WHAT IS ANGER?
Anger is a powerful human emotion. If you’re struggling with anger or being told by others that you are always angry, it’s a great idea to learn more. In fact, the self and social reflection that leads you to read articles like this on anger is precisely how people become emotionally intelligent. So let’s dig deeper.
What is anger in simple words?
Anger is something you feel. Anger can range from mild irritation to intense rage. Sometimes you don’t even notice you’re angry until it’s too late. By the time you notice yourself yelling or acting aggressively, you might not be able to calm yourself down. Uncontrolled anger can look like a child throwing a tantrum or a grown adult physically or verbally lashing out. Getting help can feel awkward and many people don’t get help because they don’t know where to turn. If you’re asking yourself these questions, don’t stop here, you might need help.
How Does Anger Feel?
While everyone experiences emotions differently, there are some major common elements. Emotions (or “feelings”) are instinctual and intuitive experiences. You don’t really have to learn how to experience an emotion. It’s something your body knows how to do on its own.
Emotions are a response mechanism. In the face of external or internal factors or circumstances, you instinctually form an emotional response. For example, if someone hugs you (external) or if you’re hungry (internal), you will instinctually have an emotional response. You might like the hug and feel comfort or joy. You might dislike the hunger and feel irritated or anxious.
Emotions naturally arise within you and are different than ideas or beliefs. The “way you feel” doesn’t need to be reasonable or align with facts. Instead, your emotions tell you if a situation is positive or negative to you.
The same situation will affect different people differently. For example, in response to hunger, a mother might feel happy or excited about feeding her child, whereas a busy salesperson might feel irritated or angry because taking a break isn’t possible. Emotions are the body’s way of assessing what is happening around you and telling you what to think, do or feel next.
One of the very interesting things about anger is that it’s actually a secondary emotion. You never feel anger first. Anger is, in fact, an emotional response to a primary emotion. Whether fear, sadness, frustration, etc., you are feeling something other than anger first. Getting to the root cause is hugely important in order to resolve issues. Focusing on anger can be like using water to put out an oil fire, the water can’t eliminate the source.
When you experience a feeling one of the first things to happen is you will start thinking. Thoughts will automatically flow in your mind without you even noticing. Sometimes you will get more consciously involved in your thinking, almost like having a private conversation with yourself in your head.
Automatic thoughts behave sort of like TV reruns. When you’ve already seen an episode or something happens that reminds you of that episode, you can easily recall and even replay the scene in your mind. In life, when you experience a frustrating situation similar to something that has happened to you before, you will replay it in your mind. Like a broken record, you face the troubling feelings over and over again. And because you are repeating the experience you develop a thought script that you use to think about the problem.
For example, when a boss tells you she’s disappointed in you, it might remind you of your parent being disappointed in you when you were a child. The memory can be more recent too. For instance, if a manager scolds you and you were fired from your last job for poor performance, you might find yourself reliving the original experience. As fears and self-doubt from earlier experiences play out in your mind, your thoughts become complicated. You’re no longer dealing with the here and now. You’re dealing with the big picture. In this way, thoughts can complicate and escalate your emotions.
Emotions trigger a physical response within the body. For example, anger often results from fear. Something may trigger you and you see a threat to your safety. In order to protect yourself, you go into survival mode. In this way, becoming angry is a physical response. This is why many of the signs of anger are visible on the body or in a person’s behaviour. Physical signs of anger can include sweating, turning red, heavy breathing, and much more. Dovetailing with physical signs, you might clench your fists, pace around a room, or anxiously smoke a cigarette or down a glass of wine.
Some of these signs are automatic and some may seem like behavioural choices. Regardless, everyone has their telltale signs of anger. You have yours, I have mine. Be open to hearing from others what signs you show when you feel angry and watch for signs in the people you love and care for. By being aware we can learn more about ourselves and those we love, while also catching anger before situations escalate.
Sources of Anger
The root causes of your anger will be different than mine. Perhaps chronic pain is making me miserable and I’m responding in anger. You may be dealing with relationship issues. It’s even more complicated when you’re dealing with angry people. When you can’t control angry people around you, suppressing anger can be almost impossible.
While we can’t always see why someone is angry, it’s important to remember there is always a legitimate source of anger. In order to deal with anger, it deserves respect and compassion. We owe compassion to others and ourselves.
Learning skills to recognize anger and cope with angry outbursts is necessary, but what works for me might not work for you. You might find yourself in a common game, arguing with someone to prove your anger is more important or legitimate than theirs. Of course, the person you’re arguing with is trying to validate their own feelings. No one listens and the fight goes on and on.
Comparing anger, comparing suffering or pain… all efforts to compare are no-win scenarios. Compassion is the path forward.
Society generally teaches you that expressing your anger is a bad thing. You’re taught to suppress and ignore your anger. This is unfortunate and especially true for men. In fact, emotional control is a defining masculine characteristic in many cultures. It’s no wonder that men are also the ones more likely to be court-mandated to take anger management classes.
The problem with emotional control is that is cannot work forever. A boiling pot with a lid on will eventually pop open. It’s great if you can control when and how you express your secondary emotion of anger (or the primary emotions at the root of your anger) but YOU MUST EXPRESS IT.
I want to say this again….
YOU MUST EXPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS.
You cannot ignore or suppress any emotion indefinitely. In fact, if you want to be in control of how you express your emotions, your best bet is to express your emotions sooner rather than later. As time goes on you will be more reactive and less proactive. This is where the common types of angry behaviour come into play.
Types of Anger Expression
The most obvious form of anger expression is aggressive anger. It’s always easy to spot when someone is being hostile and aggressive. Another common anger behaviour is passive aggressive anger. Passive aggression can feel like a controlled way to express anger but it’s better described as a way to hide your anger. If, for example, you are being passive aggressive in your tone of voice, it’s easier for you to deny your feelings if someone calls you on it.
Finally, let’s talk about passive anger. There are some people who seem to let everything slide. They take it on the chin every time. You might not notice their passive approach or you might respect them for it. This can sometimes be a considered martyrdom approach. “Woe is me. Things always happen to me.” might run through the mind of the person using passive anger expression. But, in this situation too, an explosive outburst may come soon. After all, a boiling pot can only keep its lid on for so long.
The Anger Journey
In the absolute worst-case scenario, you know nothing about anger, you don’t want to learn more, and you’re a pro at ignoring your anger. I say this is a worst-case scenario because anger won’t stop there. I mentioned earlier that anger is a secondary emotion. Anger is your body’s alert response to a danger it believes you are facing. If you ignore the danger, your body will not stop. You are programmed to survive. Ignore your danger alert response and your body will make it impossible to ignore.
In mental health, we know that untreated anxiety can lead to depression. Similarly, unexpressed and unresolved anger can lead to complex and horrific health problems. Eating disorders, personality disorder, bipolar disorder are all highly correlated with anger issues. And if you’re so good at ignoring your mental health that you don’t foresee disorders like these being a problem for you, consider other consequences. Anger and stress lead to heart attacks, ulcers and more.
If you are experiencing anger, know that you are on a journey. If you don’t take control of your journey in a healthy way, your body will continue down an unhealthy path until you have no choice but to pay attention. In some cases, untreated anger leads to divorce, prison time, or death. You don’t want this to be your story.
How To Learn More About Your Anger
If you experience anger often it is absolutely worth learning more. You can explore your feelings of anger and discover what solutions work best for you. Some people find it helpful to keep an anger diary. Whether in a notebook or on your phone, scribble down details about your anger, who was there, what you were thinking, etc. Expressing anger in a healthy way is so important. Journalling is a great way to do that.
Your journal is a great way for you to look back for common triggers, people or places. You might find patterns that can be helpful. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to discover they’re drinking (i.e. substance abuse) every time they face anger and aggression or that stress (i.e. stress management) are at the core of their anger. These patters can help you understand where you need to focus your efforts if you’re serious about controlling anger in your future.
Since it’s normal to feel angry, you might be thinking it’s unnecessary to get outside help. But the truth is that you can only go so far with self improvement on your own. From anger management classes to stress management coaching to cognitive behavioural therapy, many solutions exist. Controlling anger in a healthy way is not just a possibility. You might have to try different classes, therapists or coaches before finding the one that’s right for you, but I promise you there is a solution to your anger. Once you commit to getting help, don’t stop until you find it.