFFENDER" - FEELING OF ANGER
A clue to the angry response is the intrusion of the imperatives "should" and "should not," which impose responsibility for the difficulty on the other person. Louise believed strongly that Phil "should have been more responsible" and needed to be scolded for his transgression. Her thwarted expectations and her sense of being wronged prompted her angry reactions.
We all set up expectations of other people: they should be helpful, cooperative, reasonable, and fair. These expectations are often elevated to the level of rules and demands. When a person whom we count on breaks a rule, we become angry and are disposed to punish him. In the background is the sense that the breach of the code makes us more vulnerable, less effective. Punishing the wrongdoer, however, helps to restore our sense of power and influence.
Having scolded her assistant, Louise felt relieved and moved on to other things. There is generally no "staying power" from punishing other people, however. The increase in self-esteem and gratification does not provide any protection against being upset by the next unpleasant encounter. Phil was hurt and angry and complained to other people in the office about being mistreated. Louise was surprised to hear of this, since she believed she had treated him fairly. Bothered by the image he presented of her, she then became annoyed all over again.
incident illustrates other principles about the expression of anger. In this
encounter both people felt wronged and vulnerable: Louise by Phil's error of omission,
and Phil by Louise's scolding. Each regarded himself or herself as the victim
and the other as the wrongdoer. The disciplinarian or the punisher is often oblivious
to the long-term impact of the pain inflicted on the "offender." We
feel that once we have gotten our complaint "off our chest," we have
restored harmony to a relationship. The target of our reproach, however, is hurt
and builds up a grievance against us. Restoring balance to the relationship for
me upsets the balance for you. In this case the balance was upset again by Phil's
complaint, and a typical vicious cycle was created.
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