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Kinds of Aggression in Addiction Affected Families
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In the last section, we discussed establishing communication between the family members of an addict by identifying who is most open to change, asking for help, finding allies outside the immediate family, and dealing with family members who refuse to cooperate.
In this section, we will discuss the three types of anger found in the family of an addict: instructive, safe-guarding, and relationship anger.
♦ Two Kinds of Anger - Positive & Negative
As you know, there are two different kinds of anger. The first is an honest emotion, a reaction to injustice or unfair treatment that can serve as a protest. An example of "unfair treatment" occurs when racial discrimination results from an individual receiving unequal treatment due to his or her actual or perceived race. Secondly, there is also destructive anger, which leads to rage and hostility: "I’ll make you hurt as much as I hurt". In the families of addicts, positive anger can provide the motivation for constructive change. Destructive, negative anger shows itself passive-aggressively. It can add to the confusion and frustration the addiction is already causing.
Instead of listening, the targets of the anger brace themselves and ignore. In addition, destructive anger is damaging to the individual, both physically and mentally. Amy’s husband Brad was addicted to Percocet. She told me, "My son suppressed so much that he has driven himself inward. His personality changed a lot because he had to suppress the part of his life that was so painful. And my daughter had so much anger that she was holding in that she sometimes exploded."
♦ 3 Purposes of Anger
I find that in the families of addicts, anger has three main purposes. These purposes are to instruct the addict, to keep the addict from hurting himself or others, and to make emotional connections.
-- Purpose # 1 - Instructive
The first, instructive anger, points out the many things addicts fail to do, and emphasizes the necessity of being responsible. Instructive anger addresses things like budgeting money, finding a job, cleaning the house, and keeping promises. This kind of anger is about keeping the family life going with some normalcy despite the addiction.
-- Purpose # 2 - Safe-Guarding
In my experience, the second purpose of anger is safe-guarding anger. This is the alarm that sounds when addictive behavior crosses into the danger zone. It may deal with driving drunk, passing out while cooking, drinking on the job, or hanging out in dangerous places. This is often the anger that gets family members to call a professional for help. It is motivated by the realization that family members cannot control the addiction, and the fear that something terrible and irreversible is going to happen as a result.
-- Purpose # 3 - Emotional Connection
In addition to instructive anger and safe-guarding anger, I frequently see relationship anger. Families use relationship anger in an attempt to communicate with an emotionally unavailable addict. Although this anger does get the addict’s attention for a short period of time, arguments become the main form of communication in the family. This anger is motivated by loneliness, sadness, rejection, unhappiness, grief, and fear. This is an especially dangerous form of anger, and can spiral into domestic violence or child abuse.
As you know, family members of addicts may think that their anger accomplishes something, because it gets short term results. As we discussed in section 2, addicts get used to these angry rants, especially when the anger leads to the ‘threaten, punish, and relent’ cycle. Using anger this way puts the addict in charge.
Relationship anger can also rebound onto the family. Amy stated, "Often, when Brad would spend 100 dollars on painkillers, I’d get angry and yell at him, and he’d just explode! It was like he was saying, ‘How dare you get angry at me! I’m the only one allowed to be angry’. At first I’d be even more upset, but then I’d start thinking, maybe Brad is right. Maybe I have no right to be angry at him. There must be something wrong with me for feeling this way! And then I’d feel guilty for days."
♦ Positive Anger
Anger must be positive to be effective. Positive anger creates positive energy. It moves family members forward, inspiring them to get things done. Sports psychologists tell us that positive anger increases performance on the playing field, but negative, retaliatory anger causes players to take their eyes off the game and focus on their opponent.
When the family of an addict uses negative anger, they take their eyes off of the solution and focus on the alcoholic, something they have no power to change directly. Both negative and positive anger are contagious, they spread through the family, and can make it either much easier or much more difficult for the family of the addict to work together for change.
♦ Anger Assessment Exercise - 3 Questions
Since Amy had difficulty accepting her positive and negative anger appropriately, I asked her to do the anger assessment exercise with me. This exercise has three questions; it can be used either as a journaling activity, or as a discussion in a session.
-- Anger Assessment Question # 1
First, I asked Amy what she thought would happen if she allowed herself to feel her angry emotions, instead of allowing them to change into guilt. Amy said, "That’s a scary thought. What if once I started feeling angry, I couldn’t stop?"
-- Anger Assessment Question # 2
Second, I asked Amy what she believed deep down about anger. Like many of us, Amy believed it isn’t ok to be angry, that good people don’t feel angry, and that she might lose control if she allowed herself to feel anger. She was also convinced that people would abandon her if she got angry with them. Other common beliefs are "if others are angry with me, I must have done something wrong. I made them feel that way, and I am responsible for fixing their feelings", "if I am angry with someone, I must not love them anymore," and "it’s only ok to be angry if I can justify my feelings."
-- Anger Assessment Question # 3
My last question to Amy was, "how do other people in your current family situation deal with anger? How did your parents deal with their anger? What are your patterns for dealing with anger?" Amy discovered that her parents had held in their anger until they exploded, and then acted ashamed and embarrassed, which seemed to match her own pattern of behavior.
In addition to these questions, I suggested to Amy that she keep a journal or notebook at hand at all times. You may find that your clients dealing with repressed anger find it helpful to keep a notebook just for writing down their angry feelings. Encourage them to start writing as soon as they get angry throughout the day.
In this section, we have discussed patterns of anger in the families of addicts, including instructive anger, safe-guarding anger, and relationship anger. Would it be beneficial to play this section during your next session with the family member of an addict.
In the next section, we will discuss The Caretaking Trap. This involves family members feeling they have no choice, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, feeling guilt and shame, and being well-intentioned.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Assaad, J.-M., Pihl, R. O., Séguin, J. R., Nagin, D., Vitaro, F., Carbonneau, R., & Tremblay, R. E. (2003). Aggressiveness, family history of alcoholism, and the heart rate response to alcohol intoxication. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 11(2), 158–166.
Griffin, K. W., Botvin, G. J., Scheier, L. M., Diaz, T., & Miller, N. L. (2000). Parenting practices as predictors of substance use, delinquency, and aggression among urban minority youth: Moderating effects of family structure and gender. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 14(2), 174–184.
Sprunger, J. G., Hales, A., Maloney, M., Williams, K., & Eckhardt, C. I. (2020). Alcohol, affect, and aggression: An investigation of alcohol’s effects following ostracism. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication.
What are the three main purposes of anger in the families of addicts? To select and enter your answer go to .