Understanding Anger

by Sara Lewis- Registered Clinical Counsellor

Anger can be a primary and adaptive experience. There are many situations in life when anger is the healthy and appropriate way to respond, such as when your physical or emotional boundaries are violated. Because anger is a powerful emotion, it is helpful in these circumstances when you need to mobilize to protect yourself or someone you care about. Anger in this form is natural and instinctual.

Secondary Anger

Secondary anger occurs when an emotion (usually a vulnerable one such as fear or sadness) is judged as unacceptable or weak. When this judgement occurs, whether conscious or not, anger often steps in. Anger is a common secondary emotion because it is a powerful emotion. If sadness is judged as weakness, why not mask it with an emotion that feels powerful and strong? Sometimes this happens so quickly and habitually that we are not even aware of it.

The problem is that secondary emotions further us from our authentic needs. If we experience a loss, our natural response is sadness. However, if sadness is judged as weakness, one may mask that sadness with anger. This furthers us from being able to convey and communicate what we really need; connection, nurturing, and understanding.

For example, say you react with anger when your partner is spending time with someone else instead of you. Anger will probably antagonize the situation and push your partner further away. However, if you can look beneath the anger and connect with the primary emotion – fear of losing this important partnership – you can more effectively communicate to your loved one what it is that you are feeling and needing. In this example it might sound like, “When you spend time with them, I feel scared that I may lose you, and this relationship is so important to me. I would like to spend more time together.”

Be Curious About Your Anger

The first step in understanding your anger is to be aware of it. Sounds simple, but being mindful of your experience can be a challenging step in itself. Our response patterns have often become so automatic that we barely notice our anger is rising, it’s just suddenly there. Bringing mindfulness to your emotional experience is simply noticing your emotions as they arise – not judging them, not trying to change them, just noticing, “I’m feeling angry right now”.

The second step is to bring some curiosity to your experience. We can tap into the primary emotion if we are able to take a breath and wonder, with gentle curiosity, where the anger is coming from. If you suspect that the anger is protecting you from a more vulnerable emotion, ask yourself:

  • What hurts?
  • What am I afraid of?

Sometimes the anger is so overwhelming that it is difficult to connect to the primary emotion. At this point it might be helpful to enlist the help of a journal, a trusted friend or a counsellor. It can be helpful to talk through the mix of emotions and thoughts. If anger is becoming problematic, it is worthwhile to unpack it in order to get to the root of the issue. Intense or constant feelings of anger can lead to mental health issues[1], substance use[2], or isolation. Understanding the root of your anger can enable you to communicate with those around you, and effectively meet your needs.

[1] http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/anger

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306460304000607