Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
Transforming Anger into Action
“All psychological phenomena have some such sense of purpose inherent in them, even merely reactive phenomena like emotional reactions. Anger over an insult has its purpose in revenge; the purpose of ostentatious mourning is to arouse the sympathy of others, and so on.”
“… in an emotion, as the word denotes, you are moved away, you are cast out, your decent ego is put aside, and something else takes your place. We say, “He is beside himself,” or “The devil is riding him,” or “What has gotten into him today,” because he is like a man who is possessed.”
“The complex is not under the control of the will and for this reason it possesses the quality of psychic autonomy.”
“Whenever and wherever we see men seeking to control women, we are seeing fear’s ugly work…. Fear’s ugly work created the patriarchy and, as Blake noted, ‘blights with plague the marriage hearse.'”
“Men evolved the patriarchy, with its rules, hierarchical thinking and social structures, and its subjugation of the feminine, as a defense against the mother complex.”
“Fear comes out in public looking like anger, when it comes to nations as well as individuals.”
“… anger, hurt, resentment, bitterness, despair or depression. These emotions will be motivators initially.”
One theme that runs through many of the essays on this blog site is Jung’s relevance: Although Carl Jung died over 50 years ago, his writings are still relevant and offer us wisdom. Jung can help us understand and address contemporary problems, e.g. the seemingly ubiquitous phenomenon of anger. This essay combines Jung’s thoughts on anger and affects with insights from the clinical practices of Jungian analysts James Hollis and Polly Young-Eisendrath, and from social commentary of the broadcaster Krista Tippett. Our focus is on how to transform anger into action–effective actions that foster individual health and our collective well-being.
We will begin as we often do with some definitions of anger, and then consider the features and causes of anger, with particular attention to gendered anger. A fourth section explores the question “Why so much anger now?” The concluding section examines how we might transform anger into effective action.
Definitions of Anger
The dictionary defines anger as “the general word for the feeling one has toward something or someone that hurts, opposes, offends, or annoys; strong displeasure.” When anger is intense it is called “wrath,” which is one of the seven sins regarded in the Christian tradition as “deadly.” Our English word derives from the Indo-Germanic root angh, meaning “to constrict,” and angh is the same root for our “English words angst, anxiety, and angina.” In angina, the blood supply to the heart is constricted. When we feel anxious our breathing is often shallow, reflecting our physiological state of constriction: We are living in too “narrow” a psychological space.
While theological tradition considered wrath a “sin” Jung had a much more benign attitude, regarding anger as one of the “appetites,” or “passions” that we have in common with animals. As a “part of the personality” anger, like all emotions, can be a “gateway to the realm of the unconscious,” in giving us clues to our inner life. When our “psychic territory” is violated, we may justifiably feel angry. When we are “wounded” anger “is a legitimate and reflexive action.”Anger, Jung knew, has its place, but it can also be dangerous when it constricts our ability to reason or act with conscious intent. As an emotion anger moves us away (ex + moveo-ere) from our normal identity: “you are cast out, your decent ego is put aside, and something else takes your place. We say, ‘He is beside himself, …'”. Jung was familiar with this himself: Along with his keen intellect he was a man of enormous passions, and some of his rages were legendary, e.g. his fights with Jolande Jacobi, one of his students and the Extraverted impresario of the Jung Institute, and his furies at people who suggested he had Nazi sympathies.
On the collective level, for both individuals and nations the public face of fear often is anger. We see this now in our contemporary American political scene. Throughout our history we have witnessed intervals when reform-minded activists have been angry, since anger is the moral response to societal injustice, and one of the motivators of action.
Features of Anger
Anger can show up as mild irritability, “general bitchiness,” or major possession, when we are “changed completely” and our “consciousness gets thoroughly disoriented.” Jung wrote at length about how anger has “an autonomous character” which can rob us of our will. Why so? because, Jung explains, anger has a “numinous quality,” as a passion we “cannot judge logically and cannot conquer.”
But anger can also be “turned inward,” to show up in more subtle ways, like depressions, melancholy, or somatizations (causing physical problems like insomnia, migraines, eczema, heart problems etc.). Why such masking? Perhaps because our Puritanical origins left a legacy that considered emoting shameful. In his work with male patients Jungian analyst James Hollis often finds men in particular reluctant to speak truthfully about their feelings “lest they be shamed,” so they stuff their anger, only to have it show up eventually in illnesses, “temper tantrums,” or “bottled-up rage” that can wind up “beating women and bashing gays.”
Causes of Anger
Jung was very clear that “all psychological phenomena have some… sense of purpose inherent in them, even merely reactive phenomena like emotional reactions.” He gives an example of the purpose for anger: If we are insulted and then feel angry, the purpose is “revenge.” There are causes for what we feel. Part of becoming more conscious is coming to recognize why we have the emotions we have.
Some causes are obvious. For example, if we live in a situation where we are “totally misunderstood [and] isolated within” ourselves, we might develop “fits of rage out of sheer despair.” One child Jung examined killed his stepfather “during a paroxysm of rage. He …had been pushed too far.” As children we know what we need, and when nurturing support is lacking, or when we are repeatedly wounded, abused or violated, we are naturally going to feel “both anger and betrayal and sorrow.”
Less obvious needs include space (privacy) and respect for one’s own sense of self. In some lives parents constantly intrude on a child’s space (literally or psychologically) or they force the child to give his or her life to them. In this regard I am reminded of one of my students whose father insisted he take over his accounting business. The young man was a strong ENFP (Extraverted Intuitive Feeling Perceptive) type, for whom a life of solitude and numbers would have been death! Jungians recognize that we cannot “relinquish [our] own private journey to serve another man’s,” without accumulating a huge reservoir of rage. We have the right to live true to our own unique nature, and feel justifiable anger if this need is thwarted or denied.
Jung was aware of some causes of anger that might surprise us. For example, we are likely to become irritable, moody and angry if we are too virtuous. Why? This is an instance of the enantiodromia: When we live at an extreme the psyche (which strives for balance) will pull us to the other: be too good and eventually an explosion of anger or bitchiness is likely. More commonly, if we ignore contents from the unconscious that seek expression, because “the conscious mind is not ready to assimilate these contents, their energy flows off into the affective and instinctual sphere.” The result? Irritation, bad moods, and “outbursts of affect” (i.e. anger).”Inner discord,” and “inner disharmony” are other possible causes of anger.
Some causes relate to gender. As I noted above, men are more reluctant than women to get in touch with and vocalize their feelings, and this is as true for anger as it is for sadness, fear or anxiety. But men are just as liable as women to the “wounding” that results from poor parenting, e.g. an overbearing or abusive father, or “too much mother and not enough father as a balance.” Such early-life situations can set a person up for a negative parental complex.
I liken a complex to a black-and-blue mark. Just as a bruise is very tender and elicits a strong “ouch!” when hit, so a complex can produce an intense reaction if it is constellated, i.e. “hit” by something someone says or does. In his association experiments Jung identified many aspects of life that complexes often form around, with mother, father, power and money being some of the most common. Of these none are so common or so strong as the mother complex. James Hollis goes so far as to declare that
“No man can be himself until he has confronted the mother experience he internalized and carries into all subsequent encounters….If he still blames mother or women, he has not grown up; he still seeks the protection, or avoids the domination, of mother…. All the neediness of the inner child remains active in the present, as well as his fear of the mother’s power to overwhelm or abandon him. This is why so many men seek to control their partner, for they feel the Other, as before, is all-powerful still. And yet their deep, infantile need has not been satisfied either, so they seek to make their partner into mother.”
Such projection is not fair to the partner, who is not seen for herself (or himself, in a gay relationship). But projection is the least of it. Men may act out their “anger in self-destructive behavior or violence toward others. Rape is widely known to be a crime not of lust but of violence, of referred anger. Violence toward women, in particular, is a function of the intensity of injury to a man’s mother complex.” That such violence is not a rare occurrence is obvious from the #MeToo movement.
Women are justifiably angry for a host of reasons, e.g. for earning less than men while doing the same work; for having to come home each day to face a “second shift,” in a society that fails to provide adequate child care, sick leave, family leave and health care; for the rage acted out against them and their children; for being “convenient objects” on to which men vent their spleen; for being controlled or made into mother, and for being dismissed, denigrated, or harassed when they speak their truth about the physical, sexual and emotional abuse they experience. While each individual woman feels anger or experiences “referred anger” from men in ways unique to her, there are collective aspects to our rage, since our global culture is patriarchal. Which brings us to our next section.
Why Is There So Much Anger in Our Current World?
James Hollis recognizes that “Men evolved the patriarchy, with its rules, hierarchical thinking and social structures, and its subjugation of the feminine, as a defense against the mother complex.” Being a “defense,” the patriarchy is rooted in fear, and, as noted in the quotes that opened this essay, anger is the public face of fear.
It is important that we recognize the archetypal nature of the fear that is at the root of our current world. Archetypal fear is ethological, based on the study of animal behavior. Ethologists years ago recognized the “law of the retarding lead,” a law that applies not only to animals (including humans) but also to human constructs like economies, political systems and human relations. This law describes how, in an ecosystem, the dominant species is usually the last to notice change and adapt to it. In its very dominance it enjoys elite status, so why would it welcome change? Conversely, those species or groups that are marginalized, just hanging on, barely surviving or enduring subjugation, are quick to spot changing conditions and look to them to improve their situation.
In economics the law of the retarding lead explains why General Motors dismissed the introduction of small Japanese cars in the early 1960’s; they assumed that no one would want small cars, especially given how products from Japan had a notorious reputation for being so shoddy. Which cars are now most highly rated, in terms of quality and value? It’s not GM. Likewise with IBM and the personal computer. In the 1950’s IBM had a monopoly in the business of computing and Watson & Company scoffed at the tinkers in the California garage who were cooking up a computer the size of a little box. Who would want such a gadget?
Our social relations offer another illustration. In human interactions, who has status, privileges, greater freedoms, wider opportunities? Men. Which group is most likely to be fearful about a loss of status, power, and dominance? Men. Which group sees potential in evolving social conditions? Women.
The etymology of “patriarchy” is “rule” (archo) by the “fathers” (patri), so it is not surprising that politics also reflects the law of the retarding lead. Who has been the “dominant species” in government? Rich white mature males. Who has been marginalized? Women, people of color, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, the poor, immigrants, and the sick. Which group is fearful of losing its elite status? Which group is pressing for change?
The white males who run our government are simply reflecting the operation of this law. As the “top dogs” they are the elite and naturally feel threatened as conditions change. Their response is to rage (e.g. at rallies which our current leader enjoys hosting) and resist, as if evolution (like climate change) is something one can forestall or stop!
Millennia ago the Buddha recognized that “all compounded things decay.” Change is inevitable, and resistance to this fact creates delusion (which we are seeing in myriad ways now, in all the “fake facts” and talk of “alternate realities”). For far too long, because they have for years been the dominant species, our political leaders have failed to face and respond constructively to the new reality. Rapid technological change, coupled with degradation of the environment and growing restiveness from the marginalized have intensified the challenge we now face.
While some men now play “the paranoid game of us and them, winners and losers,” many others (and especially young people) face mountains of debt with only “boring and oppressive jobs, low pay,” and little hope that their situation will improve. This is what James Hollis calls “a witch’s brew for the venting of anger.” This can be turned on oneself, as we see with increasing numbers of suicides, drug use, excessive drinking and other destructive behaviors. But it also shows up outwardly, in mass shootings. Given how little use most Americans have for history, and the willful stupidity of our political leaders, few indeed recognize the potential consequence of young people’s disaffection: It is not the elderly who foment civil unrest, spark and lead revolutions.
Violence as a response is not something Jung condoned. He was explicitly opposed to our “devilish engines of destruction,” which
“are invented by completely innocuous gentlemen, reasonable, respectable citizens who are everything we could wish. And when the whole thing blows up and an indescribable hell of destruction is let loose, nobody seems to be responsible. It simply happens, and yet it is all man-made. But since everybody is blindly convinced that he is nothing more than his own extremely unassuming and insignificant conscious self, which performs its duties decently and earns a moderate living, nobody is aware that this whole rationalistically organized conglomeration we call a state or a nation is driven on by a seemingly impersonal, invisible but terrifying power which nobody and nothing can check. This ghastly power is mostly explained as fear of the neighboring nation, which is supposed to be possessed by a malevolent fiend. Since nobody is capable of recognizing just where and how much he himself is possessed and unconscious, he simply projects his own condition upon his neighbor, and thus it becomes a sacred duty to have the biggest guns and the most poisonous gas. The worst of it is that he is quite right. All one’s neighbors are in the grip of some uncontrolled and uncontrollable fear, just like oneself. In lunatic asylums it is a well-known fact that patients are far more dangerous when suffering from fear than when moved by rage or hatred.”
Jung is here putting us on notice that our responsibility is to stop projecting our anger out on to others, but to look within and recognize our fears and anger, and then to use these powerful feelings as motivators for action, effective action. How to do this?
How Might We Transform Anger into Effective Action?
First, we must be clear about the difference between effective and ineffective action. Actions that are ineffective create fear or intensify fear that is already present. As Hollis says, our patriarchal system is inherently fearful, and the last thing we should do, if we wish to work toward a world that works for everyone, is to create more fear. Protest marches, mass shootings, talk of civil war or revolution are clearly inappropriate if we wish to lessen fear.
Jung also rules out “symptomatic actions,” activities that “take up a good deal of time and energy” and accomplish nothing because they derive from unconscious psychological motives. These motives usually relate to some complex, some “play of opposites in [one’s own] psyche.” Acting out of unconsciousness inevitably produces ineffective, if not dangerously harmful actions. James Hollis enumerates some of these poor (but common) ways to handle anger:
“There are four possible ways in which it might be processed. Feeling powerless, one may become depressed. Depression has been variously defined as “anger turned inward” and “learned helplessness.” Or one may internalize that anger in the body, which may then combine with other physical circumstances to lead to illnesses such as gastric disorders, migraines, heart disease or cancer. Often the anger will leak out from the repression. What the boy could not express with the mother will surface in the man as general irritability. This is called “referred” or “displaced” anger and waits only for the slightest provocation to erupt in an objectively unwarranted rush of emotion (the prime indication of an activated complex).”
Much more dangerous is the fourth possible way: acting out the anger “in self-destructive behavior or violence toward others,” e.g. rapes, assaults.
Lofty ambitions and the desire to do great things also should be avoided. Why? Jung reminds us that, unless we have done a lot of inner work to become conscious of our unconscious, we “know only the surface of things, only how they appear to us–and so we must be very modest.” In a different way Mother Teresa said the same thing, when she suggested we strive not to do great things, but to do small things with great love. We are far more likely to be effective in what we do if we are willing to subordinate the ego to the Self, our inner divine wisdom.
This can take the form of wu wei, action through non-action, a paradoxical expression that Jung favored which induces a serious mind-cramp in most Western brains. Rather than strive and force to make things happen, to transform our anger, we might do
“…nothing (wu wei) but let things happen. As Master Lao-tzu teaches in our text, the light circulates according to its own law if one does not give up one’s ordinary occupation. The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself as taught by Meister Eckhart, became for me the key that opens the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen in the psyche. For us, this is an art of which most people know nothing.”
This takes trust, which is not created in a day. It also requires the humility noted above, as the ego admits it does not have all the answers. Lest there be confusion here, I should note Jung’s “art” does not mean passivity or blithe navel-gazing, but going about “one’s ordinary occupation” while setting the clear intention to be open to inner guidance and attentive to outer synchronicities. This requires paying attention, which is a challenge given the busyness of our daily lives. But attentiveness, like humility and taking time for inner reflection are key tools in the toolbox of the effective activist.
Another tool is intellectual: We must recognize we are living in a time of paradigm change. Just as the patriarchy is no longer appropriate for addressing the challenges we are facing, so the old paradigm (created by the patriarchy) is obsolete. What’s this mean? The old “White Male System” is very limited in a variety of ways:
- it thinks in either/or terms, which fosters us/them attitudes; better to think in both/and ways, which fosters our holding the tension of opposites–a dynamic mental stance that serves our growth; this feature of the old paradigm interprets transforming patriarchy into matriarchy, i.e. going from one extreme to the other, when a peer/partnership model holds the tension of opposites in equilibrium
- it puts a premium on objectivity, logic, reason and analysis, while denigrating subjectivity, intuition, feelings and synthesis, thus creating both a science and a society that denigrates a valuable alternate way of engaging with the world, and produces the dehumanizing systems (like the health care industry) that we experience now
- it disparages the “soft” aspects of life, like love. The civil rights leader John Lewis, in a conversation with Krista Tippett, noted this: “… we don’t have confidence in love. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy.” (Jung recognized love as “one of the mightest movers of humanity” and “a force of destiny whose power reaches from heaven to hell.”
- it communicates to win, to beat the other guy in argument, rather than to understand, be understood, and share feelings
- it is hierarchal, stressing competition and one-upmanship, rather than “being peer,” with relationships seen as opportunities to relate
- its orientation is product or goal oriented, with a focus on outcomes or end; this all too often leads to “the end justifies the means” decision-making; a better orientation would combine an eye to the goal with a focus on means, process, and how things are done
- it regards morality as a public issue, with great concern to control women (e.g. banning abortion), when history has shown us repeatedly that legislating morals is futile; better to focus on individual spiritual growth and development
- its worldview is static, reductionistic, positivistic, materialistic and mechanistic: it resists change (as we noted earlier, as part of the law of the retarding lead), it thinks it can deal with complex systems by reducing them to their parts (thus forfeiting any holistic understanding), it vaunts numbers and quantification (a feature coming close to its apotheosis now in the mirage of Artificial Intelligence), it ignores the intangible and immaterial realities of life, and its symbol is the machine–predictable, controllable, reducible to its parts; a better model is the garden with Nature in control, not humans
- it identifies the Divine as a male being (God the Father), rather than the divine as an inner process with whom we can attune and be guided by
These are just a few aspects of the old paradigm that is becoming more and more inappropriate for our times. Effective action requires that we broaden our thinking, expand or extend our science (the knowledge base of our society), and operate within the new paradigm.
As important as changing the paradigm is changing how we think about ourselves. All too often I hear people say things like “Oh, I’m just one person. How could I make a difference?” But Jung had a ready reply to this self-belittling. “… does the individual know that he is the makeweight that tips the scales?” Each of us matters now. Any one of us could be the crucial person whose efforts shift the energy. By “efforts” I mean those actions that suit our temperament, our range of talents and interests, and comport with our lifestyle. Jung put a premium on individual uniqueness and our taking effective actions must align with our individuation.
Anger is one of the great motivators to action, for it holds a lot of energy and can get us off the dime, to work for a better world, social and economic justice, equality, ecological reclamation–all sorts of worthy goals. But how we act is as important, perhaps more important than why we act. Our actions must be both effective (doing the right thing) and efficient (doing the thing right). We can transform anger into action, effective action, but we must do so with wisdom, understanding, humility and conscious intention.
Anthony, Maggy (1990), The Valkyries: The Women Around Jung. Longmead UK: Element Books.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Eisler, Riane (1987), The Chalice & the Blade. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Hochschild, Arlie & Anne Machung (1989), The Second Shift. New York: Avon Books.
Hollis, James (1994), Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Jung, C. G. (1973), “Experimental Researches,” Collected Works, 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1960), “The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease,” Collected Works, 3. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, Charlton & Charles Short (1969), A Latin Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press.
Liddell & Scott (1978), A Greek-English Lexicon. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mizuno, Kogen (1987), Basic Buddhist Concepts. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co.
Schaef, Anne Wilson (1985), Women’s Reality. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Tippett, Krista (2016), Becoming Wise. New York: Penguin Press.
Young-Eisendrath, Polly (1984), Hags and Heroes: A Feminist Approach to Jungian Psychotherapy with Couples. Toronto: Inner City Press.
 Collected Works 8 ¶456.
 CW 18 ¶42.
 CW 16 ¶266.
 Hollis (1994), 58.
 Ibid., 110.
 Tippett (2016), 180.
 Young-Eisendrath (1984), 115.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 76.
 The other six deadly sins are pride, greed, envy, lust, sloth and gluttony.
 Hollis (1994), 56.
 CW 14 ¶171.
 CW 13 ¶58.
 CW 4 ¶338.
 Hollis (1994), 58.
 Ibid., 118.
 CW 18 ¶42.
 Anthony (1990), 59.
 Bair (2003), 515.
 Tippett (2016), 114.
 E.g. Mary Harris (aka “Mother Jones”), Florynce Kennedy and Bella Abzug.
 Tippett (2016), 114.
 Young-Eisendrath (19984), 115-6.
 CW 3 ¶433.
 Hollis (1994), 110.
 CW 18 ¶42.
 CW 13 ¶108.
 CW 16 ¶266-7.
 CW 10 ¶864.
 Hollis (1994), 57, 80.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 86.
 Young-Eisendrath (1984), 90.
 Hollis (1994), 110.
 CW 8 ¶456.
 CW 17 ¶133.
 Hollis (1994), 56.
 Ibid., 42-3.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 84.
 CW 11 ¶729.
 CW 13 ¶108.
 CW 6 ¶137.
 Hollis (1994), 42-3.
 CW 2 contains descriptions of Jung’s association experiments.
 Hollis (1994), 54, 59.
 Ibid., 58.
 This is the title of Hochschild (1989).
 Hollis (1994), 107.
 Ibid, 84.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 110.
 Tippett (2016), 180.
 Hazel Henderson used this term at a conference I attended in March 1989.
 Liddell & Scott (1978), 122, and Lewis & Short (1969), 1313.
 Mizuno (1987), 27.
 Hollis (1994), 107.
 Ibid, 81.
 Ibid., 81-2.
 For more on this see the essay “The Value and Comfort of History, archived on this blog site.
 CW 11 ¶85.
 Hollis (1994), 58.
 CW 8 ¶154.
 CW 3 ¶102.
 CW 6 ¶137.
 Hollis (1994), 57.
 CW 10 ¶865.
 For what this entails, see the essay “Jung on Self-Partnering” archived on this blog site.
 CW 13 ¶20.
 Tippett (2016), 121.
 This is the term Anne Wilson Schaef uses to describe our longstanding cultural paradigm; Schaef (1985), passim.
 Riane Eisler delineates features of this peer/partnership model in Eisler (1987).
 Tippett (2016), 121.
 CW 5 ¶98.
 CW 10 ¶198. For more on Jung’s ideas about love, see the essay “Jung and Others on Love and Power,” archived on this blog site. Suffice it to say at this point that Jung is not alone in his recognition of the power of love.
 Schaef (1985), 134-5.
 Ibid., 104-7.
 CW 10 ¶586.