Compassion for Anger Turned Inward

old man's face reflected in mirror

This is an edited excerpt from the book The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert, PhD, founder of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)

Sometimes when my colleagues and I work with very depressed people who are very self-critical, it quickly becomes obvious that they’re harbouring considerable anger. They may behave in very submissive, withdrawn and self-blaming ways, but they clearly have serious conflicts with parents or partners.

Back in the 1880s, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘No one blames themselves without a secret wish for vengeance.’ Freud borrowed this for his theory of depression. He suggested that people become depressed because the anger they feel for others, who have hurt or let them down, is turned inwards. He thought that they couldn’t express anger to others because they were dependent on them, and the depressed people were frightened that if they expressed anger, these others would turn against them. If you’re desperate to be loved and cared for by someone, you won’t express anger towards them; if you did, your own sense being a ‘nice and lovable person’ could take a bit of a battering. So anger is suppressed because of its effect on the other person and how that makes you feel about yourself.

This way of thinking is not so dissimilar to the one I find when I work with depressed people. Their self-criticism has often developed in the context of powerful or threatening others; because of them, they’ve had to learn to self-blame and monitor themselves very carefully. They keep checking that they’re not going to do something that stirs up the anger of those threatening others. If there’s nothing you can do to control those other, more powerful people, the only thing you can do is control your own behaviour. This is called an ‘involuntary subordinate strategy’ because it’s the kind of thinking and attentional focus that goes with being a frightened subordinate.

Giving up self-blame and self-criticism can, therefore, feel frightening. And so we see here some rather complex defensive strategies that can operate outside of our conscious awareness and cause us rather a lot of trouble. Depressed people with this problem can only slowly come to understand it because it can overwhelm them. Caught up in this difficulty, they can become very focused on self-blame and a sense of badness and sin.

Indeed, in centuries past but sometimes even today, depression is associated with the feeling of having offended God and being pushed away – out of God’s love. This is because depression involves a toning down of our positive emotion systems, leaving us with awful feelings of isolation and disconnection.

When trying to deal with their anger at life or at the deities that have let them down, or with their rage at their parents who were supposed to be loving and loved, people can be so frightened of their emotions and so want to be loved or protected by parents or partner that they can suffer a kind of inward collapse. So sometimes self-criticism is really a cover for the fact that we feel very angry with others: we’re actually in conflict over that and frightened of our anger.

The compassionate approach does not simply try to soothe anger away. Compassionate mind training of the type that I’m concerned with here sees anger and hatred as tragedies, not poisons. The concept of a poison is an unhelpful concept with which to approach anger and hatred. This is because anger and hatred are usually linked to hurts and fears and to deep vulnerabilities, sometimes from the past and sometimes even to the whole process of life and death.

Anger and hatred are both like a flame – it can cast light, give life-sustaining warmth, inspire and create passion but, unchecked and undirected, can also burn, cause intense pain and consume and turn to ash all that it touches. Anger and hatred should be seen as pointers, telling us to look back to find the source of our hurt and to be honest about our fear. In compassion-focused work, this is often the hardest thing to do, to be honest enough to work with the fear and grief that sits underneath anger.

Register for Compassionate Mindfulness training event near you with Dennis Tirch, PhD, and Laura Silberstein-Tirch, PsyD