Understanding Anger

When you think of anger, what comes to mind?

Do you think of words like conflict, destruction, punishment, impulsiveness, or “seeing red?”

Many people have these negative associations and often feel confused by their relationship with anger. It’s common to want to get rid of it or feel shame for expressing it. If you don’t understand your angry feelings and weren’t taught what to do with this powerful emotion, it makes sense why you may have these negative connotations.

Let’s start by talking about what anger is. Anger is an emotion that tells you something is wrong. Humans are wired to feel angry; it is a normal and appropriate response. It’s also protective. Anger gives you a surge of energy and encourages you to take action. Anger sends you important messages, especially when a boundary is violated in your life. You must listen to your anger in order to know what your boundaries are and when to uphold them.

When discussing anger, it’s helpful to know the difference between a primary and secondary emotion. A primary emotion is your initial reaction to what’s happening around you. Anger is oftentimes primary – a knee-jerk, instinctual response. But anger can also be a secondary emotion: a feeling fueled by other feelings. Here’s some examples:

Emilia was furious. She just got rear-ended by someone who was texting and driving. “How could they have been so careless?!” She thinks to herself.

Brad had been waiting for his girlfriend to arrive at their favorite restaurant for nearly 45 minutes. He was looking forward to celebrating their anniversary together. He began yelling when she finally arrived.

Both Emilia and Brad appear to be angry, but can you spot the differences? Emilia’s anger can be classified as a primary emotion because it’s a direct response to something bad happening to her. Brad, on the other hand, may be feeling emotions beneath his anger. He is feeling angry, but also hurt, unimportant, and disappointed by his girlfriend’s lateness.

Anger is like the tip of an iceberg – it’s an emotion that’s easy to spot. And yet you often don’t see the magnitude of the iceberg underneath the water. Brad’s girlfriend is just seeing an angry reaction but may not know that Brad is actually feeling hurt and sad as a result of her actions. In fact, even Brad may be unaware of this. Sadness, insecurity, shame, fear, guilt, anxiety, grief, pain, embarrassment, overwhelm, and more often lurk beneath the surface of anger.

Emotions are the window into who you are. If you become angry without understanding what it is that upsets you, if you push your angry feelings down, or if you’ve learned to ignore anger, you may very well be missing out, because anger is actually a gift, an emotion telling you something is wrong. Knowing about your anger can lead to increased self-awareness and the ability to effectively communicate your feelings and needs.

When anger does present itself, here’s what you can do:

  1. Get curious
    What are some things that make you angry? Certain situations, people, or injustices? Where do you feel anger in your body? Do you start to feel hot, raise your voice, argue, or ball your fist? The more in touch you are with what makes you angry and what anger feels like in your body, the more in control you’ll be.
  2. Pause before taking action
    It’s here that you can identify whether your anger is a primary or secondary emotion. Is something unfair happening? Is your anger a direct reaction to something going on around you? Or, do you feel something beneath the surface like sadness or anxiety? Take some time here to reflect.
  3. If anger is a primary emotion…
    Acknowledge and validate your anger. Anger allows you to know that something’s not right and perhaps you need to do something about it. Once you understand what your anger is telling you, take appropriate action. Practice your assertiveness skills and stand up for yourself!
  4. If anger is a secondary emotion…
    Explore some of the feelings you have underneath the anger. Acknowledge and validate these emotions. Think about what you may need: Time alone? Space to talk about your feelings with someone you trust? What you decide to do here will be dependent on the other emotions you have identified.
  5. Challenge the beliefs you have about anger
    We often develop beliefs about anger in our upbringing. Was anger the only acceptable emotion shown in your family? Was anger not allowed? How were you taught to use your anger? Exploring some of these learned beliefs with a therapist can be helpful for understanding your relationship with this vital emotion.

Here are some common/negative beliefs about anger:

  • Bad things happen when people get angry
  • Being angry means I’m out of control
  • Being angry means I’m a bad person
  • No one will listen to me if I’m angry
  • The consequences of showing my anger are too great

Here are some healthy beliefs about anger:

  • Anger is a normal human emotion
  • Being angry means that something is wrong
  • Anger helps me know when to set boundaries with others
  • The emotion of anger sends me helpful messages
  • It is unhelpful to push my anger down

Be assured that you have the power to change your relationship with your anger. Getting counseling can help you increase your emotional awareness, explore your belief system and how you treat your anger, and respond to your anger differently. It’s my hope that when you think of anger, words like helpful, action, boundaries, important, and powerful will come to mind. Anger is your superpower, not your downfall.

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