Fear and Anger

It is interesting how people react to a simple notion: “Anger is a mask over fear.”  Having learned this about thirty years ago, and used it countless times since then to both understand myself, help clients and defuse potentially violent situations, I now consider it truth rather than opinion, a theory very well tested through practical experimentation and interaction with  human beings.


There is a further notion: most violence stems from anger.  Not all violence.   After all, nature is violent, depending on how you use the word.   A “violent storm.”  A “violent collision.”  The dictionary, let alone common usage gives us enough wiggle-room for language that you have to begin with the assumption of good will, of intent to communicate.  The attitude: “hmmm.  If that is true, what would it mean?   How can I test it?   Is it useful?” is a neutral attitude, looking for truth.


The attitude: “it cannot be true.  How can I disprove it?” suggests to me someone with something to defend.  To be blunt, someone for whom the basic idea is…uncomfortable.


Here’s a definition of fear snatched off the internet, congruent with my own usage:  “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”  Some synonyms from the same source:  

terror, fright, fearfulness, horror, alarm, panic, agitation, trepidation,dread, consternation, dismay, distress.


But there is something very interesting if we go deeper.  Fear has emotional connotations, as well as different manifestations.  It often paralyzes or triggers “cowardly” behavior.  “Fleeing in anger” isn’t something we talk about a whole lot.


In other words, fear can freeze you or make you weak.  Anger could be seen as a mobilization of fear, a way to shift away from negative behaviors or connotations, and use the core emotion in a more productive fashion.  It can also, of course, be quite destructive.    


Because language is limiting, the way YOU use the word may not be the way I use it.  But if you want to know if I am correct, I would suggest you ask: “at the least, is this a useful lie?  Is it something that could explain my own behavior, or the behavior of others?  Does it point the way to a means of conflict resolution, or finding peace within my own heart?”


Again, practical experimentation suggests it does.  Quibbling over whether this or that physiologist agrees that the neural pathways are the same seems far less productive…unless one is afraid of his fear.  Thinks that it means something negative. And I know LOTS of guys like that.  Heck, I was one of them, tortured for decades by fear I thought meant “you can’t, you mustn’t, you’re weak, you’re a coward” and so forth.


Nope, it just meant I was afraid.  Period.  And once I got that stated simply, while it was still a lot to deal with it was hella better than dealing with the shame about my fear, and then my revulsion to my shame about my fear, and then my guilt about my revulsion about my shame about my fear…


An endless fun-house of mirrors, infinitely reflecting the emotion back to me in different forms, an entire army of fear-spectres to battle, rather than simply facing the core emotion.



If you want truth, and know that we are dealing with words which never totally communicate between human beings, what we want is to ask: how can I test this?  How can I determine if this is useful, and/or true?


I can go as deeply into this as you want, but here’s an example.   Want to understand much of the violence in society?   Easy.   Criminologist Lonnie Athens wrote a book “Why They Kill” in which he asks an allied question on the quantum level: what creates career violent criminals?


Rather than theorize about it, or speak with psychologists, he did something kinda unique: actually went to prisons and interviewed convicted, confessed murderers and muggers.  What a concept, right?  And after thousands of interviews, he boiled things down to a five-stage process.


  1. The person undergoes brutalization or “violent horrification.”  In other words, either THEY are hurt, or they witness damage done to people they empathize with.
  2. They rebel: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
  3. They begin to act out successfully.
  4. They find a reference group of like-minded people who reinforce their behavior: “atta boy!”
  5. They internalize the values and beliefs of this reference group.  “If anyone looks at you that way, kill them.  Otherwise you’re a pussy.”


According to Athens, standard penological interventions are effective for the first 1-4 steps. But by the time you get around 4-5, THERE IS NO KNOWN STANDARD INTERVENTION THAT REDUCES THE RECIDIVISM RATE.  Got that?

Nothing short of epiphany or some other unpredictable, non-systemic off-the-shelf intervention makes a damned bit of difference any more.

IF this is true, it has an obvious corollary to what I’m saying.   Step #1 is fear.  Fear of being hurt again, or identifying with others who are hurt and afraid.  Survival risk, either direct or “when they finish with that person, they’ll come for me.”  Of course, pure empathy does it as well.


Step #2 is a threshold where you “flip the switch”, turning fear to anger, which mobilizes the emotion to trigger action.


Step #3–if your actions are unsuccessful, you’ll do something else: run, hide, make deals, whatever.  If none of that works, depression often results, as does a wide range of self-destructive behavior.


Step #4 is REALLY interesting.  Because you can see this dynamic in lots of different tribal social contexts.  In my own life, this was a community of martial artists who reinforced the notion that I was capable of defending myself.


Step #5 is “the voices in your head.” What Hindus refer to as “the drunken monkey.”   And note that if your reference group told you “fear is for cowards” then the notion of being afraid is going to go very badly in your inner conversations.


Here’s a thought for you: #1:  EVERYONE feels alone and afraid. The only question is: what do you do with your loneliness and fear?

#2: What lie do people try to sell you about being lonely and afraid?


Using the dictionary rather than the endocrinological definitions of these terms, I can relate any angry behavior to some core fear: fear of death, of loss of status or resources or love or respect, fear of injury or re-injury, fear of future lack.   Sure, you can say I’m stretching in some cases, but the proof is in the question: DOES IT WORK?  IF you can dig in and find the root fear, and address it fully, what happens to the anger?  If it diminishes, isn’t that what matters?


As a thought experiment, try it with the following instances:


  1. A “men’s rights advocate” shooting or beating a woman.
  2. A white man shooting up a church.
  3. A black man climbing on a building and shooting cops.
  4. A crowd voting for a demagogue who promises to protect, defend, or return them to former glory.
  5. A recently fired employee who shoots up his office.
  6. Oppressed people destroying their own communities.
  7. Oppressors denying the grievances of an oppressed community.
  8. An abused child engaged in “cutting”, anorexic or other self-destructive behavior.
  9. A child falling behind in school who becomes violent in the home.
  10. A husband and wife screaming at each other about the bills.
  11. Terrorists killing themselves to blow up their enemies, or trigger fear by attacking “soft targets.”


Those afraid to look at their own issues will be the ones who object to this the most.  It humanizes “the enemy.”   They will say: “what should we do, coddle the terrorists/thugs/racists/killers/asshats?”


Thereby demonstrating a serious case of two-dimensional, dualistic thinking.  Because the answer would be both carrot AND stick, wouldn’t you think?  To punish/jail or “bring to justice” (don’t you love that euphemism?) those who transgress, especially those who have reached stages 4 and 5.


But…to stop the “brutalization and violent horrification” if possible. Ask if there are any legitimate grievances, and ease them…otherwise, all you are doing is stimulating the next generation of problems.  As a thought experiment, try relating this concept to:


  1. Anything YOU are angry about.
  2. Things that your spouse, friends, or children are angry about.
  3. Bosses, employees, customers and co-workers are angry about (I mean, what would your boss lose if you screw up?  His business?  His job?)
  4. Your political “opponents” are angry about.
  5. Any ethnic or racial group seems to be angry/violent about
  6. Any foreign nation/entity seems to be angry about.


I know few things that help to generate both compassion, understanding AND formulate strategies for reduction violence and conflict.  Because when fear diminishes, so does anger, and so does violence. All you have to do is dive into your own emotions, own them, forgive yourself, love yourself, and extend your humanity to others.


But remember that some small percentage of people are simply pure predators.  And that there are enough who have reached stages 4 and 5 that all you can do is protect yourself.


The rest?  The rest can be reached with love.






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