Home » Blog » MH@H Depression » Is Depression Anger Turned Inward?

Is Depression Anger Turned Inward?

Is depression anger turned inwards? Sigmund Freud thought so

I had never heard of the notion of depression being anger turned inward until I heard about it indirectly while I was in hospital after a suicide attempt. My primary nurse kept asking me what I was angry about. She was insistent that I must have been angry about something to have tried to kill myself. When I assured her that no, I wasn’t angry, and anger had nothing to do with anything, she seemed annoyed with me.

She wasn’t the only nurse with weird ideas; another thought I was depressed because I was single. I dismissed the anger as a random quirky belief, but I later discovered that this anger turned inward business is an established thing that goes back to Sigmund Freud. It was also a popular perspective in the field of psychiatry in decades past.

Getting psychoanalytic

Freud characterized melancholia, which we now know as depression, as anger turned inward in self-reproach and self-attack. He first described this in his essay Mourning and Melancholia. He believed that instead of displacing libidinal energy from a loss object onto another object, there was regression of the libido into the ego, producing hidden conflicts.

A journal article by Busch, written from a psychodynamic perspective, has this to say:

Anger in people with depression often stems from narcissistic vulnerability, a sensitivity to perceived or actual loss or rejection. These angry reactions cause intrapsychic conflicts through the onset of guilt and the fear that angry feelings will disrupt relationships. These conflicts lead to anger being directed inwards, further lowering self-esteem, creating a vicious cycle.

While narcissistic vulnerability is probably part of the psychoanalytic/psychodynamic bread and butter, I’m not sure it’s really all that palatable for the casual reader.

My personal take on Freud is that his ideas were a weird mix of both good and out there. All the libido stuff, in particular, seems to fall into the out there category. While it seems reasonable that anger turned inward could be an experience that some people with depression have, I don’t buy it across the board. Then again, I’m not a fan of ideas that reduce any mental illness to something that occurs just one way.

Real-world experience

In an article on The Mighty, Lily Greunewald described her own experience of anger turned inwards in depression. She likened it to having her illness tell her that she’s worthless, her actions are pointless, and she deserves to be punished. When she was able to recognize that the anger was coming from the depression, she could step back from it. She wrote:

It’s OK to be angry sometimes, to feel passionately opposed to someone or something but staying angry at yourself will just reinforce everything depression wants you to believe. It will probably take a lot more hard work for me to exercise anger in an outward, healthy way but for now I am going to try to forgive myself and quiet that voice when it shouts at me again.

It’s not up to me to judge her experience, but hrs description struck me as more suggestive of shame than anger per se. A quick Google search shows that anger and shame often co-mingle, and one may be projected as the other. Still, on an intuitive level, a depression–shame connection seems to make more sense in my mind than a depression–anger connection.

And then there’s me

For me, shame isn’t much of an issue. Guilt can be problematic sometimes, but I have a well-established level of comfort with myself that doesn’t leave much room for shame. I’m a pretty logical person, and while emotions aren’t logical, I tend to think that if I’m going to be angry, I’d rather direct it outwardly. Also, I don’t particularly like people, so that helps.

I have flare-ups of intense irritability sometimes when I’m depressed, and there will be a stream of annoyance that comes spewing out of me. Combine this with being in hospital and having my autonomy taken away, and I’m too busy yelling and swearing and having shit fits directed at other people to have any anger left to be directing inward. While irritability can certainly be a symptom of depression, it’s also a fit with my usual tendency to attribute difficult situations to external causes unless there’s a clear reason to do otherwise. Whether that’s good or bad is debatable, but it does tend to keep shame and inward anger at bay.

I can see the depression–anger connection being an issue if were was a lot of anger directed at a particular person, but for whatever reason, it was impossible and/or unacceptable to express the anger, and also impossible to change the situation. And really, if it’s helpful for anybody to frame their illness that way, whatever works is a good thing.

So, if depression and inwardly turned anger are doing a tango, what can help? An article in Psychology Today2 on the role of anger in depression suggested that self-compassion and adaptive outward expression of anger are helpful. Sounds reasonable enough.

I’m just not seeing a connection between anger and depression in myself. Is that connection something that resonates for you?


book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, 2nd Edition, by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.

It’s available on Amazon and Google Play.

54 thoughts on “Is Depression Anger Turned Inward?”

  1. Yes, I can see that not expressed anger can built up into shame and guilt. For me I think it is one of the attributing factors. I’m not an angry person but when I’m angry I explode, there is not yet a more moderate expression of those feelings (possible). Your 3th last paragraph explains my situation very well.
    I can also see how anger doesn’t NEED to be present in depression, I think it can be. What I think or feel is mostly present is being ‘stuck’, a repetition of things without a variation. And that can be guilt, anger, shame …. but unfortunately Freud didn’t ask my opinion on this! 😁

    1. I kind of wish Freud’s ghost would come hang out in the blogosphere for a while. It would make for some interesting conversations in the comments!

          1. Well, I do sit on a chair 🙂
            But it must be said that when the therapist is behind you, while you lay on the couch, it is social distance guaranteed!

  2. Firstly i want to say i get shame and guilt confused in my mind… have you done a post by chance i missed explaining the difference for us?

    Second i don’t think mine is inward anger i learned in the psych hospital that i was angry at God but not myself. I see depression as more apathetic then any kind of anger.

    1. Basically guilt is “I did something bad” and shame is “I am bad as a person.”

      My guess is that anger at God is probably a pretty common way of channeling those feelings.

  3. Mmm an interesting one. I don’t know, but I’m leaning towards horseshit. I think anger can be an element for many with depression, myself included. I’m angry with myself for being a waste of space, I’m angry with the government and so on. But that’s not my depression, and it doesn’t even account for half of it. “I tend to think that if I’m going to be angry, I’d rather direct it outwardly. Also, I don’t particularly like people, so that helps” – 😂 I shouldn’t laugh, but I love that! I personally find when depression is at its worse is when I’m the least angry; I’ve grown too tired, too apathetic or numb, too hopeless. For me, anger is actually a good thing because it keeps me going (I know many would disagree that anger is good, but it works for me). xx

  4. ivanabikorovih

    I was giving it a lot of thought before. I am angry at people who can’t draw the line between what they know and don’t know, so they keep terrorizing me with their vision of who I am. I can rarely be mad at people who listen or at least don’t bother.

  5. I do feel that in my case, there is a lot of anger turned inwards from my childhood and adolescence, and sometimes later. I don’t know what people interpret in their experiences.

    1. We’re all so unique in terms of life experiences that it seems only reasonable that there would be a broad spectrum of emotions that could bring up.

  6. This is me simplifying too much probably but personally any anger occurs more when I’m in a state of high anxiety and it’s directed anywhere. Like you it’s more irritability than true ‘anger’. When depression occurs, I’m way to numb and empty to feel an intense emotion such as anger. It’s related more to ‘shutting down’ because I can’t deal with the high levels of anxiety any longer.

  7. I don’t think it’s anger turned inwards for me cos if there’s someone to rightfully direct my anger at, then I will do so. In the nicest way possible tho’, I’m not a screamer and shouter. I tend to tell people that I felt angry when they said or did……..

    Shame and guilt were probably part of the mix in my depression many years ago, but since I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff since then, I can no longer attribute my depression to that. Still, I’m no longer looking for the reasons ‘why’ I have mental illness.

    1. Yeah, regardless of what the original contributing factors may or may not have been, the depression is here, so why not look forwards instead of backwards.

      1. I think it’s an issue for many people on first either realising or being told we have depression (or, any of our other mental illnesses), we look for answers, perhaps something or someone to blame.

  8. I don’t know. I’ve always been an angry person, yet I’ve only been depressed a few times where I’ve seriously considered harming myself. Maybe those times came after major anger episodes… hard to tell

  9. It’s not something I considered but I find I do have a lot of anger aimed inwardly so perhaps it’s a symptom rather than an underlying cause, if that makes sense?

  10. It’s so funny… I have anger from the social and political climates in the world today. My depression seems to be at bay. So, I don’t know what role my social and political roles play with regards to my depression, as it is managed.

    1. It’s hard to avoid getting angry wth all of the crap going on in the world, but I think that would still be externally directed anger, even if it’s not necessarily vocalized.

  11. This is fascinating. I can kind of see a link between depression and anger, maybe for some people but not really for me. The concept of depression being anger turned inwards in interesting to me, even though I can’t really relate.

    For me there is a lot of shame and guilt associated with my depression, and has been for as long as I can remember. I do also tend to get irritable while depressed, and I’ll admit that I get pissed at some of the slightest things. In general I don’t get angry too often. I’ll get upset, or a little mad for a time, but hardly do I ever get very angry. I get depressed often, and I haven’t found a link between anger and my usual depression.

    I know what you mean about being in the hospital and having your autonomy taken away. That’s never a fun experience. I’ve been to the hospital many times in the past, and I know that feeling well.

    Sending love your way.

  12. It does for me. I don’t remember a time growing up that I wasn’t angry. But I was also ashamed about the way I felt because all my anger then was directed at my mother and at that time I didn’t understand why. So I internalized it and saw myself as bad or defective (because everyone has to love their mother) which led me down the path of self hate. But mental illness is complicated and not one size fits all.

      1. yes I can see that. Also I hate how people assume that you are depressed for one reason.. like being single. One of my attempts, I had broken up with a boyfriend a month or so before and everyone thought I tried to kill myself because of him.

  13. This does make some sense to me, and I can easily imagine that someone would develop depression as a manifestation of anger that they’ve been turning inward because of not being able, for whatever reason, to express it. I think it could be the case with me, as turning anger inward has been my default reaction since very early childhood, and it’s the emotion I struggle the most with expressing in a healthy way, it usually looks so that I either repress it and bottle it up and then end up exploding big time at the least expected moment ’cause you have to empty the brain bottle once in a while, or I turn it inward into self-loathing and when I can’t deal with it I end up self-harming.
    But you certainly cannot say that it’s the reason why depression occurs always and in all the people who have it, and that’s how this theory sounds to me, like it’s saying this is the only way someone can possibly get depressed. I completely agree with you that there can’t be just one way for a menta illness to develop and one reason why it occurs. Especially that usually there isn’t one single reason for a mental illness to occur in one person, as for most of us it seems to be like a total mix. As I said, it does resonate with me that A PART of my depression could be due to anger turned inward, but I feel like there also a fair few other parts that make for the picture, and probably also some that I don’t realise yet or perhaps won’t ever realise because mental illness is actually quite an elusive thing in a way. And then also some people, like some of the previous commenters, experience depression in a totally opposite way – as apathy and lack of energy and stuff – which is also true for me at other times, because depression can feel like a lot of things at different times, so it can’t possibly be only due to one thing, unless in a small amount of people who do have clearly identifiable reasons for their depression. So, essentially, I think it indeed contains quite a large portion of horseshit and could potentially be invalidating for people who don’t have anger issues or whose depression looks always apathetic and numb rather than intense.

    1. I wish the people coming up with these theories would recognize that their theories are just one way that things could happen, because it’s far more useful if people are able to pick and choose what resonates with them and to what extent it matches their experience.

  14. A fascinating concept and one l had to really think hard on even when the main article and the comments that followed. Then l had to try and put myself back into the days of the darkest depression, then ponder on guilt versus shame and add that to the mix. In the past l have had seriously volatile and explosive tempers aka anger issues.

    So what do l think after that introduction?

    I can see a correlation – but l don’t think the connection is sound – BUT it would then be reflective upon the individual – are the two anger and depression – comorbid with each other naturally or even forced or perhaps even voluntary as a mix?

    Are you an angry depressive or a depressed anger head? Are you just angry or are you just depressed. Are you angry about being depressed or depressed and become angry at the irritations in life that make you more depressed? Were you an angry person prior to becoming depressed, were you a depressive before being angered?

    The correlation for me is that the two can happen at once – but when l was suffering from a breakdown it was a physical mental breakdown and l was very angry all the time – that was through shame of thinking l was a bad person because at the time it was the unrecognised and unidentified and undiagnosed Aspergers. I was constantly stressed and then l became angry at being stressed and angry all the time. Then when that passed l became depressed, but l didn’t have any anger – just shame of being a bad person and not like everyone else and then l self harmed which somemight say is angered turned inwards – for me it wasn’t anger it was disgust, l was disgusted with myself as a human being. I hated who l was as a human being, my life had to end. Was l angry? No, l was suicidally sad.

    It’s an interesting thing – but l think the problem with mental health is that everyone has an opinion of someone else’s problems without actually taking time to understand everyone else’s heads and therefore just trying to group them altogether as one head.

    Some depressive are angry – therefore all depressives are angry – therefore nurse with that belief comes along and wants to know from failed suicide what are you angry about? Because all suicide attempts must be angry first and depressed second.

    I am always behind with my reading of your posts Ashley,m but l really do like them, they always have so much to bite into 🙂

    Thank you for being you and creating the way you do these wonderful and thought provoking topical posts!

    1. Thank you! And “everyone has an opinion of someone else’s problems without actually taking time to understand everyone else’s heads and therefore just trying to group them altogether as one head” is absolutely bang on.

  15. We lack self-compassion. Are we angry at us? Yes. Because we blame us for trauma. We seek self-compassion. We try. We practice. Still, not here. Are we ashamed? Yes. Same reasons and more. Growing up, we were yelled at, hit, threatened by an angry parent, which trained us well to do it to ourself.

    We think we read that Freud knew much of the mental illness in Vienna arose from incest and other forms of childhood sexual abuse but he felt guilt about the ramifications of exposing the Vienna elites for their crimes. So he didn’t. And children suffer for it. Our inside Littles still suffer. We try to teach them self-compassion. They’re just so little, ya know?

    1. It would be hard for Littles to learn self-compassion without regularly receiving compassion from others. Sending a big wave of compassion-from-another their way. ❤️

  16. I think the shame idea makes more sense. Core shame in particular is such a (absolutely awful, two thumbs down, do not recommend) part of early trauma in particular. And, I feel like the most depressed I’ve felt has been mostly just being overwhelmed, but with a piece of shame in there for feeling that overwhelm in the first place.

  17. It is interesting that it could be. I see depression as being more than just anger. For me, it’s many things. My anger has more to do with my anxiety. When I’m feeling anxious, I can get angry and defensive.

  18. That makes sense. And I think it can certainly be a worthwhile exercise to explore the potential factors that contributed to a particular individual developing depression.

    1. Be interesting to look at people on a case by case basis. Actually, any individual could look at themselves and work it out if they wished. First to see what they were like before the trauma and then compare to what they were like after. In other words, see what aspects of their personality were there prior and what they’re like after. Do they still see themselves in the same way etc?

      A more advanced one would be to look at if they still get on with others in the same way afterwards. It’s possible what they see in themselves they often see in others and this is how people connect. So say previously they connected with someone with positive attributes, but after the trauma they now connect with people who suffer from self rejection.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: