So why exactly did Daryl fly off the handle and call Carol a “stupid bitch?” I got into a silly, but rather heated, conversation on Twitter about the subject just after Pretty Much Dead Already aired on 11/27/11. That exchange sparked me to look more closely at the causes of anger and examine why Daryl became so angry at someone who was expressing concern for his well-being.
Dr. Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.d. writes a blog for Psychology Today called "Evolution of the Self." In his July 2008 entry, What Your Anger May Be Hiding, he describes anger as a “double-edged sword: terribly detrimental to relationships but nonetheless crucial in enabling many vulnerable people to emotionally survive in them.” Selzer goes on to discuss Stephen Stosny’s book Treating Attachment Abuse, writing “symptomatic anger covers up the pain of our ‘core hurts.’ These key distressful emotions include feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable—or even unfit for human contact.”
Stosny describes anger as a self-soothing emotion because of the chemical process of the human brain. Anger releases the amphetamine-like epinephrine, the hormone that creates the “adrenaline rush” in a fight or flight situation. But it also releases the analgesic-like norepinephrine, which numbs the anger. This combination of hormones is seductive to the human brain, Seltzer says. “A person or situation somehow makes us feel defeated or powerless, and reactively transforming these helpless feelings into anger instantly provides us with a heightened sense of control.“ (Read Seltzer’s full blog entry at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/what-your-anger-may-be-hiding.)
Many interpersonal relationship experts believe anger is the result of a myriad of core causes and deflected emotions. Those most relevant to a character study of Daryl include fear, frustration, pain (emotional or physical), and bruised pride, all demonstrated by him in multiple ways.
The most basic of these causes for Daryl’s anger was that he was compromised by injury and in physical pain. Pain alone is enough to make anyone cranky. For guys like Daryl - guys who grew up having to prove their toughness - injury and pain create not just physical issues, but also emotional ones centered on feeling powerless. Feeling “useless” or “damaged” makes them feel lesser than everyone else. They get pissed off when people tell them they need to slow down or take it easy because they see the need to do such things as signs of weakness. (It’s that damned “John Wayne gene” that most men seem to have.)
Daryl, as we saw during his ordeal in the woods, also feels as if the others don’t respect him or the skills he brings to their survival; he feels devalued. Shane’s rant at Daryl near the barn at the beginning of this episode did nothing except reinforce this view. Finding Sophia was a way to prove his worthiness and value to the group. In the first episode this season, when Sophia went missing, Rick publicly put his trust in Daryl when he told the group that he’d asked Daryl to head up the search. Giving up that search would’ve been admitting he had failed at the task he took on, that he was unworthy of Rick’s trust.
Guilt and fear are other possible factors. Sophia was Daryl’s substitute for Merle. He looked for her because he couldn’t look for Merle. Daryl never really got the chance and, as his hallucinations in the woods showed, he felt guilty about that. As much as he spouted off about how Merle would shit nails if you fed him a hammer, deep down Daryl likely feared his brother was dead. Finding Sophia alive would’ve quieted that guilt and reinforced his faith that Merle was still alive. Giving up the search for Sophia would be the equivalent of giving into his fears about Merle.
Another significant factor in his meltdown with Carol is his hope. Daryl - a man who would not easily or quickly do so - let himself hope Sophia was still alive. Early in the search, he was focused on the task at hand; he wanted to stop talking and start searching. His comment that "hopin' and prayin' is a waste of time” illustrated that he was a man of action, not of hope. But as the search went on and he found what he thought were clues indicating she may still be alive, he began to experience hope. When Sophia’s mother - the woman who should have held out hope the longest- told him that continuing to hope was misguided, it would have made him doubt himself and feel foolish. Was he wrong to ever have had hope? Did he miss something that other people saw? Just as physical injury is seen by men like Daryl to be a sign of weakness, so is being wrong. If Daryl was wrong about being able to find Sophia, if he had to admit that fact, he feels weak and therefore powerless. If he was wrong in this hope, how bruised is his pride?
The combination of these factors would lead to frustration and be enough to set off many people; such an outburst makes perfect sense for Daryl’s character. We’ve seen it before. In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed that the Daryls of the world often use anger as their coping mechanism. Moments after Daryl’s first appearance, when he heard Merle may be dead, he stifled his tears and quickly shifted his pain to rage and attacked Rick. Later, when returning to Atlanta to free Merle, Daryl doesn’t tell T-Dog “I hope Merle’s still alive up there; I’m afraid he’s dead.” Instead, with a menacing voice and a veiled threat he tells the other man “He best still be there. That’s my only word on the matter.”
Where does this sort of emotional disconnect come from? Why do other emotions often manifest themselves as anger? Conditioning. It is an idea first researched by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the 1890s when he conducted his famous experiments involving dogs, food, bells, and salivation. In 1938, psychologist B.F. Skinner expanded on Pavlov’s work and coined the term “operant conditioning.” Basically, this is a way of changing behaviour by using reinforcements for the desired response. Skinner’s research involved reinforcements given to animals, but the concept is often applied to reinforcements - physical and emotional, negative or positive - given to humans as a reward for the desired behavior. Imagine a young Daryl being picked on at school and coming home in tears. Even if Mr. Dixon didn’t do it, surely Merle would slap him upside the head and call him a pussy. So what does young Daryl do the next time a bully taunts him or someone calls him poor white trash? He becomes angry and violent, stomping the offender into the schoolyard dirt. This time, Merle is proud of him for being such a little badass. It is easy to see how the repetition this kind of event would lead Daryl into responding to most situations with anger over all other emotions, no matter what emotion he was truly feeling.
As we’ve watched Daryl grow as a character, we’ve seen Norman Reedus continue using subtle cues to reinforce Daryl’s development. Leading up to the verbal outburst at Carol, his expression was flat, impossible to read. In that instant, as he stepped toward Carol, I wondered exactly what Daryl was going to do. Would he reach out to Carol? Offer her words of comfort or encouragement? Would he tell her there was still hope for Sophia? For a split second, I actually wondered if he would kiss her. But the writers kept Daryl’s sharp edges that I love so much and Daryl did what Daryl does best: he exploded. He threw the saddle off its stand, called Carol a stupid bitch, and stormed out of the stable.
So…we’ve come full circle and I have to ask: how much of his angry outburst came from Daryl simply not knowing how to express his other emotions? We’ve seen tremendous growth in Daryl’s character this season, but no matter how much growth there has been, he is still struggling with the ideas that he is worthy, appreciated, and valued by the group. We saw Daryl apologize in this episode, something many would never have thought him capable of doing. In my next blog post, I’ll talk more about this and other events of the episode that illustrate his character development and what the loss of Sophia may do to undermine his growth.