Many adults with Asperger’s (Aspies) and High-Functioning Autism, by self-admission, have an anger-management problem. Also, in my years of counseling couples affected by Asperger’s (usually in the cases where the husband has AS and the wife does not), I have received literally hundreds of emails from neurotypical wives describing horrific outbursts and meltdowns exhibited by their AS husbands.
Anger is triggered by people, events, or circumstances that make us feel vulnerable in some way. However, anger is a secondary emotion. In other words, your anger distracts you from other emotions that you are feeling. You can also think of anger as a surface emotion. In other words, it is the emotion that people see, but the anger exhibited is really a cover-up for a primary emotion. Anxiety, depression, grief, guilt, helplessness, powerlessness, shame, uselessness, and worthlessness are all very common primary emotions that hide behind anger. These are also very common emotions found in people on the autism spectrum – especially anxiety and depression.
You lash out in anger to prevent others from becoming aware of these vulnerabilities. But, once your anger has run its course and you return to your rational state of mind, you are left to deal with the repercussions of whatever situation triggered your anger. In the world of the Aspie, sometimes these repercussions are grim and life-changing (e.g., job loss, separation, divorce, etc.)
What’s really behind your anger? Let’s take a look:
1. Anger hides anxiety: Our bodies interpret anger as a threat to survival, and as a result, will release adrenalin and nor-adrenalin to help us cope. These hormones act as an analgesic. In effect, anger makes us feel better in the short-term – it numbs our emotional and physical discomfort. But, this is not a healthy long-term solution. We, as adults on the autism spectrum, should not allow ourselves to get addicted to this kind of painkiller. If we do, then outbursts of anger may become a way of life. And sad to say, for too many of us, it has already become a way of life!
2. Anger hides emotional vulnerability: Some Aspies use anger as a way of distancing themselves from their spouse (partner). Perhaps we feel safer if our spouse is held at arm’s length. Maybe we find it hard to express our true personal needs and desires. Learning to relate positively to your spouse, to allow yourself to be vulnerable to her – and to trust her to respect your feelings – are key steps you can take to a healthier relationship.
3. Anger hides grief and depression: Some Aspies respond to grief and/or depression by getting angry. This can be our way of coping with the pain we are feeling. We yell and lash-out verbally instead of seeking comfort, or instead of offering comfort if our anger is on behalf of someone else.
4. Anger hides hurt: Admitting that we feel hurt is too much for some of us. Better to explode in rage than to show we care or that we are upset by whatever has happened. Hurt hides behind anger when you feel unloved, rejected, or criticized (remember the high school days and all the teasing, harassment, and bullying?). If we think our anger is hiding hurt, we should focus on learning to love and accept ourselves.
5. Anger hides low self-esteem: An Aspie who has been experiencing anger-control issues for many years may admit (to himself if not to others) that he sometimes struggles with self-esteem issues. He may have internal dialogues that revolve around themes such as, “Any minute now, somebody will see that I’m useless/stupid/a complete fraud/not good enough/etc.” These internal dialogues can occur even in someone who leads an outwardly successful life. Sometimes those dialogues are what drives the person to achieve; anger for him is an indication of the stress he experiences as a result of the gap between his internal and external life.
6. Anger hides powerlessness: If we go through life feeling weak, hopeless, helpless, overlooked or undervalued, anger often hides these feelings of powerlessness.
7. Anger hides fear: The most common feeling that hides behind anger is fear. But, unless we are developing a habit of “mindfulness” (i.e., making ourselves aware of our emotions as they arise), it can be difficult to identify the emotions lurking beneath our anger. Our best indication of what those emotions may be is to consider how we feel about ourselves at the times when we are not feeling angry.
We, as Aspies, should find ways to ask for what we want (or don’t want) instead of acting-out in anger and rage. Some of us have sought assertiveness training and/or worked with a counselor or psychotherapist to help us learn to appreciate our own worth and manage our anger. Maybe you should consider following our lead.
Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples