In our society, there is the belief that anger is somehow bad and should not be expressed. Anger has become associated with a lack of control. People disparagingly say, “He went off his head” or “She lost it”. We are generally poorly skilled at managing anger in ourselves or others, so we keep it buried. The problem is, unexpressed emotions have a funny way of catching up with us.
THE NATURE OF ANGER
First of all, let’s get one thing straight, there is no such thing as a negative emotion. Anger is not bad, regardless of the messages society sends us. We are biologically wired to experience anger. When we talk about ‘fight and flight’, anger is the ‘fight’. However, it should be noted that anger and violence are not the same things, anger and aggression are not the same thing. Feeling angry is valid and acceptable, violent and aggressive behaviours are not.
Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion. That means the anger is a response to another emotion. For example, If you are made to feel shame, you may feel angry about that. Sometimes fear is quickly followed by anger. Sometimes the anger occurs almost simultaneously, so it is difficult to discern the original emotional experience. Feelings that may lead to anger include embarrassment, sadness, frustration, loneliness, and anxiety.
It is important to note that just because anger is called a ‘secondary’ emotion does not mean it is any less real or potent. What it does mean is that our anger needs examination so that we can better understand what is triggering it. This diagram of the ‘anger iceberg’ was developed by the Gottman Institute and is great for examining what might be underneath your anger.
THE FUNCTION OF ANGER
Anger serves a useful purpose. The reason we move from other emotions into anger is that anger provides us with a sense of control. Anger feels better than shame or disappointment or hurt. Anger can be very motivating and useful. It enables us to defend ourselves or stand by our values.
The empowerment experienced in anger is not just perception, it is also physical. Anger releases in us a neurochemical called norepinephrine. It acts like a chemical painkiller, it numbs pain caused by threats to our safety. In our origins, that threat may have been a cave bear. These days those threats are more likely to be emotions that challenge our sense of self. The brain cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional threats. So, the body will protect itself from feelings like worthlessness, shame, hurt or jealousy by bringing forth anger and using it to be assertive and problem solve.
Like all emotional learning, dealing with anger takes time. You can make a start by recognising it and articulating it. Even the greatest minds recognise the difficulty of moving forward from there.