Conscious Anger: Understanding the Mystery Emotion

We all experience anger — don’t avoid it or judge it. Handle it.

I’m here to defend the mystery emotion of anger — to help you understand it, accept it, and learn how to handle it in yourself and from others.

Anger has been wrongfully accused, by many, of being a bad, undesirable emotion. If we hold that belief we will try to avoid it, or we will deny its existence in ourselves, or we’ll engage in passive-aggressive behavior whether we’re conscious of it or not.

We likely all agree that anger is a powerful emotion. Let’s take a close look.

How Anger Shows Up

We each have a unique anger profile — our default way of reacting when feelings of anger arise in us.

Those of us who struggle with emotional self-management likely get aggressive when we feel angry. We fold our arms. We clench our teeth. We sigh, snort or huff. We roll our eyes and glare. We gesture in a hostile way, slam doors, point fingers, and name-call. Those of you who act out more extremely might throw things, punch walls, kick animals, and beat up people — those you hate and those you love.

Then there are those of us who deny our anger or try our best to stuff it…
We push it down, pretend it’s not there but even if we manage to do that the result is internalized anger that impacts our mental and physical health.

Or maybe we behave passive-aggressively. That’s when we express aggression indirectly with snarky remarks muttered under our breath, sarcastic comments, “forgetting” to do something we were assigned or promised to do, giving someone the cold shoulder, showing up late, sulking, and endless other annoying covert behaviors.

What is This “Anger Management” We Hear So Much About?

There’s an entire industry focused on “anger management.” But that’s the wrong term to describe the issue and the assistance that people need. It’s misleading and perpetuates a myth.

It’s not anger that we need to manage. Anger is simply an emotion and is not the problem.

Behavior is the Problem

Anger is an emotion that all of us feel…perhaps more often than we’d like to admit. While some of us may feel anger more strongly or more often than others, what we need to “manage” is our response to that feeling — our behavior.

Feelings 101

In order to understand anger, we must understand feelings. The first thing to know about feelings is where they come from.

Specific feelings that we have at any given moment are a response to our thoughts. We feel joy, sorrow, anger, or any other emotion depending on what we think about what’s going on in the moment or something we read or heard from a stranger or a significant other.

To be more precise, our emotions come from our perception of what’s happening or the text message we just received.

It can also be “happening” in our mind when we think about something that happened in the past or something that may happen in the future.

The feelings that arise are our reactions to how we perceive what we see, read, hear, remember, or what we’re anticipating.

Anger arises when we perceive something as against us:

  • An obstacle
  • A threat
  • A loss
  • A wrong

An Obstacle: This can include being discriminated against, disrespected, or ignored. It can include economic obstacles, a disability, or several million people ahead of us in line for a vaccine.

A Threat: This is when someone overtly threatens us or we perceive someone or something as a threat to ourselves or our family. Each of us will perceive potential threats differently and to a different degree. If our psychological profile includes a tendency toward mistrust or paranoia, we will perceive more threats, including people or situations who are actually not a threat. Consequently, we’ll experience more anger than the average person.

A Loss: When we experience loss, we grieve. If you’re familiar with the Kübler-Ross model you’ll remember that anger is the second stage of the grief process. We grieve when we lose any number of things — when we lose our job, a family member dies, an intimate relationship or marriage ends, an anticipated event is canceled, we have a falling out with a friend, we experience an injury or illness, someone betrays us, we are overlooked for a promotion, our car is stolen, etc. Anything that causes grief will also cause anger (even if we pretend it doesn’t).

A Wrong: Something we see happening in our own life or in the world that we believe is wrong. A child abuser is not held accountable, a politician is elected in a district that’s been gerrymandered to such an extreme that his party can’t lose, the U.S. has high maternal mortality rates that are inexcusable, a co-worker is blamed for something you know he didn’t do, women are not protected under the constitution of the United States, big tech companies are collecting and selling your personal data.

These four categories cover the basics but are not necessarily the full picture.

Primary or Secondary Emotion? Who Cares?

Many psychologists believe that anger is a secondary emotion — that it covers other emotions (most say it covers the more vulnerable emotions like fear or hurt).

There are also psychologists who believe that while anger may sometimes cover vulnerable emotions, it is a primary emotion that stands on its own.

For you as an individual, it doesn’t matter but it’s useful to know it could be either one, and it’s a good idea to examine your anger to determine if there are other emotions underneath. That reflection will increase your self-awareness which will help you understand your anger and increase your ability to develop other important relational skills.

For men, anger seems to be the only fully accepted emotional expression in our culture. And therefore, for them, I believe anger does often cover other less acceptable emotions. But I don’t think that means it’s always secondary.

Women seem to have the opposite tendency. Women often lead with hurt or fear because they are trained to be nice and not show anger. We even pretend women don’t get angry. Anger may be the raw emotion underneath, but hurt and fear are common emotions that do present on their own. Due to how unacceptable women’s anger is in our society I think it’s a fair guess that every woman has some degree of repressed anger.

I recommend these two books on women’s anger. Women will find them affirming and men will likely find them eye-opening when they learn how much rage women carry…and why. Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly and Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

What Makes You Angry?

Think about it. If the first thing that comes to mind is “He makes me angry…or She makes me angry,” you’re way off base. No one has the power to “make” you feel anything. You may feel angry in response to what someone does or does not do, but your anger comes from you not them. Your anger is triggered by your perception of what they are doing that you wish they weren’t doing.

I’m someone who can get irritated easily. I can be impatient and judgmental. For a long time my default behavior, when that happened was to respond with a sarcastic comment. My comments might have spoken the truth but they had an edge and were not expressed directly or responsibly…in other words, they were passive-aggressive. Being on the wrong end of passive-aggression is rarely fun.

This is an aside but I also used sarcasm to be “funny.” I have a quick wit but the sarcastic one-liners that I thought were hilarious were sometimes hurtful.

I gained awareness of this a few decades ago. While the sarcastic one-liners still come to mind, I’ve gotten better at managing my behavior, and most of the time I keep my mouth shut. And when something significant occurs I use the Nonviolent Communication model to compose a clean, direct message to that person or group.

I still struggle to manage my non-verbal expressions of hostility — body language, eye-rolling, and groans that I can’t always keep under wraps. (especially when it comes to organizational decision-making or in certain settings)

The good news is that I’m aware of this and try to catch myself. The even better news is that I apologize when I realize I behaved in a manner that may have been inconsiderate or unkind. The best news of all is that I don’t do finger-pointing or name-calling. I take responsibility for my anger and I don’t blame others for making me feel that way.

I’ve written about anger numerous times in the last 20 years and have reflected on my own anger for even longer. This time I decided to take a closer look and make a list of what triggers my anger.

Here are a few things that get my goat:

  • drivers who do things I don’t want them to do (or who put me in danger).
  • when someone dominates a conversation in a social or business setting.
  • when someone goes off-topic in a meeting.
  • when a meeting facilitator allows someone to go off-topic and lets them go on and on.
  • poor design of anything — an app, a product or appliance, a website.
  • when someone is uninformed on a topic but think they understand it and share their strong (misinformed) opinion.
  • when I see cruel behavior and policies.

The last bullet about cruel behaviors and policies belongs in a list of its own that includes racism, misogyny, islamophobia, transphobia, etc — the human rights atrocities.

I could add many more items to this list. As I review the “off the top of my head” list I included earlier, it’s clear the items on it aren’t earth-shattering, but merely annoyances to me. I feel a bit foolish realizing how irritated I can get about these perceived “crimes.”

Our Response to Our Feelings of Anger

When anger is provoked, some of us:

  • behave with hostility toward others
  • display outbursts of aggression
  • suppress our anger with a smile while we are boiling inside
  • turn our anger inward and become depressed
  • suffer physical health issues from internalized anger
  • experience anxiety

So what do we do?

How do we handle our anger in a healthy way and act appropriately when it bubbles up? How do we take responsibility for our anger?

Most people who want to “manage” their anger are those who behave aggressively. Their decision is often motivated by those on the receiving end of their aggression (a family member, co-worker, or a boss) who have told them they need to control themselves and “manage” their anger.

It’s interesting, however, that those who push down their anger and turn it inward, seem to never get told they need to “manage” their anger. That’s partly because it’s often not obvious that anger is the underlying emotion, but it’s also because most of us prefer others (especially women) to be nice, to be agreeable. That’s often true even when we see that someone is seething inside.

Learning Assertiveness Skills Can Help You Handle Aggression

This may sound counter-intuitive but it’s true and it’s significant. Read more about this phenomenon in my piece on Assertiveness.

Are Unmet Needs the Cause of Anger?

Marshall Rosenberg thought so.

The Nonviolent Communication Model (NVC)

Years ago I came across Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication model. I found it interesting and helpful, but it was only recently that I discovered how profoundly effective it is and how it supports healthy communication of all feelings, especially anger. Read about my experiences with NVC in my piece about Assertiveness.

Rosenberg’s perspective on anger is refreshing and insightful:

“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” — Marshall Rosenberg

This booklet by Rosenberg is The Surprising Purpose of Anger: Beyond Anger management — Finding the Gift (Nonviolent Communication Guides) consists of the elements of Nonviolent Communication related to anger. It will help you apply Rosenberg’s four key truths:

“People or events may spark your anger but your own judgments are its cause.”

“Judging others as “wrong” prevents you from connecting with your unmet needs.”

“Getting clear about your needs helps you identify solutions satisfying to everyone.”

“Creating strategies focused on meeting your needs transforms anger into positive actions”

— Marshall Rosenberg

Even though I’ve studied NVC off and on for years it still blows my mind when I bring myself back to these principles. When I look back at the list of what triggers my anger, I realize there are unmet needs and that helps me reframe any situation that irritates me. The trick is to remember this concept of unmet needs.

In a nutshell, Rosenberg says that

  • Our judgments and expressions of anger are about our unmet needs
  • We can transform our anger if we focus on how to get our needs met
  • Win-win solutions are possible

If we take the focus off of how others are irritating us, we can focus on ourselves and learn how to get our needs met.

The concept of “unmet needs” may not fully make sense until you delve more deeply into Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication principles.

To learn the NVC model see Rosenberg’s world-renowned bestselling book is Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, originally published in 1999, the 3rd edition was published in 2015.

Boundaries

Boundaries play a role in managing anger. My piece on strengthening personal boundaries is required reading for anyone working on issues of aggression.

How Do Personal Boundaries Relate to Anger?

Those with weak boundaries will experience various forms of violation. That’s because they have difficulty avoiding it until they understand what’s happening and learn to strengthen their boundaries to keep themselves safe.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not saying that the violations experienced are their fault. Far from it. But these people will be most effective in protecting themselves if they learn how to strengthen their boundaries.

Most (if not all) people who have struggled with boundary difficulties hold unexpressed anger inside. And for good reason, because they’ve been violated, and like many others, they will benefit from learning assertiveness.

Codependency is a term that is often used in relation to boundaries. Those struggling with codependent tendencies have likely been “too nice,” and while they are lovely people who are kind and helpful, underneath there’s likely unresolved anger.

Emotional Self-Management

Emotional Self-Management is the skill we need to learn when “anger management” has been recommended. Read my full essay on this. (link will be added once it’s published)

Difficulties with Aggression & Passivity — Don’t Go it Alone

If you easily fly off the handle, or if you’ve spent too much of your life being submissive, it might be time to find a trained professional who can help you:

  1. Increase your self-awareness
  2. Learn assertiveness skills to express yourself appropriately
  3. Recognize, understand and manage your triggers
  4. Learn what a true apology is and how to give one (link)
  5. Strengthen your personal boundaries
  6. Conflict resolution skills and processes
  7. Explore your emotional wounds or past trauma
  8. Examine and resolve your inner conflicts

A Skills Coach can help you with #1–6 listed above to increase your self-awareness, learn assertiveness, techniques for emotional self-management, how to strengthen your boundaries, and how to resolve conflicts.

However, for #7 and #8 above you’ll want to see a licensed therapist who can help you explore inner conflicts, emotional wounds, and past trauma.

Get Help Immediately by Reading My Skills-Building Articles:

The articles will help you become more conscious and gain proficiency in managing your emotions. You’ll handle your emotional triggers, decrease your aggressive responses, more easily resolve conflicts, and therefore improve your relationships at home and at work.

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Christine Green’s writings on essential skills that help us be more effective at home and at work. Self-Awareness, Assertiveness, Emotional Self-Management, Boundaries, Decision-Making, Group Process, Leadership, Conflict Resolution. Featured in upcoming online training portal.

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Christine Green

Christine Green

Relational & Procedural Skills Coach. Web Design. Unbridled perspectives on almost everything. https://christinegreen.com/coaching/

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