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Self-Defense or Self-Destruction? The Complex Relationship Between Protection and Dysfunction

Updated: Jul 23, 2023


Understanding anger and its role in social interactions

Anger is no laughing matter; it is a complex and powerful emotion that evolution has shaped to serve a beneficial purpose or adaptive function in social interactions. Anger alerts us to situations in which our personal boundaries have been violated, injustices have been committed, or our safety has been compromised. It can be interpreted as a way of informing others of the fact that they have crossed a line and discouraging them from doing so in the future. Anger has the potential to become dysfunctional, leading to self-destructive behaviors. While it is true that excessive or uncontrolled anger can be problematic and have negative social consequences, anger is not inherently bad. This may come as a surprise given the negative connotations typically associated with anger, such as hostility, aggression, and violent behavior. However, these expressions and responses to anger are distinct from the emotion itself.

Emotions on a spectrum of comfort and discomfort

The distinction between anger and these behavioral manifestations is important to know. It's true that anger may be the catalyst for these actions, but anger by itself is not the same thing. As with all emotions, anger is neither negative nor positive but rather benign, indicating that emotions are neither intrinsically good nor evil but rather experienced along a continuum of sensual satisfaction. For instance, sadness is a normal reaction to a loss, and it can lead to self-reflection and growth. But prolonged or excessive sadness can develop into depression and have unfavorable effects. In a similar manner, achieving a goal can result in happiness, but pursuing pleasure without regard for others can lead to selfishness and negative social repercussions. A binary view of emotions is limiting and can not accurately reflect the complexity of a human's emotional experience. By recognizing that emotions exist on a continuum of comfort and discomfort, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of our emotional experiences. Thus, viewing anger as inherently negative may not be accurate or helpful.

Dysfunctional anger and its impact on individuals and relationships

Recognizing that every emotion has a function and can reveal important details about our needs and preferences is important. For instance, anger may indicate a boundary violation or a need for justice, and when expressed appropriately, it can lead to positive change. However, dysfunctional anger can lead to aggression and harm to oneself and others. Problematic anger, also called dysfunctional anger, is anger that is too much, lasts too long, is hard to control, and has disadvantageous consequences. It can develop for a variety of reasons, including biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Dysfunctional anger can have a profound impact on individuals and their relationships. It can then result in behaviors such as screaming or shouting at other people, physical aggression, self-destructive actions like drug use or self-harm, or withdrawing from others or isolating oneself. The impact of dysfunctional anger on relationships can be devastating, as it can lead to alienation, damaged trust, and even violence.

The role of anger as a protective mechanism

Additionally, it is helpful to understand that anger is not always the primary emotion experienced in responses that lead to aggression and hostility. Instead, it is a response to another emotion, such as fear, sadness, belittlement, or hurt. In this context, the primary emotion is the initial feeling that arises in response to a perceived threat or discomfort, while anger serves as a protective mechanism as a secondary emotional response. For example, if a person's spouse is always putting them down, they might feel hurt and helpless at first. But in the end, this can cause them to get angry as a way to protect themselves and set boundaries. By understanding this cascade of emotions, individuals can learn to better regulate their emotional responses and communicate their needs effectively.

Addressing anger before it becomes habitual

In contrast, such responses can become habitual, automatic, and learned, leading to dysfunctional behavior and negative consequences. This eventually devolves into a cycle of reactive and reflexive behaviors in which anger is triggered quickly and easily and the individual struggles to control or regulate their emotions. Furthermore, when anger becomes a dysregulated response, it can interfere with the individual's ability to recognize and address underlying primary emotions. To break the cycle of dysfunctional anger and enhance relationships and well-being, it is essential to gain awareness of anger before it becomes an out-of-control response. To do so, one must understand the concept of the protective self and how the protective self contributes to dysregulated anger.

The protective self and its role in dysregulated anger

The "protective self" is a psychological concept referring to the part of ourselves that attempts to shield us from perceived discomfort, such as emotional pain or rejection. For example, someone who was often criticized or rejected as a child might have developed a protective self and, as a way to protect themselves, acted angry when they thought they were being rejected. This can result in difficulty regulating emotions in social interaction.

The protective self is closely aligned with dysfunctional and dysregulated anger because anger can serve as a means of self-protection against the discomfort of underlying psychological pain, resulting in a pattern of disproportionate and explosive anger responses to situations that are not necessarily threatening.

Additionally, the protective self may lead to the avoidance of uncomfortable emotions and contribute to dysfunctional and dysregulated anger by creating rigid and inflexible boundaries that are difficult to negotiate. This can lead to a cycle of anger and defensiveness where each party feels threatened and responds with aggression rather than engaging in constructive dialogue and problem-solving. The goal of the protective self is to prevent us from experiencing unpleasant feelings like terror, embarrassment, guilt, or sadness. Depending on the person and their life circumstances, the protective self may take many forms.


In conclusion, by understanding the causes and contributing factors of problematic anger, individuals can begin to identify and address their own anger issues and work towards developing healthier and more productive ways of managing their emotions. It is important to note that anger is a normal and natural emotion, but it can become problematic when it is expressed in unhealthy or harmful ways. Seeking professional help and support can also be beneficial for managing problematic anger.

A reflective look inward:

  1. When you are angry, how do you usually react? Do you have control over your responses, or do you tend to react impulsively?

  2. Have you ever had dysfunctional anger? If so, how did it manifest, and what were the ramifications?

  3. Are there any underlying primary emotions that cause you to be angry? If so, what are they, and how do you usually respond to them?

  4. When someone criticizes or rejects you, how do you usually respond? Do you react angrily or defensively? If so, why do you believe that?

  5. Have you ever considered the concept of the protective self in your life? Do you think you've developed a protective self to protect yourself from perceived discomfort?

  6. How do rigid and inflexible boundaries affect your interpersonal relationships? Do they contribute to dysregulated and dysfunctional anger?

  7. How can you become aware of your anger before it becomes an out-of-control reaction? What strategies can you employ to control your emotional responses and effectively communicate your needs?

  8. In the past, how has dysfunctional anger affected your relationships? Have you attempted to mend those relationships? What have you done in that case?

  9. Can anger be used to signal to others that they have crossed a line and discourage them from doing so in the future? How can you express your anger in a way that results in positive change?

  10. How do you strike a balance between the need for self-protection and the need for healthy relationships with others? How can you avoid destructive behavior while still maintaining healthy boundaries?

What are your views on this? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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