Age-Old Problem: Converting Vulnerability To Anger & Rage

There is one problem that has been plaguing humankind since the beginning. Our human tendency to convert uncomfortable vulnerable feelings into anger and its sick cousin rage. This human problem is particularly important in times of stress and recovery. You guessed it, like after a long pandemic. What are the vulnerable feelings we are supposed to have after a couple of years of potentially deadly viral contagion?

Let’s start with fear. It makes perfect sense that on some level, for some more consciously than for others, there would be a fear of getting sick and potentially dying. Of course this includes the fear experienced when getting sick, which could have changed into terror if you were hospitalized and isolated, as too many of us were during the course of this pandemic. And remember, fear has a habit of generalizing to anything remotely related, and ultimately transforming into anxiety. For too many of us, fear is considered weakness and some of us responded by being reckless and aggressive instead.

Then there’s the vulnerable feeling of hurt. Consider hurt that occurs as a consequence of physical pain and injury, including during sickness, as well as the hurt that occurs emotionally. The stresses and strains of critical events can increase the sensitivity a person experiences. In other words, we all hurt more when going through hardships. Too many people do not have words for or ways of managing their experience of hurt and defensively transform hurt to anger instead. Hence the old adage: hurt people hurt people.

Then there’s our old friend frustration, the feeling that comes whenever we are being denied something needed. We have all needed a break from the relentless presence and return of a potentially transmitted illness. How many times have we thought we were free, and had to once again retract and put on hold our emancipation. The conversion of frustration to anger and rage is pretty well documented. moving out from under powerlessness to the illusion of power through aggression can be addictive for some.

Last but not least, there’s the all too human experience of grief. Grief is a naturally vulnerable feeling that emerges whenever love leaves us. I like to think of grief as love, upside down. You simply cannot live a life without encountering grief. Unfortunately, too many of us run away from this quite natural and necessary feeling. Grief helps us heal from loss, and there has been quite a bit of loss to heal from. Converting grief to anger is considered by some to be a “stage” of the grieving journey. My emphasis is on anger’s defensive purpose to avoid the vulnerability of grief.

Why is anger and rage so attractive as a defense? In a word, power at a time of vulnerability. Of course the disadvantage is the potential destructiveness that occurs when anger takes over. Consider rage as an intensification of anger to the point where judgment deteriorates and the danger to self and others is maximized due to the absence of control. The addictive quality in this substitution is obvious to anyone who notices the repetitive experience of replacing vulnerable feelings with anger and rage (e.g. road rage, unjustified wars, dumping anger on customer service persons, fighting with people who ask you to follow the rules).

What is it about these natural very human feelings that makes us feel so very vulnerable? Answer: They open us up to our real and common humanity, which is too readily interpreted as weak or childish when experienced by an adult and too often discouraged in children. I’ve learned over the years of my life that true strength exists in developing a tolerance for and ways of working with vulnerable feelings instead of defending against them. I’ve learned that acting aggressively when feeling vulnerable is not real strength, it’s a false effort to control and/or avoid the discomfort of imagined weakness and more injury.

My worry is that in this time of necessary healing from the trauma, loss and stress of a pandemic, too many people are unconsciously converting vulnerable feelings to anger and rage. We see it on a day to day level in our communities. Do we see it on a global level as well? By the way, the reward we get for practicing this tolerance for vulnerability is an enhanced ability to love and be loved. Not bad.

All comments welcome.

Dr. Thomas Jordan, author: Learn to Love: Guide to Healing Your Disappointing Love Life

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Dr. Jordan

Dr. Thomas Jordan is a clinical psychologist, certified interpersonal psychoanalyst, author, professor, and love life researcher.