I’ve often said that anger is not about the other person, and that is true, but what does that mean? How do you get control of out of control anger? Intense anger is really a result of a poorly differentiated “self”. Let me explain . . .
Self-differentiation is about being strong enough in who you are to be able to tolerate people’s differences from you. You are solid enough in who you are to not let those differences change who you are. You can be intimate with others (i.e., show who you really are) even in the face of disapproval. You can be patient and wait for others to deal with their reactions to you. You can hear critical feedback about yourself and take it into consideration as a possibility. In fact, you might take that feedback to trusted sources and ask for an honest opinion. Highly differentiated individuals would seek this information out rather than summarily reject it. Upon learning how they affect others, they would work to change that behavior in an effort to be the best person that they can be.
If you have a poorly differentiated self, however, you will be more volatile. Your reactions will be more knee-jerk – surprising even you at times. You depend on how others’ positive perception of you so much that you have a high need to change the others’ opinions/beliefs/ideas about you. If you are low on the self-differentiation scale, you “depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either you quickly adjust what you think, say, and do to please others” (codependence/weak/conforming/chameleon, etc.) or “you dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.” ¹ (counterdependence/bullying/bulldozing/manipulating/attacking/cut-off, etc.)
Do you see how that ties to anger? If I am so insecure in my “self” and if I am dependent upon other peoples’ opinions of me for my self-esteem, I am actually threatened by someone having a different idea, belief, or opinion than me. When someone feels threatened, anger is a common response. A codependent’s anger is more inward at first, but eventually comes flooding to the surface in a hostile vengeance. The counterdependent’s anger is more outward and visible. I mean, think about it. . . if I have such a tiny hold on who I am, then when that little sense of self is threatened, I am going to protect it fiercely with the closest tools at my disposal. The anger can get so intense that it feels like a fight to the death because the emotional self (which is our very essence) is threatened. It is a primal response that supersedes rational thought, promises to change, behavior modification, etc.
If anger has been a problem in your life or in your relationships, just working on anger will not fix anything long term. As long as you have a poorly differentiated self, it can be threatened and the need to defend and protect will come roaring to the surface. And when you get two poorly differentiated selves up against one another, say in a couple, look out! Developing self-differentiation is key to finally getting control of your anger and having real intimacy with others. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen if you understand self-differentiation and are determined to build it up!
¹The Bowen Center