Aggression and anger- two distinct types

I was up reading philosophy about the creation of international crimes courts. I am dreadfully behind in my philosophy class and do not look forward to this coming week at all. My coffee addiction will be reinforced. But anyway, I was up reading philosophy and I fell asleep. I awoke and noted that the clock displayed midnight and I opted to turn off the lights and go to bed, setting the alarm for 0700 to do some much needed reading before time to go to work at the booth tomorrow morning before I go to work at the bar tomorrow night.

I was almost asleep. I was in that delicious space of blackness when one is almost ready to fall, knowingly and comfortingly, into a deep sleep. This is rare for me because most of the time I operate from a severe sleep deficit and I don’t remember when I fall asleep, its onset is so sudden. Yet here I was, savoring the drifting of my consciousness under the ocean waves of sleep.

And then a thought came into my mind. I was still trying to map out emotions from my own experience from an altercation with a coworker earlier tonight. The plain fact is he is very much a jerk who played games with me tonight. While I got angry, I wanted to lash out at him but instead I let it go, tried to apologize for any misunderstanding I might have given him, and tried to talk to him. He only reaffirmed his position and continued to act like a jerk. As I drove home I kept the emotional state in tact. I knew what I felt that I wanted to do… and that was punch him in the face. I could almost feel the emotional release of such an action, how rewarding it would feel in the short run. Yet in my talking with men who have anger issues (something I experience a lot myself) I have to be able to give them something in return.

An analogy. For years I eat high sugar foods, donuts, candy bars, soda pop, and all manner of unhealthy things. Over time my body has developed an unhealthiness about it, my mood swings and cravings for carbohydrates and simple sugars, and my likelihood of developing diabetes is high. It is lunch time and I am hungry and I see a candy bar. It would be very tasty. I have a craving in my mind and body for that candy bar, that chocolatey goodness, the spike in blood sugar. In the short term it would be very good, rewarding my habit, but in the long term it would be very bad for me.

It would be very rewarding and easy to wipe the floor with this guy. No boxing moves, no dancing around, no posturing, just a couple of places to go in and cause some damage to him, bloody him up a bit, and teach him who the ‘alpha male’ is. But this is highly destructive for interpersonal connections, working relations, employment possibilities, and more. I could lose a job, be locked up, and a whole host of other problems. My forebrain was able to go ‘not such a good idea, stand down’. I had a spike in adrenaline, but nothing much compared to in the past.

Back to the point. I was keeping a hold of this emotional state because I was weighing possibilities against it. Back to the analogy above, I am craving the candy bar and want something more healthy, what will hold some appeal for me? A cracker? A piece of fruit? A cheeseburger? What can I use to satisfy and detract me from the candy bar? What cognitive patterns could I use to satisfy my emotional craving for punching him in the face? Thought patterns are interesting in that during emotional states, like anger or sadness, there are usually some underlying thoughts of a negative nature at work. Often these are unnoticed. There are also thoughts we are aware of and while in a state of depression it is immensely satisfying to ruminate on negative thoughts. Some sixteen years ago when I battled regular depressive episodes I would call these episodes my ‘one true mistress’. Succumbing to these depressive states were not terrifying as much as they were known, welcoming, meaningful, and at some level rewarding. The rumination upon the negative thoughts at the time were as satisfying and addicting as anything. It is hard to give that up and to be honest, I didn’t give it up so much as I found other, different rewarding thought patterns. While an optimistic outlook might be more rewarding when optimistic, happy sunny thoughts are meaningless when depressed (at least to me), much like a cocktail olive is to someone craving a candy bar. The cocktail olive is good to someone craving salt and the candy bar doesn’t satisfy.

So driving home I toying with various thoughts and seeing how they felt in my emotional state. Nothing was working. I played with the classic “I statements” or “directing statements” used in anger therapy and they didn’t help at all. I’ve been reading about alexithymia and PTSD and such lately and I toyed with trying to understand that perhaps he was having a bad day, trying to understand his point of view, and so on. Yet I didn’t really care, emotionally, about his state. At a deep level it was really very simple. He showed himself to be an utter jackass, was very rude to me, and therefore I desired to punch him in the face. Simple. While I made the comment about “top dog” earlier, it wasn’t so much that as two or three times went along with his direction and even told him it was his bar and asked what he wanted and the words weren’t hollow. I had no desire to be rid of him, to not work with him ever again, or any such thing. I’d work with him tomorrow. But there was this ‘need’ for violence and I was intensely curious about it. And since I have no lab of my own, I must resort to studying my own mind as best as I can.

I found one thing that seemed to satisfy me. Among the readings that I’ve been doing recently is that of the difference in impulsive and premeditated aggression. I’ve heard the anger issues of veterans expressed as primarily impulsive and this link has been made with the flight aspect of the famous ‘fight or flight’ response. And I think that this has a lot of merit to it. But while it is conceptualized as two distinct processes, or three if you read Peter Levine, and others, who add a ‘freeze’ response. I think of the fight or flight response not as ‘a’ OR ‘b’ but as ‘a or b’. That is one condition that has two masks.

Take a prey species, like a rabbit, and attack it. It will run away. Flight. Keep chasing it until you corner it and you can get your hands on it and it might go limp. Freeze. But some rabbits might try to bite you as you grab it. Fight. Now I wish to entertain the notion that the bite of the rabbit is not truly fight. It is instead another expression of flight. It is the intent of the bite of the rabbit to increase the distance between the threat and itself. Because the outward manifestation appears to be a the same as a bite does not make it a ‘fight’ response.

Analogy. Because a male has sex with a woman does not mean he loves her. It could be assault.

It has been said that our wiring is more akin to a ‘prey species’, though we like to think of ourselves as a predator. One extremely intelligent psychologist makes the comparison between us and other mammals, noting we have little hair, no fangs, no claws, and lots of meat. We are snack food she says. Our thinking of ourselves as predator might be as delusional as our thinking of our selves, and this planet, as the center of the universe. What self conscious species would like to think of itself as prey? To be prey is to have limits to one’s freedoms and autonomy. And, at least in the West, autonomy is an important aspect to some’s sense of well-being. Prison is a taking away of autonomy.

However, I know what I felt on a dusty road in Baghdad. That was an intense desire to move toward the threat, to get closer to it, and to rip its heart out through its throat. I was Ares incarnate and I wanted blood and death. I also recall that same desire to maim and destroy during an angry dispute with some friends one night. The onset of this state gave me great panic and fear for the next three days that I could do such a thing as was in my desires to my closest friends. It is horrifying. This is not the same ‘fight’ as corner animal. This was a killer.

Back to my drive home and toying with cognitive thoughts against my mental state of wanting to hit this guy and bloody his nose. I thought about two different types of anger and violence and it seemed to me that the anger I was feeling was really that of fear. The anger display was just that, a display, a warning to others as a rattlesnake’s rattle of ‘don’t come near me’. The guy was a jerk and I was giving him warning signs that if he pressed the issue he would not like it. I also recognized that I felt threatened, not physically, but conceptually. That is I felt that my work ethic and my capabilities and competency were all questioned. I recognized this in the bar when I tried to diffuse the situation by telling him I felt his behaviors were overly critical of me. I felt questioned and threatened and backed into a corner and I got angry. One of the thoughts that helped me maintain my cool in the bar was the knowledge that I am a very good at my job. I’ve got fifteen years in this industry alone, and over two decades in high stress work environments, and I know my competencies. I’ve kept a running film library of my anger issues in the past, particularly in the Marines, and found that they were highest and most explosive when I felt scrutinized for not performing well at a job or as a person. In this situation I easily able to note that I’ve got more time sitting on a toilet than this guy has behind a bar. I need not feel my credibility threatened by his behaviors.

But as I drove home, again, I held onto the desire to punch him in order to understand it. And in thinking about the differences in impulsive and premeditated aggression, the prey or predator anger, I opened up my mind to thinking like a predator toward him. Almost instantly my tenseness lessened. I was much more calm in my body, the underlying tenseness in my arms and chest were gone. Common to myself, and a lot of men facing anger issues, is that they get tired in their arms and chest. They are unaware of their fighting muscles tightening, readying for the fight. But it isn’t a fighter’s mindset.

Analogy. You are at the edge of a fighting ring. The crowd is yelling and you enter the cage to face your opponent. You are a bit nervous because he is three times your size, weight, and looks absolutely fierce. His face nearly drools with anticipation in hitting you. You stand in the center of the ring and hear the bell sound. He approaches and you take a step forward. How tense do you feel?

Analogy. You are a skilled martial artist with years of training. You have great command and control over your body. While walking down a street a diminutive person approaches you. He is intoxicated and can barely stand up and has no weapons. He moves toward you in order to fight you. It is the simplest thing to enter into his attack from the side, possess his energy, and redirect him into a bush on the side of the road. There is no tension in your muscles.

I made these two as wildly different as possible to help make the distinction between the mindsets of one’s ability to defend oneself. Anger is a big ball of wax and no so simple of a thing to unravel. I’ve not even touched on masculinity issues or roles and schemas. According to some circles I should never have apologized to someone behaving as he did. Perhaps my apologizing affirmed his poor attitude and next time he sees me he may, contrary to some thought at becoming enlightened and treating me nicer, actually treat me worse. That is his behavior, not mine.

Back to the truck. While driving I thought of myself as the predator and it had the same effect as rationally comparing my work knowledge/experience with his. Not to discount his, he appears to know his stuff and be highly competent… its just his manners that are atrocious, but that his behaviors were somehow indicative of my competencies. It would have been foolishness of a very high order to entertain for a second that this bartender of two years and the cocktail server of a year were able to judge my abilities so easily and harshly. It is much more likely they are a social unit of sorts, a clique of power and influence in the restaurant, and I was of some sort of threat. I am often threatening to some it seems. When I viewed myself in relation with him as a predator and entertained the a predatory notion of hurting him, there was no need to do so, and the anger lessened a great deal.

Explain. I speculate that a lion does not kill an antelope out of sadistic glee, that it awakens with a killing urge to destroy something. It is a predator that seeks to get food. The anger of a lion attacking prey, even large prey like an elephant, does not appear to me to have the same sort of emotional tones (if I might use this word loosely) as when I watch lions defend a kill from hyenas. The violence perpetrated appears, to me, to be quite distinct. Likewise, regarding myself as a predator, and knowing that I can back it up, I didn’t have any reason to feel threatened by him. And being as there was reason to attack him, he was not food, he was not an enemy to kill, or any other reason one might go find something and kill it, I felt no animosity or anger toward him.

Cold hearted killer. Letting that part of me that can destroy poke its head out and look around lessened the anger of the part of me that was defensive. I can’t say exactly how I switched to thinking about hurting him as a predator and not a prey species, both actions are the same, a punch in the face, but because of my experiences the switch was easy to make. I also note that it is perhaps much easier to make now than it might have been two years ago when I was repressing my predatory nature.

Side note. We humans are indeed predators. It has been speculated that one type of hunting done by humans is running down prey, that our muscles, able to run a marathon of 26 miles, is longer than a prey species can sustain. They’ve got short bursts, but we will just run them to death. We set traps, we hunt, we eat meat. We might be preyed upon by other animals, much like a fox is preyed upon by wolves if given the opportunity, but we are still a predator species.

I write this with a bit of hesitance. I do not say that the way through an anger episode is to imagine oneself to be a predatory killer. Suppose you get into a fight with your spouse. Thinking of yourself as a predator in relation might not be the best thing to do here. I am merely noting the changes in emotional makeup upon various cognitions that I played across my mental screen. I am not advocating the efficacy of this approach. Yet I do make a personal distinction between different types of anger and aggression. And if I am to help guide other men through their issues of anger and aggression I need to move beyond the well meaning, yet hollow and ill-recieved advice given out often. I do not argue that the advice is bad, just badly received and as I’ve made this point before, the impetus is upon we in mental health to develop approaches, models, and methods that can be used, not on the other to adopt them. The joke goes, ‘how many people does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change’. It can also be said that therapy is a two-side dance and while the other person must want to change, the therapist must want to speak the language needed for that individual to hear. As the pluralists Christians say, there are many roads up the same mountain.

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2 thoughts on “Aggression and anger- two distinct types

  1. You may find it clearer to look at the distinction between anger and aggression rather than distinctions between different types of anger and aggression. Anger (a feeling) is much different from aggression (a behavior). Example: People can be angry without being aggressive (much like you were above) and can also be aggressive without being angry (as in hunting, boxing, and sometimes even war). You mentioned that you were threatened ‘conceptually, not physically.’ The approach I use as an anger coach would lean more towards you were threatened by your concepts. When we get too close to our own thinking, it is easy for us to buy into our own publicity.
    Just a few thoughts. Good article, keep writing.

  2. Eddie,
    I seen the direct correlation between the two and i seen where you were heading and i like the Psychology vs Philiosphy. Great job!!!

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