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The easiest way to understand how anger works as a defense is to see it in action. Consider the following examples.
Defending against guilt. A woman points out to her husband that he spends so much time at business and Rotary Club meetings that he is a stranger to his children. He defends himself from the guilt with the trigger thought that his wife has turned his children into self-indulgent brats. "The whole house is a playpen," he says. "You let them wreck it, you live with it." Then follows the explosion.
Defending against hurt. Marjorie has her first major job with an ad agency. When she brings home a direct mail piece that she wrote for an important client, her father makes several nitpicking suggestions. Marjorie defends against hurt with a trigger thought: "He never changes. The same perfectionist shit." Abruptly she rises. "Thanks for the support," she says in a deadly voice.
Defending against loss. Sheila’s best friend, Anne, is marrying and moving to Canada. Anne is preoccupied with finishing at work, packing, out-of-town guests, and last-minute details. Sheila defends against feelings of loss with a trigger thought that Anne is stupid and unliberated to sacrifice her career and friends for this one relationship. Sheila has to really fire up her anger to cover the enormity of the loss. Two days before the wedding she attacks Anne for "dumping everyone who ever cared about her." At the reception they barely speak, and Anne leaves town before the damage is repaired.
Defending against feeling helpless or trapped. Last year, Mateo had a heart attack. For 20 years he’s worked as the only typesetter for a small weekly newspaper. He’s expected to stay long, unpredictable hours to meet production deadlines. He has two girls in college and a feeling that his age and health history would make it hard to find new employment. The newspaper seems familiar and safe, but the deadlines create overwhelming stress. Mateo defends against the feeling of helplessness with the trigger thought that his girls wanted to go to "expensive party schools" even if it killed him to pay for it. He picks fights whenever his daughters come home to visit.
Defending against anxiety or fear. Tony screams and then spanks his two-year-old for venturing off the curb. The anger blocks the jolt of fear he feels that a car might hit his child.
Rebecca is afraid that Jim is slipping away from her. He calls less and their dates are spaced further apart. She defends herself with the trigger thought that Jim abuses women. He keeps her waiting as part of a game of deliberate mental cruelty. And Rebecca grows more remote with each date.
Andy is secretary of a union local. Recent bargaining reversals make him expect that he’ll be voted out. He cuts off his anxiety with the trigger thought "They want everything, but they’re too spineless to get it." He becomes increasingly abrasive with members.
Defending against the feeling of being bad, wrong, or unworthy. A driver waits at an intersection while a pedestrian saunters slowly in front of him. He feels rage. The pedestrian’s message seems to be "You don’t count, you’re nothing." And that message ties directly into feelings he had as a child of being ignored and discounted. His anger defends him from all those feelings as he hits the horn and shouts through the glass.
A woman’s boyfriend declines a sexual advance. Immediately she is flooded with feelings of being bad and unworthy. She defends herself with the trigger thought that "He’s controlling, he’s only interested in sex if he can be in charge." She rolls him over to tell him so.
A couple’s daughter is caught stealing at school. On the way to a conference with the principal, they both feel inadequate as parents. They conspire to fight about who should take the car in for a tune-up as a cover for these feelings.
Defending against emptiness. Two graduate students are attempting to have a relationship. As the semester progresses, Arthur finds himself more and more out of contact with Jean. Their evenings are spent reading and working on papers. An emptiness, very much like the ache for attention and nourishment he felt as a child, begins to grow in Arthur. He withdraws sexually. He begins to compulsively do crossword puzzles. He buys a telescope to look into people’s windows. When these lesser measures fail to hold the emptiness in check, Arthur covers it with the trigger thought that Jean doesn’t care about him and simply uses him for stability to get through grad school. He screams this charge one night, and they actually have sex. But within a week things are the same as ever.
Defending against frustrated desire (sour grapes). A divorced dad spends Saturdays with his son. He yearns for the child during the week and rents the boy’s favorite Tweety and Sylvester cartoons for the coming visit. During the cartoon, he wants his son to sit next to him, to be close. But the boy keeps jumping up to play and make noise. To block the pain of his frustrated desire, the father thinks, "He’s acting wild." So he shouts, "You can’t control yourself. Sit down now or I’ll never rent cartoons again."
Nearly everyone has at some time used anger to defend against painful feelings. The problem comes when you make a habit of it, when the frequency and intensity of your anger defense begins to affect your health or your relationships. Some people become addicted to anger as a way to spare themselves any experience that is threatening or painful. The person who at root feels bad or worthless learns to blow up at the slightest criticism rather than experience even a moment of self-doubt. The person who is afraid to feel fear learns to attack and blame rather than endure a moment of anxiety.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Basics
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2004). Aggressive Driving Enforcement Evaluations of Two Demonstration Programs. U.S. Department of Transportation.
Reflection Exercise #9
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