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Section 12
The Meaning of Meaning:
From Hurt to Hate

Question 12 | Test | Table of Contents

Although we seem to respond almost instantaneously to assaults, whether physical or psychological, we do not always experience anger. Whether we do so depends on the context of the injury and the explanation for it. A young child subjected to an injection by the family doctor will fight and scream to protect herself from an inexplicable infliction of pain. An adult receiving such an injection, and experiencing the same kind of pain, may have some anxiety but will not typically respond with anger.

The obvious difference between the child’s and the adult’s reactions lies in the meaning of the event. For the child, there is no comprehensible explanation for having to undergo the frightening and painful procedure except that the doctor is overpowering and cruel. Moreover, her typically benevolent parents have betrayed her by facilitating the assault. For the adult, the procedure, although painful and possibly anxiety-producing, is warranted and acceptable. Responding with anger would be illogical, because he is voluntarily submitting to a beneficial procedure. Unlike the child, he has learned to discriminate between malevolent and benevolent injuries, between acceptable and unacceptable infliction of pain. He has expanded his construct of pain to include experiences that, while painful, are ultimately positive.

This example shows the importance of meanings, attributions, and explanations in determining how we respond to our experiences. When somebody hurts us, our natural reaction is to feel anxious and try to escape, or to feel angry and try to fight back. If the threat is overwhelming, we are disposed to get out of the situation. Whether or not we become angry depends on whether we judge that we have been wronged or victimized: we are likely to become angry if we believe the other person was unjustified. If we attribute a benevolent motivation to the act, we do not generally become angry. Unless we are specifically “primed” to explain assaults as benign, however, our immediate reaction is to regard unpleasant actions as intentional and malevolent and to prepare to punish the offender or to escape.

Picture the following scene: I am waiting at a bus stop. A bus comes by and doesn’t stop. First I feel distress at being inconvenienced, then a sense of helplessness as the bus speeds by without even slowing down. I think, “He (the driver) deliberately ignored me,” and feel angry. But then I notice that the bus is full, and my anger subsides. The key to my angry reaction was my interpretation that the driver arbitrarily chose to ignore me. The actual inconvenience is minor compared with the presumed offensive behavior. Once I reframe the situation, the “offense” fades away and I regard the incident as simply an inconvenience. I can then turn my attention to ascertaining when the next bus is due or considering other ways of getting to my destination.

Delays and frustrations do not in themselves necessarily produce anger. The crucial element is the explanation of the other person’s action, and whether that explanation makes the other person’s behavior acceptable to us. If it does not, we become angry and want to punish the offender. For the most part we regard behavior that offends us as intentional rather than accidental, as malicious rather than benign. Inconveniences and frustrations come and go, but the sense of being wronged persists.

An illustrative clinical example of how anger is aroused comes from the files in our clinic. Analyses of clinical cases are particularly illuminating: since the reactions tend to be magnified, they are more clearly delineated and understood.

Louise, a personnel supervisor in a large employment agency, found that she was almost continually angry at her subordinates or superiors, as well as at family and friends. A few of her angry reactions demonstrate the mecha­nisms involved in the triggering and the expression of her hostile response. On one occasion, her boss corrected a memorandum that she had prepared. Louise had these automatic thoughts following her boss’s “criticisms”: “Uh­oh, I’ve made a mistake.” Then: “He really thinks I did a bad job. . . . I messed it up this time.” Her self-esteem was damaged, and she felt bad. Louise’s reactions demonstrate the typical dichotomous thinking triggered by threats to the self-esteem. If feedback is not all positive, it becomes totally negative: a mistake becomes a really bad job, a criticism becomes total rejec­tion.

Later, as she mulled over the event, she became increasingly angry and had a different set of automatic thoughts: “He had no right to treat me that way after all I’ve done for him. . . . He’s unfair. He never shows appreciation for my work. All he does is criticize. . . . I hate him.” By shifting the expla­nation for her hurt to her boss’s “unfairness,” she was able to salve the hurt to her self-esteem. In essence, her focus shifted from, “He disapproves of me; he considers me inadequate,” to, “He was wrong to have criticized me.” Assigning responsibility to another person for unjustly “causing” an unpleasant feeling is a prelude to feeling angry. The persistence of a sense of threat and the fixed image of a malicious person leads to at least a temporary feeling of hate. It is much easier to sustain anger or aggression when we drift from specific actions (he criticized this memo in two places) to overgeneralizations (he always criticizes me) or labels (he’s unfair). The drift is often outside aware­ness; people may hold grudges about matters they no longer recall.
- Beck, Aaron T., Prisioners of Hate, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1999.

Personal Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information about the meaning of anger. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Since delays and frustrations do not in themselves necessarily produce anger, what is the crucial element in producing anger? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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