The mind is a fantastic piece of technology that performs the majority of its multitudinous functions entirely unbeknownst to us. Freud was the first to describe such unconscious processes and described the mind as being like an iceberg – with the large majority of its mass hidden beneath the surface.
The reasons for the mind keeping so much of what it does from our awareness is are many. Firstly, if we were aware of every process it performed there’d be no way could possibly cope. If our every memory and every biological function was in our mind at once we’d experience a serious sensory overload that would leave us too confused to act on the stimuli that mattered.
Another reason, this one again described by Freud, is that it could quite literally drive us insane if we knew all of our unconscious thoughts and memories. Freud described the brain as being split into three separate ‘personalities’ that combine to inform our actions. These three separate minds are the ‘id’, the ‘ego’ and the ‘superego’. The one we’ll be most familiar with is the ‘ego’, which essentially describes our conscious mind which attempts to satisfy both the ‘id’ and the ‘superego’ in accordance with the ‘reality principle’ (in other words it attempts to do this in a realistic way). The id and superego meanwhile are like the devil and the angel on either shoulder respectively, with the id housing all of our most basic desires and inappropriate childlike urges and our superego aiming for perfection and attempting to make sure that everything we do is socially acceptable and acting as our conscience. So the way we act will be the result of our weighing up of our instinctive basal urges along with our long term plans and morals to come to a decision that satisfies both (the comparative strength of the id and superego vary between individuals). But how does this relate to repressed anger?
Well anger is an instinctive response that’s caused by the id – the childlike impulse of throwing the toys out of the cot and the vicious instinct of wishing revenge on those we perceive to have wronged us. This though is the tempered by our superego which realises it’s both immoral and untactical to lash out and hit the man behind the counter in the bank and as such it often doesn’t allow it into our conscious mind. In cases where anger is unacceptable to the superego, it becomes repressed anger in order to protect our ego.
There are many reasons that anger might be deemed unacceptable by our superego. In many cases it will simply be that it’s inappropriate to be angry at the current time in the current scenario. However when repressed anger becomes a more serious issue is when the anger is repressed because of its contents which can cause great shame or guilt. For example should you become overwhelmingly angry at your mother then you may feel that this is unacceptable; you love your mother and she’s provided for you your whole life, how can you be so angry at someone you love? Alternatively you may become so angry that you wish someone dead or great harm and again this may be met by powerful feelings of guilt and lead to more repressed anger.
In some cases the actual cause of the anger itself may be repressed. This occurs in extreme situations where an individual has gone through terribly traumatic events and here the anger becomes repressed again as a way to protect the conscious mind from having to deal with the consequences of what happened. For example, should you have experienced a large trauma as a child you may have ‘repressed’ the memory and so be angry with no understanding as to why.
Such repressed anger is unhealthy for any individual as it can manifest itself in subtle ways or can result in chronic stress or depression which puts a strain on the immune system and takes the joy out of life. Common ways for repressed anger to express itself are through ‘passive anger’ behaviours. These include subtle forms of anger such as putting less effort in at work, turning up places late and poorly dressed, being generally argumentative and difficult or making sarcastic and scathing remarks. Repressed anger can also be expressed by directing it towards the self and this often results in individuals sabotaging their own careers and relationships, or ‘punishing’ themselves with self harming behaviour or eating disorders. This inwardly directly anger is a common cause of low self esteem and of depression. While this is usually an unconscious mechanism, it may sometimes be the result of faulty reasoning such as ‘if my partner keeps hitting me it must be my fault and I must be a useless person’, or ‘how could I feel such strong anger and think such terrible things, I must be a bad person‘.
Repression is a defence mechanism that helps the mind to deal with traumatic thoughts and events by hiding it. There are also many other forms of defence mechanism however that the brain can also use to disguise our true emotions from us and that can be used to release or express our repressed anger. This can make the anger and its source even more difficult to identify and can lead to destructive behaviour.
‘Sublimation’ for example describes channelling unacceptable impulses such as anger or sexual desire into other activities – often art or sport. In ‘reaction formation’ we eliminate the possibility that we are experiencing the unacceptable emotion (in this case anger) by acting in the complete opposite way. In these cases an individual will act as calm and relaxed as they can to prove to themselves that they are not experiencing repressed anger. When we ‘project’ our unconscious mind accuses others of possessing the traits we deem unacceptable in ourselves, so we might end up accusing others of being in a bad mood or being constantly angry when it’s actually us who is experiencing repressed anger.
It’s important then to be able to identify repressed anger – and if you’re feeling anxious, depressed or stressed it may be possible that you are. Repressed anger is common in individuals with overactive superegos and one way to improve the condition is to recognise this and to go easier on yourself. The superego is a social construction that’s created by a society that’s perhaps overly judgemental and dismissive of our primitive roots.
The fact of the matter is that we all think unacceptable thoughts from time to time – and that anger is a perfectly healthy and normal emotional reaction to certain situations. Wishing ill on someone while in anger does not make you a bad person and it won’t affect anyone else. The domain of our mind is a sandbox where we are permitting to think and feel as we wish without fear of consequences – the more we use this to come to terms with our primitive urges and emotions the healthier we will be.
If your feelings of repressed anger continue, you should try to get to the root of the problem so that you can confront the source and hopefully overcome it. This can be done with the help of a psychodynamic therapist.