The Anger Trap

Who here is sensitive to criticism?  It’s human nature to be, so this is rhetorical.  Here I will review Dr. Les Carter’s book titled “The Anger Trap” which is about how we have a need to preserve our self-worth by defending ourselves when we feel criticized or disrespected.  He says the obvious that it is not wrong to feel hurt or angry, but it’s how we respond to the criticism that matters.

Those that may have a sensitive disposition, such as HSP (highly sensitive person), have unstable self-esteem, or have a history of being criticized or picked on will be at high risk for overreacting towards a perceived slight, especially those done with impunity.  The problem here is that Carter is ignoring one huge factor at play that makes us susceptible to anger in social situations.

Dr. Carter is mostly correct below, but his solution to prevent us from going on the offense is completely asinine for a subset of people.  Putting aside the plain fact that we vary based on genetics to how hurt and angry we may feel once criticized, we must not forget that our past experiences on how others have treated us affects our neurochemistry in uncanny and permanent ways.

I have counseled with hundreds of people trying to make sense of their anger, and there is always something more that feeds the anger than what is observed on the surface. Angry people may appear strong, willful, or certain, but be assured that beneath the veneer are fear and loneliness and insecurity and pain. Especially, there is pain. [1]

Why Do We Have Anger?

At the heart of most anger is a cry for respect:  The very real threat of not being heard, though, caused you to go overboard in defending your dignity, and the pattern seems to have remained the same throughout your lifetime.

The purpose of anger in social contexts is to preserve our self-worth.  It no doubt has other purposes depending on the situation, and it of course is rooted in a more fundamental emotion namely fear.  The fear in interpersonal interactions includes the following concerns [1].  Anger is critical to our survival and, socially, it is a response to a “perceived threat or invalidation.” [1]

You need to understand that I matter.

Who do you think you are?

I’m not going to let you get away with ill treatment toward me.

Write down what comes to mind next time you get angry at someone treating you unfairly or when someone snubs you at a party as it will boil down to something above.  We want to believe that we have something to offer and that we matter.  When we are thwarted from getting the due respect we think we deserve, then we can either get hurt feelings or anger that results in resentment.

Why do we need to think that we matter?  If we didn’t matter and became insignificant to others, our chances of cooperating and advancing in life would be diminished.  Without cooperating and competing, then our chances of reproduction and survival would be nil.  So anger, as stated above, is a way to preserve our own worth which is determined by how well we are received in our milieu.

What Is Our Social Goal?

Is perfect interaction your goal,” I asked, “or is your goal to be emotionally healthy? I’m encouraging you to consider how to manage your anger best, knowing that you can’t expect life to play out in a completely wonderful fashion.

The above is in response to a patient of Carter’s that claimed that he can’t tolerate being disrespected and must show his muscle when it occurs.  Carter responds by saying that we can’t control the reactions of others and it is but an illusion to think that we can.  My response to this is that Carter is partially correct because we can influence people although not control unless we are bullies.




Angry people, however, tend to do themselves no favors because the legitimate message of self-preservation can be communicated so distastefully that the receiver of the message hears nothing good.






Therapists Can’t Get It

When you feel angry, there is a strong probability of something legitimate driving the emotion. Even anger that is managed poorly can have a reasonable message at its base. Those who remain trapped by their own anger are unable to articulate the message in a manner that allows them to maintain positive relations.

I say therapists “can’t” get it and not “don’t” get it because a certain subset of the population will always be susceptible to being criticized.  Therapists can’t tell us this because they would lose their client base.  Let’s call a subset of the population the “undesirables” that seem angry and discontent most of their life.  This category of people has undesirable characteristics.

Dr. Les Carter does not even mention this because it would come across as judgemental and arrogant.  He instead puts personal responsibility on those that get angry and defend themselves in “unproductive” ways.  He believes that everything is just a matter of self-control and learning the proper techniques to respond to criticism gracefully such that we can become competent adults.

I agree that we can learn techniques that can allow us to assert our anger instead of becoming aggressive and sabotaging the relationship.  But ignoring the biological aspects of what happens to someone that gets criticized, used and abused most of their life, which most chronically angry people have been, is inexplicable.  The problem is mainly neurochemical and not learned. (i)

Don’t Ignore The Situation

They become more sensitive to criticism or rejection, which generates a spiraling cycle characterized by an increasing intensity of anger or resentment that makes them feel unfairly treated or victimized. This is described as rejection sensitivity. [2]

This doesn’t just apply to undesirables because anger is complex.  There is, however, evidence from humans and other primates that some will get picked on more than others.  When this happens, we know what occurs in the mind as a result.  This phenomenon is known as subordination.  The mind actually goes through neurophysiological changes when we are criticized or berated.

The mind downregulates 5-HT1A serotonin receptor sites and increases cortisol circulation.  By contrast, dominant individuals will have high densities of 5-HT1A sites and a high density of D2 sites.  When we get criticized, our body goes through a stress reaction that is incomparable to most stressors [3].  If this happens repeatedly, then we become subordinated and susceptible to depression.

In other words, the more we are criticized and chastised then the more we enter a state of hyper-vigalence, which is social anxiety,


i). I am not debating whether or not the behavior is an innate competency or something that we learned, although I favor the former.  I am mainly trying to point out that changes happen in the mind that illustrates the destructiveness of hostility and   and bullying.




[1] Carter, Les. “The Anger Trap: Free Yourself from the Frustrations that Sabotage Your Life.”

[2] Gilbert, Paul. Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy.

[3] Tracy, Jessica.  The Self-Conscious Emotions. Guilford Publication.


  1. Sam N says

    Huh. This is far from my expertise, but if I was to take a guess, I would predict I have 5-HT1A expression and very high D2 expression. Maybe just a genetic anomaly? Or maybe I am way off base. Although I don’t take most neuroscience studies too seriously (and I worked in that field for 9 years post-doctoral).

    Do you have any insights into anger at self? I just had a massive episode of that yesterday, which I was only able to manage by giving myself a grueling, painful workout. Once the physical pain took attention away from anger, I was able to feel grief and accept thoughts that minimized the situation, placing it in a more proper perspective.

    Also, there seem to be some formatting errors or missing text in this post.

    • musing says

      I’ll get a flurry of enthusiasm over a topic, and I’ll post it as I’m doing it. It was supposed to be completed today but life happens. So those “errors” are to signal “work in progress”.

      As far as your comment on taking studies seriously, I would always exercise caution when interpreting a single study, but the neurochemistry behind subordination seems to be pretty well established. Although it of course is filled with complexity and nuances, and I’m oversimplifying it, there is definitely an association between depression, subordination, dominance, and the serotonergic or even dopaminergic systems. Of course, we are stuck with our narratives that we tell ourselves and the details are still needed.

      Unfortunately, I know a lot about anger at self. Are you talking about rumination and negative self-talk? If so, it seems to function in an equivalent way to how an outsider may criticize us—as it triggers the HPA-axis and eventually, if chronic, can lead to depressive episodes. But the research isn’t clear on what causes what, which would require another post. You will have to forgive me, but I’m in the middle of something. If you gave more examples, perhaps I can integrate that into this post.

      I’m surprised anyone reads my posts because they are totally self-serving in that they help me to solidify material that interests me. My background is in engineering, but I’m currently pursuing a career down a similar path as you. Thanks for your comment.

      • Sam N says

        Oh, I’ve abandoned neuroscience. I doubt I ever will work, or desire to work, within that community again. Part of my skepticism is just how sloppy and slapdash a lot of the work is as the system forces out fast, ill-considered papers to obtain grants, career advancement. Also monkey electrophysiological studies can be quite brutal, and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of work in the end. I guess 14 years of it, 8 of them doing surgeries is something, I always felt so bad for the monkeys. 2 years toward the end I had some hope of helping to create a more compassionate model, but then I saw how other scientists approached marmoset research.

        I should have said I would guess I have moderate 5-HT1A.

        By anger at self, I really mean strong emotional anger. Although with it comes a torrent of self-abuse. Those negative thoughts you speak of. I can interject positive thoughts or perspective thoughts, but they bounce right off, can not be accepted by me. If I can push out the anger with something else for sufficient time, an hour maybe–a rewarding social interaction would probably work, but is difficult to achieve as that requires another person, which I cannot control; I went for causing myself pain in a way that would be productive, not damaging, by working out strenuously–then the anger is no longer so prominent. At that point I am able to hear and accept statements of perspective, positive statements.

        Pushing out the emotion of anger doesn’t eliminate self-criticism, but it definitely reduces its intensity. And I’ve experienced self-criticism in the context of shame or guilt rather than anger. Hmm, I haven’t been thinking about what is causing what. Was my self-criticism causing my anger? That seems the more reasonable causal relationship.

        I hear what you’re saying. It seems like on the face of it there must be an association, but that pesky variance. Even when concepts are generally true, outliers abound when it comes to systems as complex as humans navigating this world.

        • musing says

          I appreciate the insight from your own personal experiences within the industry. That reminds me that everything is ever so tentative. The causal relationship that I was speaking of was between criticism and depression. CBT, which I have a problem with despite it being the de facto norm, claims that negative thoughts can eventually cause depression in themselves. But there is a lot of evidence that suggests that: “low or subordinated states include negative automatic thoughts and schemas only in the presence of depressed affect”. I have studied the meta-analyses on CBT and am skeptical of some of their claims. see here

  2. says

    Thanks for this. Anger is something I’ve struggled with in one way or another for most of my life, and I can see it causing problems in all sorts of spaces. There’s so much legitimate cause for it these days, and so many people whose money is made by provoking and exploiting it.

    Any effort to change society comes with criticism – implied or explicit – of both the way things are, and of those who don’t see a need for change. It often feels like two thirds of the battle is navigating that neurochemical minefield, to convey a particular message without coming across as condescending to one person, insensitive to another, obscure to someone else, and so on.

    • musing says

      Thanks for the comment, and I apologize for the delay. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said. In fact, you bring up another interesting point in that criticism, as much as it stings, is absolutely necessary for social change. But if we aren’t tactful with it, then the message will never be received. I need to finish this up and repost it when done.

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