Anger struggles are more common than you’d think. Anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, helplessness, frustration – these emotions often accompany each other in various permutations & combinations.
I know I sometimes feel guilty as soon as I get angry. However, there are various puzzle pieces in this Anger-Guilt cycle which begs to look at subtle nuances in order to answer the question, “Why do I feel guilty when I’m angry?”.
For an in-depth understanding of this puzzling cycle, let’s tease out the nuances, shall we?
Why You Might Feel Guilty When Angry
There can be two scenarios here – either your expression of anger makes you feel guilty, or your guilt makes you angry. In both cases, both emotions co-exist, and in both cases, a third emotion is usually present – shame. In order to know why you feel guilty when you get angry, you need to first discern which emotion precedes the other. When anger causes guilt it’s usually because of some real or perceived harm your expression of anger may have caused someone else. When guilt leads to anger it’s your mind trying to protect you from the deeper pain of shame that guilt often leads to.
Anger & Guilt As Messengers
Every single emotion is a messenger coming in with some valuable information for us. However, when we don’t have the skills to understand these messages we struggle to make sense of why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. In fact, sometimes we may find it hard to even know what we’re feeling.
Anger usually comes in when our boundaries(1) are being violated in some way. This, broadly speaking, means when someone’s action is causing me to feel a certain way, physically or emotionally, without my full consent.
So, if someone hits me, screams at me, takes a decision for me, or does anything that is directly related to me that I didn’t agree to, anger brings my attention to it so I can take appropriate action.
Similarly, guilt comes in when I feel I’ve crossed someone else’s boundary which has led to them being hurt or harmed in some way. Healthy guilt – we’ll talk more about healthy/ unhealthy guilt – helps us stay aligned with our values of humanity.
Guilt brings us the opportunity to make amends, and repair the hurt our actions may have caused.
No Bad Parts, by Richard Schwartz, the Founder of the Internal Family System, is a great book to understand & work with our fear or shame when we can’t control the inner voices that don’t match the ideal of who we think we should be.
So then, why does it all get so terribly mixed up?
In many cultures & religions around the world, anger is seen as a bad emotion, and guilt is seen as a good emotion – Allow me to elaborate.
Despite the gender differences in what emotions are okay to be expressed by which gender, in general, anger is considered to be an emotion to be afraid of, and to not be acted upon.
In contrast, guilt is seen as an emotion akin to humility. If you feel guilty it means you’re not inherently a bad person. You can still be saved no matter what you’ve done.
Now, broadly speaking, most people find themselves in one of the two scenarios.
The Two Scenarios
1. They get angry, and then feel guilty about their anger outburst (it doesn’t matter whether it was an outward outburst or an inward outburst of “bad” thoughts).
2. They feel guilty about something (the real or perceived sense of violating someone else’s boundary), and then get angry and blame the other so as not to feel the guilt.
In scenario 1, two things could be happening:
a. The guilt comes in because they believe that anger is bad and that they’ve been a bad person by getting angry.
b. When we act out of anger we don’t have the mind space to pause and see what harm – no matter how seemingly insignificant – we might be causing. But as soon as we realize the possible harm we may have caused, we feel guilty.
In scenario 2, there’s the presence of a third emotion, that is actually the root cause of a lot of our emotional and mental suffering.
The Third Emotion: Shame
The article(2), Pain And The Unspoken Emotion: Shame, in the International Journal of Child, Youth, and Family Studies, describes shame as:
Shame — the deep sense of not belonging, of being defective or deficient in some way, of feeling unlovable — is a painful and pervasive social emotion that also involves our thinking processes and sense of self-worth. It has been described as a “pit of despair” that “envelops” many young people in care, a toxic force that drives behaviors we struggle to understand including some aggression and self-harm.
So strong is the emotion of shame that our brains perceive its pain as real as physical pain(3).
Going back to our second scenario – feeling guilty about something, and then getting angry and blaming the other so as not to feel the guilt – the reason we do this is that in this case our guilt almost immediately moves into shame.
An article in the Scientific American shares how Tangney(4) and her co-authors explain the difference between guilt & shame in a 2005 paper:
Shame reduces one’s tendency to behave in socially constructive ways; rather it is shame’s cousin, guilt, that promotes socially adaptive behavior.
People often speak of shame and guilt as if they were the same, but they are not. Like shame, guilt occurs when we transgress moral, ethical or religious norms and criticize ourselves for it.
The difference is that when we feel shame, we view ourselves in a negative light (“I did something terrible!”), whereas when we feel guilt, we view a particular action negatively (“I did something terrible!”). We feel guilty because our actions affected someone else, and we feel responsible.
Feelings of shame can be painful and debilitating, affecting one’s core sense of self, and may invoke a self-defeating cycle of negative affect….
In comparison, feelings of guilt, though painful, are less disabling than shame and are likely to motivate the individual in a positive direction toward reparation or change.
The guilt being referred to here is what is called “healthy” guilt – one which is specific to a particular action you took, and can be repaired. Guilt turns unhealthy when it is not specific to an action, &/ or is felt towards an action that cannot be repaired.
In scenario 1a, discussed before, where guilt comes in because one believes that anger is bad, and that they’ve been a bad person by getting angry, the guilt is usually universal, & turns to shame (I’m a bad person). This is unhealthy guilt – one that turns to shame.
Whereas, in scenario 1b, more often than not the guilt is healthy, as it helps us make repairs by tending to the harm that may have been caused by our actions.
The next question you should be asking is: Why & how does guilt turn into shame?
The Anger-Guilt-Shame Cycle
While the presentation of anger may vary greatly, many people struggle with anger. In fact, in most families, at least one person shows visible signs of anger struggles.
People who struggle with anger were once children who weren’t taught how to express anger. They had role models/ primary caregivers who either suppressed their own anger or went into some form of external violent outburst – shouting, screaming, blaming, hitting.
Depending on the match between a child & the primary caregiver’s tendencies, the child learns to either suppress anger or express it violently.
The interesting thing to note here is that it doesn’t matter whether this anger is suppressed or expressed in an unhealthy way, both lead to unhealthy guilt, which turns into shame.
As we’ve seen above, shame is extremely painful – so you do whatever you can to not feel it – which may look like blaming others, blaming yourself, addiction (addiction is deeply rooted in shame(5)), and disconnecting from self, amongst other coping mechanisms.
This is the Anger-(Unhealthy) Guilt-Shame Cycle. It is common in those who as children internalized that they are somehow not good/ damaged/ broken/ the reason of all problems.
In both, scenarios 1a & 2, discussed above, unhealthy guilt turns to shame.
However, in 1a, the trigger is an action by someone else that violated your boundary. You feel angry because your boundary was violated. But since you consider anger to be bad, you feel guilty. And this (unhealthy) guilt turns to shame because you believe since anger is bad, you too must be bad for feeling it.
While in scenario 2, one believes they are inherently bad – and so when they do something that violates another’s boundary the guilt that emerges from it becomes the trigger for anger.
To not feel the pain of shame that comes from the belief of being inherently damaged, the moment they experience any guilt, anger comes in to save them from the guilt turning to shame.
Unfortunately for them, once they get angry, reacting out of an unhealthy expression of anger makes them feel guilty, thereby, reinforcing the shame of being a bad person.
This internalization can happen due to various factors, like caregivers who have their own unresolved issues with perfection, &/ anger, or situations where the child felt extremely helpless like death or divorce of the primary caregiver(s) or an abusive environment.
Breaking Out Of The Anger-Guilt-Shame Cycle
This cycle usually begins with two common misconceptions. If we clear out these misconceptions, we can begin to break out of the cycle.
Misconception 1: Anger is Bad.
Anger is an emotion, and like every other emotion, it brings us a message. Every emotion brings us an important message in order for us to pay attention to something of value to us.
Once we start looking at anger as such – a messenger that’s neither good nor bad – we can stop judging it, and stop judging ourselves for feeling it.
Then we can begin to learn how to express anger in a healthy way such that I hold and express my boundaries, without violating other people’s boundaries.
Misconception 2: I am Bad.
This is much more deeper and complex than the first misconception since the belief in this case is “I myself am bad – unfixable, and unsalvageable – so there is little hope in changing anything”.
Here the work to do is to separate your thoughts, words, & actions from who you are. This needs deep inner work to resolve probable childhood adverse experiences. Inner-child work, reparenting, and other trauma-informed modalities can do wonders to resolve this.
It is important to remember, you are beyond anything you do or anything that ever happens to you.
- All emotions, including anger & guilt, are messengers.
- The problem arises when we don’t have the skills to understand these messages.
- Unhealthy guilt leads to shame, which propagates the Anger-Guilt-Shame cycle.
- It is possible to break out of this cycle.
As always, I’d love to hear from you! Drop in your thoughts/ questions/ suggestions in the comments box below.
P.S. You might find the article, “How Do I Start Reparenting Myself?“, helpful.
(1) American Psychological Association: APA Dictionary of Psychology | https://dictionary.apa.org/boundary
(2) Article: Pain And The Unspoken Emotion: Shame; International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies (2019) 10(2-3): 126–141
DOI: 10.18357/ijcyfs102-3201918856 | file:///C:/Users/shobh/Downloads/18856-Article%20Text-18962-1-10-20190408.pdf
(3) MacDonald, G., & Leary, M. R. (2005). Why Does Social Exclusion Hurt? The Relationship Between Social and Physical Pain. Psychological Bulletin, 131(2), 202–223. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.131.2.202
(4) Article: The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame, by Annette Kämmerer on August 9, 2019; Scientific American | https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-scientific-underpinnings-and-impacts-of-shame/
(5) Lynn E. O’Connor, Jack W. Berry, Darryl Inaba, Joseph Weiss, Andrea Morrison. Shame, guilt, and depression in men and women in recovery from addiction. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Volume 11, Issue 6, 1994, Pages 503-510, ISSN 0740-5472, https://doi.org/10.1016/0740-5472(94)90001-9