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Published October 22, 2010, 12:00 AM

Anger, acts of violence signs skills are lacking

We see too many of these headlines: “Employee shoots co-workers and then himself.” A popular notion is that a distressed person “snaps” under enormous pressures and loses control of his or her behavior.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

We see too many of these headlines: “Employee shoots co-workers and then himself.”

A popular notion is that a distressed person “snaps” under enormous pressures and loses control of his or her behavior. There is a small minority of instances where psychosis might explain what happened, but this is a relatively rare occurrence.

The usual profile is of a lonely or socially isolated man who experiences intense anger frequently and expresses his anger routinely at work or in his family. He lacks skills for controlling anger and in communicating with others. He justifies his violent action as a response to threats to his self-esteem, identity, autonomy or security. He is convinced of the justness of his cause and the malevolence of the “enemy”.

Violence is premeditated. A lyric from the “Sound of Music” goes, “Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could.” Violence is one choice among a range of choices. Stress isn’t the issue; reactions to stress are. Thought precedes the action. Even in loss of control there is still control.

Attitudes, ideas and beliefs predetermine the limits of aggression against others. Even in our wildest rage, there are things we won’t do. The violent person has similar rules in his or her head. The difference is that he or she has allowed for exceptions to the rule as to when violence is justified.

Examples of rationalizations. “If someone insults me in a bar, I’ll fight back.” “If I catch my wife in bed with someone else, it is OK to use violence on her or her lover.” “If she wouldn’t nag me, she wouldn’t get hit.” “I was stressed out.” “He was unfair and took my job away.”

Aggression may be justified and escalated when motives of power and evil intent are ascribed to the person with whom there is conflict. The feeling of being singled out as a target or as a victim of a conspiracy gives permission to respond with retaliatory violence.

When the actual circumstances happen, the criteria for violence has been met and the violent person acts out with aggression. The more justifications for violent responses there are, the more likely the current situation will approximate a predetermined excuse.

Limits to violence. Even within a violent rage, there is a predetermined range of choices. Not everyone in a barroom fight will pull out a weapon, choke or beat another person senseless. People won’t throw their best china or take someone’s life, no matter how angry they get. They have a measured response to the provocation.

By having a rule, “Under no circumstances will I use violence on a another human being,” there is no emotional grasping for the thought, “Is this one of those times when I can respond with violence?” With an ironclad rule, there is no search for an exception. The choice to be non-violent has already been made.

Violence-prone individuals. Why are some people prone to take their problems out on others when they are angry and under stress?

  • The best predictor of violence is a history of past violence. Impulsive outbursts of aggression come from a history of inadequate control of anger. The frequency and intensity with which anger is experienced stimulates more anger. This is contrary to the notion that expressing anger relieves pressure. There might be cases where the inability to acknowledge or experience anger leads to psychological difficulty, but the vast majority of people run into problems because of too frequent expression of anger.
  • Anger works. An expression of aggression is reinforced by the pain or harm caused to the victim. Aggression temporarily reduces energy and tension. Stress builds again and the cycle is repeated.

    Anger is also reinforced when its display is found to be effective in intimidating and controlling other people. Paradoxically, violence is used to avoid conflict by cutting short attempts at exploring differences or thwarting unwanted solutions.

  • Feelings of low personal power and control. Perfectionists who expect that the world “should” go a certain way view life’s events as provoking. They live in a chronic state of anxiety and tension when the “right” thing does not happen. Left alone, they brood on anger evoking events and irritations.
  • Social isolation. A lot of men avoid intimate conversations with others. Out of pride, they shut off opportunities to identify feelings of fear, guilt, inadequacy and frustration. They fail to gain perspective and support for the internal struggles they are experiencing. These feelings are experienced as anger. This lack of empathy limits their ability to understand the feelings of others.
  • Lack of assertiveness, stress reduction skills and communication skills. A person with anger problems may lack problem-solving or negotiating skills to resolve interpersonal difficulties. Situations involving frustrated expectancies and conflict with others do not get resolved. It is easy to get angry because there is something to be angry about.

The inability to compromise or listen to others is an obstacle to solving difficulties. A humorist noted, “When a man is wrong and won’t admit it, he always gets angry.” Rigidity and a sense of moral righteousness give reasons for justifying anger and indulging in a violent response without deliberation.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.

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