“I feel angry.” “But how do you really feel?” “Angry.”
Part of my work with patients involves increasing understanding of emotions and emotional responses. A recent post that I wrote examined the importance of becoming more aware of your emotions and then, in turn, being responsive to your emotions.
One of the most commonly recognized and declared emotional states is anger. It is often my experience that people (i.e., patients, family and friends, or complete strangers for that matter), are quick to report when they are feeling angry. Yet, when pressed for identifying how else they are feeling, the response is often one of confusion, pondering, and a firmer declaration that they are “just angry.”
The trouble is that anger is a secondary emotion. This means that while the person is feeling anger, the anger is not the most prominent emotion(s) and it is in response to other primary emotions. The only true way to effectively address the problem at hand and your reaction to the situation is by identifying the primary emotions underlying your anger. Conversely, simply focusing on only the anger can lead to short-term improvements, but this approach is deeply lacking in effectiveness, understanding, and long-term change.
Individuals who struggle with identifying emotions other than anger tend to be uncomfortable with emotions in general, lacking in education and experience with identifying their emotions and related vocabulary, or uncomfortable with any emotions that may be perceived as weak.
By identifying the primary emotions underlying your anger, you are able to effectively address the problem.
What is Anger?
We all experience anger and we do so to varying degrees. Just as is with other emotions, anger is experienced on a spectrum from mildly irritated to enraged. What makes one person angry may not even irritate another person. Some common reasons for feeling an ‘anger-spectrum’ emotional response include being treated unfairly or unjustly, learning of another person being treated unjustly, being intentionally wronged or slighted, receiving criticism, or not getting your way. Boredom is also a form of anger as it is dissatisfaction with current circumstances.
If you picture yourself in one of these situations, it may be easy to bring about the emotional provocation and even experience some alteration in your mood within the anger-spectrum. The trouble is that the anger you are experiencing is actually based on another prominent, or primary, emotions.
Anger is a Secondary Emotion
Despite the frequency at which some people experience anger, many still do not realize that anger is a secondary emotion. This means that other primary emotions, like fear, disappointment, shame, or sadness, can be found underlying the anger. The difficulty with the primary emotions named is that many of them involve vulnerability, the perception of weakness, and loss of control. In contrast to the underlying emotions, anger can feel powerful, threatening, give you a surge of energy, and allow you to feel as though you are in charge.
Many individuals, and men in particular, do not like to feel vulnerable or helpless, which can lead to over identification with anger and disregard for other more pressing and prominent, but vulnerable emotional responses. Depending on your level of emotional awareness and openness to emotional experiences, in many cases the shift to exclusively focusing on anger can be an unconscious or subconscious process. Anger tends to be a more comfortable emotion for many as it allows one to regain a sense of control and power, particularly in the face of uncertainty, fear, and vulnerability.
- A wife cooks a difficult and elaborate meal for her husband whom she is expecting home from work. Without communicating with his wife, the husband comes home two hours late. The wife may express frustration, or perhaps anger, with her efforts taken to prepare an elaborate meal, but it is disappointment, feeling hurt, and feeling disrespected that are actually behind her anger response.
- A military Veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD makes a reservation for dinner to take his wife out for Valentine’s Day. He goes to the restaurant and is told there are no booths available, but the only table available for the evening is located in the center of the restaurant. The man becomes irate and starts yelling about the lack of service he is receiving. In this scenario, the anger is actually driven by anxiety and discomfort with sitting in an open space due to PTSD-related symptoms and concerns.
Anger is important. It allows and compels people to take action. However, due to the fact that it is a secondary emotion, it is important to understand what you are truly feeling in response to a situation. It is important to keep in mind that the anger process happens very quickly. In order to determine what you are truly bothered by and what other emotions you are experiencing, you will have to essentially slow the process down. This may be very challenging at first, as it can be difficult to think clearly and slow your mind when you are emotionally provoked and especially when feeling angry. The next time you notice yourself feeling anger, whether it is mild annoyance or intense rage, take a moment to conduct a self-assessment.
- The simplest version of this is assessing the triggering situation and identifying the primary emotion(s) steering your anger.
- If you find it difficult to identify any other emotions besides anger, it may be helpful to identify your thoughts, as this will provide much clearer information about what you are feeling.
- If you are still struggling, try writing down the situation and your related thoughts. The process of conceptualizing these components can provide more mental clarity and increase your ability to identify your emotions.
By identifying the underlying emotions, and thereby your true reactions to a situation, you are then able to effectively communicate to others (e.g., why you are bothered, hurt, nervous, etc.). Besides communicating to others, you may notice a pattern in your responses and identify a larger area that needs to be addressed. For example, perhaps you determine that you frequently feel guilty or shameful; it would be important to further assess where these emotional responses are coming from with the help of an experienced psychologist. It may also be important to process repressed memories or beliefs, which should only be done with the assistance of trained clinicians like Tampa Therapy. In addition to patterns, you may find unresolved issues from your past that need to be addressed.
By determining the underlying emotions, you can effectively work with the actual problem. Continuing to only address the anger is a superficial way of addressing your emotions and reactions, but not one that leads to sustainable and meaningful change. Identifying the primary emotions you are experiencing can lead to increased awareness and understanding of yourself, as well as less frequent anger responses and increased inner well-being.
We’re Here to Help
By determining the underlying emotions, you can effectively work with the actual problem.
The information and suggestions contained within this post are a great starting point to understanding more about anger and some ways you can manage your response. However, this truly is just the beginning. For those who struggle with frequently feeling anger, this tends to be an ingrained response that takes time, effort, education, and practice to overcome. We completely understand how difficult this process can be and want to help you with learning ways to manage your mood and behaviors. If you are interested in increasing your comfort with emotions, wanting to learn more about emotional responses and emotional states, or working through beliefs that you are not allowed to show emotions other than anger, we would love to help.
We specialize in working with everyday mood difficulties in a relaxing and non-judgmental environment. If you are experiencing difficulty with managing your anger or any other situations occurring in your life, please contact us. Take the first step to start your journey to happiness.