Five Stages of Grief: Anger

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There are healthy ways to express anger, but it takes a fair amount of understanding and self-awareness to realize just how unhealthy our general expressions of anger can be. (Shutterstock)
There are healthy ways to express anger, but it takes a fair amount of understanding and self-awareness to realize just how unhealthy our general expressions of anger can be. (Shutterstock)

This is the third article in our multi-part series on addiction and the five stages of grief, following the introduction and the article on denial. The second stage is anger, and is a stage with which both addicts and their families are already quite familiar. Some might not even realize how familiar they are with this particular stage of grief, due to the fact that it is not always characterized by white hot rage. Much like denial, the anger exhibited during the processes of grief and addiction can take many forms.

As with our last article, we will talk a bit about the various forms of anger and how they manifest themselves throughout both active addiction and addiction recovery. We will also talk about how the codependent friends and family members of addicts and alcoholics may exhibit these same forms. Then, we’ll talk about some measures that you may take in dealing with your anger, so that you may minimize the risk of putting yourself or others in jeopardy as you learn to cope with your grief.

Defining Forms of Anger

(c) Oriel College, University of Oxford; Two of the most basic forms of anger were defined by Joseph Butler in the early 18th century. (Oriel College, University of Oxford)
(c) Oriel College, University of Oxford; Two of the most basic forms of anger were defined by Joseph Butler in the early 18th century. (Oriel College, University of Oxford)

While our discussion of denial relied heavily on Sigmund Freud, the best definitions of anger have actually been provided by 18th-century bishop Joseph Butler. His sermon “Upon Resentment and Forgiveness of Injuries” describes two kinds of anger, which he refers to as resentment. The first is hasty and sudden anger, also referred to as passion. The second form, settled and deliberate anger, is what Butler refers to as “deliberate resentment, malice, and revenge.” While a bishop may not seem like the best default source for psychoanalysis, his sermon is quite insightful in assessing the way these two forms of anger manifest themselves. Hasty and sudden anger occurs upon instinct, whereas deliberate anger may result in premeditated acts of wrath.

Of course, anger can still be broken down further than just the two forms identified by Butler. For instance, hasty and sudden anger could be said to cover a broad spectrum from mild annoyance to blind rage. In the case of annoyance, frustration, or irritation, this instinctive reaction may not be too harmful. In the case of rage, however, the result might be emotional or even physical abuse. In cases in which abuse is suffered, one person’s rage might cause the rage of another. Whether victimized or not, those who exhibit rage are often reacting to one or more repressed emotions trying to escape at the same time. This can cause fear and confusion, and rage is the response of attempting to handle this emotional outpouring.

This is not to say that rage never coincides with settled and deliberate anger. Sometimes, the desire to oppose wrath on others is born from either envy or jealousy. While many people assume that these two words are synonyms, they are not. Jealousy is when we are worried about losing someone or something to another person. Envy is when we covet something another person has. Envy may occur during the anger stage of grief when we feel that someone else has not been subjected to the same misfortunes as us. When envy intertwines with rage, we may decide to wreak revenge and even the score.

The above forms of anger are generally episodic. The last form of anger we’d like to discuss is dispositional anger. While the grieving process does not cause dispositional anger, it may easily awaken it. Studies have shown that dispositional anger is often linked to our ability to make decisions. If our decision is to avoid the source of our grief, be it loss or addiction, then those of us who harbor an angry disposition are much more likely to become enraged, envious, fearful, or any other emotion that has been discussed above.

Anger in Active Addiction

The stereotypical bar fight usually stems from a misunderstanding spun out of control. Much of the anger experienced in active addiction is derived from similar miscommunications. (Shutterstock)
The stereotypical bar fight usually stems from a misunderstanding spun out of control. Much of the anger experienced in active addiction is derived from similar miscommunications. (Shutterstock)

Those who are in active addiction may experience anger on a regular basis, but there are a few instances which are likely to provoke their anger more than others. The first is when they are confronted about their substance abuse. In a mixture of anger and denial, they will verbally (and sometimes physically) attack their accusers in an attempt to keep the issue from being brought up again. Those who are addicted to harder drugs may also be prone to anger when deprived of their drug of choice, as they may be undergoing a particularly tough process of detoxification and withdrawal.

In fact, the addict’s drug of choice might easily impact their level of dispositional anger. The National Institute on Drug Abuse names meth as a drug that can cause a person to experience instability of mood, often resulting in anger and quite possibly violent rage. However, any drug may result in this same instability. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also lists cocaine as a drug that creates both anger and fear. According to an article on the anger experienced by alcoholics, this anger may be attributed to the user’s inability to process information clearly. Harmless actions taken by others may appear as intentional affronts, and a lack of inhibitions tells us that we are justified in reacting however we please. Even cannabis, a drug known to leave the user relatively sedate, can cause panic attacks and impaired judgment leading to anger and aggressive behavior.

Dispositional anger might also arise from a number of disorders that share comorbidity with addiction. Examples of such co-occurring disorders include antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. Not only do these disorders share dual diagnosis with addiction, but those who suffer from these disorders are much more likely to develop an addiction in the first place. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, borderline personality disorder (which is characterized primarily by emotional instability) can also be a major cause of anger.

Putting the causes of anger aside for a moment, the true danger of the anger experienced by addicts and alcoholics is that they often do not know how to manage their anger in a healthy way. They may believe that the answer to managing their anger is simply more substance abuse, which will only serve to exacerbate the problem. If addiction runs in the family, then this inability to properly manage anger might be a learned problem. They may also repress their anger through denial, hampering their ability to feel it. In such cases, the user’s anger will be sudden and explosive when finally released.

Whether the addict is suffering from a disorder that causes them to be predisposed to anger or they are simply experiencing the side effects of their drug use, anger can be an incredibly harmful emotion. Not only is it harmful to the addict’s friends and family, but to the addict themselves. After a particularly severe outburst, the addict may be racked with guilt. If it is too much for them to handle, they may move backwards in their emotional progression and slip back into denial.

Anger in Addiction Recovery

Anger will often be expressed in counseling. This can be healthy, to a certain point. (Shutterstock)
Anger will often be expressed in counseling. This can be healthy, to a certain point. (Shutterstock)

Dr. Angela Browne-Miller performed an interview with Addiction Blog in which she spoke of the role that anger plays in addiction recovery. She notes that, as was discussed above in defining rage, anger is often a misplaced way of communicating other emotions. As is befitting the second stage of the grieving process, one of these emotions is that of loss. Other grief-related emotions often expressed through anger are hurt, pain, and fear. There is also the issue of abandonment, or simply the fear that abandonment may be imminent. Stress, anxiety, and frustration are also on her list. Many of these emotions are common in addiction recovery. Nobody winds up in treatment on a good day. They are often stressed, and fearful of losing those closest to them. Unable to retreat into their drug of choice, many addicts respond with anger.

While it is perfectly natural for those in recovery from addiction and alcoholism to experience anger, it can still be quite unhealthy. If the anger results from repressed emotions, then it can be helpful for recovering addicts to express their anger in order to move past it. After all, we cannot learn to cope with emotions if we have not yet allowed ourselves to truly feel them. That said, too much venting can also be harmful to the addict’s recovery. It is important that a focus be placed on truly moving past the cause of their anger, rather than just experiencing the emotion itself. If anger arises from envy, jealousy, fear or paranoia, then these underlying issues must be addressed as opposed to simply the expression of anger itself.

For a few years now, it has been suggested that anger is not just a byproduct of addiction, but can actually become an addiction in and of itself. A Huffington Post article suggests that non-addicts experience this addiction every day, often when watching the news or simply reading articles on the internet. Because we feel a release through venting our anger, it can become addicting to try and experience this release as often as possible. Those who are in addiction recovery may try to use their anger to feel better about their situation, but all they are really doing is reinforcing the type of uncontrolled and reckless emotion that has fueled their addiction for quite some time.

This style of venting will often take the form of blame. It is not unusual for those in early recovery to cite numerous reasons for their substance abuse. These reasons will often revolve around the actions of others. Some of this blame may sound quite justified in certain cases. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that addiction cannot be blamed on any one particular person. The addict may have been treated quite unfairly by others, and this may be a factor in their use of drugs and alcohol. That does not mean, however, that they share no responsibility. Casting our anger on others in an attempt to justify our drug use is simply an avoidance tool, a form of deep denial used to make sense of our predicament.

The anger experienced in addiction recovery is not much different from the anger exhibited during periods of active addiction. It is often a response to uncomfortable truths, a means of avoiding responsibility for actions to which we would rather not admit. It is not far removed from denial, not only in terms of function but also in the fact that denial and anger are both very instinctive responses to our situations. Those with deep levels of dispositional anger will find moving past this stage to be especially difficult.

Anger and Codependency

There are several reasons that those who suffer from codependency may fall prey to anger. Melody Beattie, whose treatise on denial was mentioned in the previous article of this series, lists several characteristics of codependent people. Among these are several which revolve around anger. The codependent may become angry when they are criticized in a manner that prods their own low sense of self-worth, when they feel as if they are unable to help the addict or alcoholic in their life, or at any time when anger helps them to stave off other emotions with which they are not yet prepared to cope. Codependents also have a tendency to fear the anger of others, especially if the addict in their life is of a particularly angry disposition.

In many ways, the anger of the codependent may look a lot like the anger exhibited by the addict. It often serves the purpose of denial, and may be used to inflict harm upon others for the purposes of revenge. It is also often based out of fear, such as the fear of abandonment or the fear that they will not be able to help the one they love overcome their addiction. This anger is often repressed, which can be incredibly unhealthy for everyone involved. Al-Anon runs a blog in which they actually discuss these issues at length, claiming that one of the most common causes for anger in codependency is the feeling of being unappreciated. This stands to reason, given the immense amount of sacrifice made by most codependents who act as caretakers (and sometimes enablers) to the addicts in their lives.

There is a Healthy Exchange pamphlet on codependency that defines a dysfunctional family as “one in which the family members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied.” But ignoring or denying anger does not change the fact that it exists. Expressing anger too frequently can reap devastating effects, but so can refusing to express it at all. Unfortunately, those who live in codependency often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are angry at their situation, yet fear that expressing their anger will only serve to make things worse. As this anger is bottled up, the situation will eventually reach a tipping point.

This inability to express anger that one knows they are feeling is the primary differentiator between anger in codependency and anger in addiction. Aside from that, they share many attributes. This is not too surprising, considering that (as we have discussed before) addiction is a family disease. When one person is sick, the entire family unit becomes sick. Some codependents may not realize the true depth of their anger until the taker in their life enters recovery. Once they are no longer subjected to the source of their anger on a daily basis, they will begin to truly feel it. They can then work on beginning the healing process.

The Al-Anon blog makes an analogy that is quite fitting to a discussion of anger in codependency. If you put a frog in a hot frying pan, he’ll jump out. If, however, you put him in a cool pan and slowly turn up the heat, he will adjust to the temperature until he boils from the inside out. This describes the manner in which anger wears on those in codependency. Below, we’ll discuss how both addicts and codependents can keep themselves from reaching this fatal boiling point.

Living and Coping with Anger

If we are willing and open-minded, we can extinguish the flames of our anger through love and understanding. (Photo via Labor Tribune)
If we are willing and open-minded, we can extinguish the flames of our anger through love and understanding. (Photo via Labor Tribune)

Time for some good news. While anger is much like denial in the sense that every individual might express it in a slightly different fashion, there are some basic measures that can be taken to deal with it. One of the more well-known measures for serious cases is anger management. According to the American Psychological Association, this form of counseling is best for cases in which anger is having a notable impact on one’s personal relationships. They also recommend assertiveness training for those who use blatant aggression as a substitute for setting healthy boundaries.

Of course, the APA recognizes that some cases of anger are worse than others. That being the case, they do not necessarily suggest counseling for milder cases of anger. Simpler measures of controlling one’s anger include the common tactic of taking a deep breath and counting backwards from ten. They also recommend mantras, or meditative activities. See our articles on walking meditation and Zen sitting meditation for more information on how you can learn to relieve stress through relaxation and visualization.

Sometimes, however, it is not our own anger that we are trying to keep under control. Both addicts and codependents will encounter instances in which they are faced with the anger of a loved one and instinctively decide to fight fire with fire. But as we have said many times, anger is often the expression of deeper emotions that have been pent up for some time. Codependents may feel victimized by their loved one’s substance abuse, even in cases where the addict or alcoholic has never resorted to outright abuse. This feeling is normal, but remember that screaming at the addict will not be likely to solve too many problems. A highly insightful article on NPR notes that “healing does not lie in anger; it lies in empathy and love.”

This is why, when faced with the anger of another, we must put ourselves in their shoes before deciding to respond in kind. If we find ourselves becoming angry at another for their substance abuse, we must remember that they are not likely abusing drugs and alcohol as a personal affront to us. We cover the need for empathy in our guide to staging a successful intervention. There is no rule that the family of an addict or alcoholic cannot express their anger during such an intervention, but the key is to learn how to express it calmly. Simply letting loose and venting our aggression will not set the appropriate boundaries. If anything, it will put the recipient of the intervention on the defensive.

Both addicts and codependents sometimes feel angry because they feel as if they are alone in their plight. They feel as if they are fighting a losing battle, and there is no one to join them on the front line. In truth, this is a self-prescribed predicament. There are many options for those who need a loving shoulder to cry on in order to express their fears and resentments without blowing up and boiling alive from the inside. We’ve already mentioned Al-Anon as one support group for the codependent. In our previous article, we also mentioned Nar-Anon and Co-Anon, as well as our parent alumni program and Amethyst Recovery Moms’ Corner.

Addicts also have many several avenues for support to which they may turn. But at times, we must remember that the object of our resentments is still an option. When we feel as if a loved one does not understand how we are feeling, sometimes the best option is to simply tell them. Much as the friends and families of addicts and alcoholics might express their emotions through intervention, addicts who are ready to enter recovery must learn how to be willing to express their feelings to those they love. This can take a lot of bravery, and it will not likely be possible until one is truly ready to move away from active addiction and into recovery. But through the power of love and understanding, we can learn to help one another through our anger so that the family unit may begin to heal. Once we learn to embrace empathy in this fashion, we may continue to move ever onward toward the stage of acceptance.

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