Hatred and Anger as Glue

Responding to an earlier post, Rafael Mendez-Arauz wonders whether the inner “brat” is in reality the “pseudo-self”.   My good friend Marla Estes has stated, on both her own site and in a comment to one of my posts, that she believes anger can be a response to forces from the outside that disturb our tranquility.  I think the three of us would agree that a response of anger or hatred isn’t always primary; that is, it might be a defense to ward off something else. The best way I can illustrate this is to discuss the “drowning kitten.”  This metaphor came to play a central part in the treatment of one of my long-term clients, a very disturbed young woman who was cutting herself when she first came in, and suffered from a kind of depression that bordered on psychosis.  Years later, after much improvement, she’d stabilized and had developed a positive relationship with a man.  From time to time, though, when she was under great stress, she’d erupt in anger at him; with a cruel sort of insight, she would savage him for his faults, spew invective at him, and then feel horribly guilty afterward.  We tried to understand this in various ways but didn’t seem to be making headway. My own theoretical point of view at that time was limiting my understanding, and I’m very grateful to this client (and others like her) who stuck with me long enough for me to grow into understanding.  Real insight came when she described herself during one of these outbursts as “a drowning kitten”, lashing out with her teeth and claws at those around her.   What we then were able to understand was that her rage helped ward off an unbearable experience of anxiety that verged on terror:  she felt she might literally fly into pieces (death), and the outburst of rage helped hold herself together in the face of this disintegration anxiety.  It acted as a kind of “glue”, in the way Marla Estes has described the function of psychological defenses. At some level of stress, we may all feel as if we’re going to come apart.  How much we can bear reflects the strength of our self, which usually depends on the extent of early trauma we suffered and the degree of basic shame we must cope with.

Finding Your Own Way: At first, you might have a hard time identifying with this client.  Think back on a time when you “lost it” or “flew off the handle.”  Did your outbursts occur during periods when you were under a lot of pressure at work or home?  What does it take to make you “go ballistic”?  I highlight these expressions because they’re the ones our culture currently uses to describe the phenomenon I’m discussing.  “Going postal” is another. Do you know someone else who is prone to this kind of outburst?  How strong a sense of self do you think that person has?  What about your own sense of self?  These moments (hopefully rare) when we do “lose it” can give us a look at parts of ourselves we usually keep locked away and out of sight.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Joe,
    Regarding the “drowning kitten” explanation; I too, having been diagnosed BPD, have had these sorts of outbursts. I experience them almost exclusively within the love relationship….romantic love. I suspect it’s fear of abandonment, as I perceived my abandonment by an Uncle. He had previously been my father figure/sexual abuser..The abuse I perceived as love, after all, isn’t that what father’s do, love their little girls ? Then he met a woman (love interest) and they began to physically abuse and neglect….I suspect I somehow resented this woman from coming into our lives and (taking my place???) He stopped loving me and started hurting me in my little girl’s mind…..thus I believed he had abandoned me/ consequently I continue to see this potential in my relationships in adulthood…It becomes almost a self fulfilling prophecy..because eventually the relationship fails. I sabotage it.

  2. The “drowning kitten” metaphor is interesting, and I do see that behavior around me. While I will lose my temper, I tend more often to isolate when angered, and keep it in. My own therapist and I were speaking of this just a couple days ago, as it is a recurring topic. In my preference not to offend anyone by an outward action such as bearing my teeth or showing my claws, I will let it eat away at my own sense of self until either it passes or I blow; which, thankfully, is typically a vocal-only display and done … amazingly! …. when I am alone.

    1. James, I totally identify with your comment. For me, the problem is that I start “thinking” about it, talking up the hatred with my words, which becomes very destructive to my own state of mind.

  3. Dear Joseph,
    Just to say I have really enjoyed reading your posts – via Twitter – over the last few months. Have you written any books at all?
    Best Wishes,

    1. John, I haven’t yet published any books, not professional books anyway; I’ve been thinking about putting the material on this site into book form, expanding on the posts with further discussion and more case material.

  4. This actually happened to me at FC 2011. I’m currently unemployeed, and wanted a break and to get laid. Though, as the con dragged on nothing really happened. I didn’t enjoy myself, as a result of that I wasn’t showing an attractive side so I didn’t get laid. However, one of my friends just sort of harassed me about my prospects of a lay, tauntingly asking me every time we met.
    All the stress and growing resentment I think. I actually decided to leave the con a day earlier than planned, as I was having murderous thoughts about the individuals that my mind had marked.
    Scary stuff. Don’t want to go through that again.

    1. I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Do you mean that under the pressure of the contempt and harassment of your friend, you felt so stressed that your sense of self was shaky … threatened … not sure what to call it — and that you took refuge in murderous fantasy as a place of strength?

  5. I’m stunned that you haven’t got a book on the stands: Not only is there quite a bit of material, but you seem to enjoy writing and you certainly have something to contribute (unlike many authors whose work I see in the bookstores).

    1. Thanks, Ernie. As time goes on, I’m thinking more and more of putting all this together into some kind of book. And you’re right, I do enjoy writing. The creation of this website has been a huge source of job and satisfaction to me, especially when I hear from people like you who appreciate it!

  6. I’m late coming to this having only just found your website today. A lot of your posts really resonate with me. I may print some out to show my therapist because I think they illuminate potentially relevant things neither of us have thought of. When reading this post I wondered if the hatred and anger could be directed towards yourself in a similar way (as a way to avoid feeling other, more unbearable emotions)? I keep getting these intense waves of hatred towards myself. They seem similar to what you described in your post and I will be incredibly verbally cruel towards myself and even physically hurt myself and then feel very sad and tired and beaten down afterwards. When I get into that state it feels completely out of my control. It’s like the part of me that feels the hatred is a completely seperate person and ‘I’ can’t stop them and then afterwards I feel like the victim who’s been abused. It happens probably on a more suble self-critical level day to day but then sometimes it just gets out of control and vicious. It seems to happen straight after therapy sessions more than at other times and I have put it down to hatred at myself for wasting a session (which I seem to do a lot) but I’m wondering if maybe there’s more to it than that. Thank you for your thought provoking posts.

    1. It’s hard to say, but it does sound to me as if that hatred and anger toward yourself may be warding off something else. I have found that getting angry or filled with hatred is a very powerful feeling that can ward off other emotions like profound grief or sadness, or even shame. Anger and hatred sometimes hold you together; especially when grief, sadness and shame are deep and lifelong, you might fear that you’ll be overwhelmed by them and just go under.

  7. Thank you for directing me to this post for another determinant to my anger.

    The cat analogy brought me to a ah-ha moment.

    My mother is a profoundly narcissistic woman. You may remember me as the one who became psychotic (manic) after needlessly confronting her for years of abuse. When I was born, my mother was so depressed, my parents sent me to a “pension”, a place where other orphans lay in waiting to be adopted. She took me back 2 weeks later but at birth, I was never held and missed her first touch. I have a feeling my incapacity to attach has much deeper roots than a narcissistic mother…

    To get back to the anger as a psychic glue – I do think it helps me from disintegrating into anxiety – but I think that I act like a wild cat (not a drowning kitten), as soon as someone tries to tame (love) me. Maybe it’s pointless, like the wild cat: you’ve abandoned me, don’t you dare come close to me, don’t touch me, I’ll rip you to pieces…”

    That was my ah-ha moment. When anger shows up again, I will try to look at it with more compassion and understanding.

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