My reply to this question is that it can be for some of us in recovery. Specifically, those of us who have experienced high levels of shaming (rejection, neglect, and emotional or physical/sexual abuse) in the developmental years of childhood and adolescence.
During my own upbringing, I experienced a lot of anger, criticism, and rejection from my parents, which I now realise is the true source of most of my anger. My anger is often a dysfunctional attempt to communicate and release the underlying hurt, rejection, and fear resulting from my deep sense of shame. It’s largely defensive in nature.
Leon Seltzer explains the protective function of anger:
“It’s by now generally agreed upon that anger, as prevalent as it is in our species, is almost never a primary emotion. For underlying it are such core hurts as:
feeling disregarded, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, and unlovable…. these feelings are capable of engendering considerable emotional pain. It’s therefore understandable that so many of us might go to great lengths to find ways of distancing ourselves from them.
In fact, those of us who routinely use anger as a “cover-up” to keep our more vulnerable feelings at bay, generally become so adept at doing so that we have little to no awareness of the dynamic driving our behavior…..this is how all psychological defenses work. Simply put, they allow us to escape upsetting, shameful, or anxiety-laden feelings we may not have developed the emotional resources—or ego strength—to successfully cope with.” (1)
The problem with using anger as a ‘defense mechanism’ is that it damages our relationships, which in addition to the resulting social isolation it creates, further injures our already low self-esteem. After an episode of rage we are often left feeling guilty, as well as feeling bad about ourselves. We feel guilty about what we say and do in anger, compounding shame about who we are. Guilt, which some describe as a healthy sense of shame (2), is letting us know we’ve violated our boundaries. Toxic shame is the underlying feeling that we are worthless, lacking, and undeserving of love; it’s a cancer of the soul, our wounded heart, and ruinous of our relations with others.
As well as protecting us from the underlying pain of toxic shame and a deep sense of rejection, rage is also an attempt to right this wrong, to restore the ego’s sense of worth through its righteous indignation. It’s a dysfunctional strategy used to take us from feeling downtrodden and powerless, to feeling worthy and powerful.
The greater the degree of our toxic shame, the more we depend upon psychological defenses. These are generally referred to in Twelve-Step language as “character defects”, our tendencies to resentment, fear, dishonesty, selfishness, criticism, arrogance and a false sense of pride.
Toxic shame is so painful that we often prefer to feel angry and resentful instead. This dependency upon anger to protect our ego, is why some of us are addicted to anger or rage.
We can start to let go of our addiction to anger by becoming aware of its underlying pain. The healing process starts when we acknowledge the fear and hurt resulting from our toxic sense of shame.
In recovery we take inventory of our resentments, hurts, fears and harms done towards others. We begin to uncover the ego’s insecurity and its self-centred defences, and the number one offender is resentment due to our fear.
“We fear that we will lose what we have, will not get what we need, will not have enough, will never be who we think we should be. We fear we will not be happy. We fear we will not be content.” (3)
The greater our sense of shame, the more we suffer these fears, and the greater our dependency upon defensive anger.
As we develop self-awareness we start to understand the true nature of our rage. We stop blaming others and take responsibility for our feelings and actions. We slowly become more authentic in our relationships, admitting vulnerability, rather than covering up with anger. Now in recovery, we start to receive acceptance and support from others, for whom we truly are. We learn to love and accept ourselves, by not pretending any more.
If the original wound of shame came from a lack of empathy, acceptance, love and security during our childhood, its healing must come from the quality of our current relationships. In recovery we must now develop honest, empathic and loving attachments to others. By giving and receiving love, we learn to love and accept ourselves.
The greater our shame, though, the harder it is to let others get close to us. We can easily feel hurt and rejected by being triggered into our original pain. We then become defensive and resentful and return to pushing others away. We must learn that shame shapes our reality, often distorting what we see. We may need help from sponsors, friends, and therapists to uncover our shame and its poisonous lies, as we now admit our insecurity and fear, instead of expressing it through another guise.
The recovery road is hard and long but one we choose to travel. We practice acceptance as a virtue to heal our pain, letting go of our addiction to anger. We must develop faith in others, and in our ability to restore a healthy sense of ourselves, for it’s in the power of loving human connection and self-actualisation wherein our salvation lies.
“The story of “Beauty and the Beast” well-illustrates the theme of this article. What was once a beast filled with rage becomes the prince when at last he is loved for whom he is inside. In this way we can all understand what makes us beautiful. It is after all love that forges beauty. It is compassion and acceptance that create health and heals the wounds of the soul created by shame and rage.” (4)
‘Anger – How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt and Fear’. By Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D.
Psychotherapist, Hayley Merron-Stevens, describes “healthy shame” as a vital part of self-consciousness and intrinsic to the development of a healthy self-concept.
‘Waiting – A Nonbelievers Higher Power’, p.32. By Marya Hornbacher.
‘Rage, Shame and the Death of Love’, written by Bill Cloke, Ph.D.