In preparation for my appearance later today on Sandy Weiner’s BlogTalkRadio program Courageous Conversations, I’ve been thinking about anger and hatred. Sandy and I will be discussing how to cope with the eruption of hatred in our intimate relationships and I needed to clarify how hatred differs from anger.
We can distinguish between anger and hatred in two ways: intensity and duration. It helps to think of them as occurring along a spectrum. Anger might be triggered when a loved one does something that frustrates us. It tends to come and go and doesn’t crowd out all our other feelings for that person. We can often voice it in ways that aren’t hurtful. Hatred lasts longer and is more pervasive. It tends to overwhelm us and obscure everything else we might feel. It makes us want to take action, to hurt or destroy whatever inspires the hatred.
Many of you might insist that you don’t ever feel hatred, or that hatred is a negative or “bad” emotion we shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel. I believe that hatred simply is, however disruptive it might be within society and our relationships; it’s written into our genes. Certain experiences will automatically trigger feelings of hatred, whether or not we want to feel that way. These inbuilt physiological responses are called “affects” and it helps to think of them as akin reflexes. You can’t stop a particular affect from being triggered any more than you can stop your knee from jerking when the doctor strikes your patellar ligament with a rubber mallet.
Hatred comes up when we feel intensely threatened. If you think about wartime when we may be confronted with an existential threat, when we’re in danger of being annihilated, we fear and hate what threatens us. From the survival perspective, hatred has its uses as it mobilizes us against such a threat. On an interpersonal level, we may also feel a kind of existential threat when our self-esteem or sense of self-worth is on the line. That is, we may hate what exposes us to unbearable shame.
While expressing hatred of the enemy is useful on the battlefield, doing so on the domestic front is trouble, especially if you want to destroy what you hate. In personal relationships, the direct expression of hatred with the desire to wound can cause unforgettable and unforgivable damage. For this reason, society discourages the expression of hatred and views it as a “bad” emotion. Even psychologists feel uncomfortable with hatred and tend not to address it. When we grow up in families and in a culture that discourages the expression of hatred, we tend to repress or deny our awareness of it — that is, we rely on various psychological defense mechanisms in order to evade the painful truth of how we feel.
The primary defense for coping with hatred is splitting. Ambivalence is to be expected in human relationships – that is, we’ll feel both love and anger, and sometimes even hatred, for important people in our lives. That’s tough for many of us to bear; hatred is a very painful experience, so we tend to reserve our loving feelings for people close to us and split off our hateful feelings, directing them elsewhere — toward our enemies or others who “deserve” to be hated.
Society plays a large role in encouraging us to split. During wartime, governments often make use of propaganda to foment hatred for the enemy as we pull together on the home front. You can also see it in certain fundamentalist religions that encourage hatred toward certain groups: the church tells us it is acceptable to feel hatred in these particular circumstances, giving us an outlet for our hatred. It’s also visible in the political sphere these days, where the opposing parties encourage their members to feel hatred for the other side.
Managing hatred is extremely difficult because of its intensity in the moment and because it makes us want to attack, even to destroy whatever causes it. With my clients, I’m often struck by how many of them will tell me about fights during which they said to their partners, “Fuck off!” or even “Fuck off and die!” “I hate your fucking guts!” – that sort of thing. I’m of the opinion that we need hard and fast rules for ourselves and our relationship partners: such expressions of hatred should be completely off limits. We may also need a “time out,” to separate from our partners until the acute phase of hatred wanes.
There are preventative measures we can take, as well. We tend to react with anger when stressed or over-stimulated. We’ve all had the experience of being testy or lashing out during high-intensity periods at work, when we have too much on our plate and feel overwhelmed. If these conditions persist for long periods of time, the intensity of that angry response may build up; we may react with hatred or rage to a perceived slight we might have taken in stride during more peaceful times. Minor wounds may feel intensely threatening when we’re already at the limit of what we can bear. Preventing the eruption of hatred in our relationships means taking care of our state of mind so we don’t reach such a precarious place.
In a calmer state of mind after the eruption of hatred in our relationship, it helps to look at why we felt such a powerful reaction – that is, what’s the trigger? In my experience, an unbearable experience of shame often lies behind hatred in relationships. When our partners wound us deeply, making us feel particularly rejected and without value, whether or not they intended it, we may hate them. You often see this in divorce situations, where the end of a marriage stirs up powerful feelings of shame; we then hate our ex-spouse for “making” us feel that way. This especially holds true when they leave us for someone else. In that case, the shame (the sense of being rejected and unworthy) may be so unbearable that we’ll hate our ex-spouse with an enmity that lasts a lifetime.