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Things to Know About Anger

Primary vs. Secondary Feeling

Feeling Destructive in Germany - A personal story

Anger Management vs Pain Management

Things to know about anger

Anger is a powerful emotion. It can be used either in productive or counter-productive ways. It can lengthen or shorten our lives. It is like electricity. It can run large equipment or it can electrocute you.

Here are more things to know about anger:

1. It is a powerful survival tool
2. It is a response to pain (physical or psychological)
3. It is a source of energy
4. It is a secondary emotion
5. When we are angry, the brain downshifts to a lower evolutionary level
6. Prolonged anger is unhealthy
7. Repressed anger is also unhealthy

Nature has developed the emotional state we call "anger" to help us stay alive. Anger sends signals to all parts of our body to help us fight or flee. It energizes us to prepare us for action. Many years ago we were threatened by wild animals who wanted to eat us. Now we more often feel threatened by other human beings, either psychologically or physically.

When we feel energized by anger, we might ask ourselves how we put this energy to the most productive use. As with the use of other forms of energy such as electricity or oil, we might want to use it efficiently, not wastefully.

Primary vs. Secondary Feelings

Perhaps the most helpful thing to remember about anger is that it is a secondary emotion. A primary feeling is what is felt immediately before we feel angry. We always feel something else first before we get angry.

We might first feel afraid, attacked, offended, disrespected, forced, trapped, or pressured. If any of these feelings are intense enough, we think of the emotion as anger.

Generally speaking, secondary feelings do not identify the unmet emotional need (UEN). When all I can say is "I feel angry," neither I nor any one else knows what would help me feel better. A helpful technique, then, is to always identify the primary emotion.

Here is an example. Assume someone wants us to do something we prefer not to do. At first we feel a little pressured, but not enough to get angry. When they keep pushing us, we begin to get irritated. If they continue, we get "angry". Such anger damages relationships. One suggestion on how to avoid getting angry in this case would be to express your initial feeling by saying "I feel pressured" before the feeling has escalated to the point of destructive anger. If the person respects your feelings and does not invalidate or ignore them, they may stop their pressure. Even if they do not, I believe it is helpful to know what the specific feeling is. Knowing exactly how we feel with others and why helps us in several ways. First it raises our self-awareness in general. Second, it helps us communicate more precisely. Third, it helps us learn more quickly who respects our feelings and who we want to spend time with.

Anger as a Response to Fear

One of the primitive functions of an animal's response to fear is to frighten away the attacker. But in modern human life, we often frighten away those who we need and care about most. Besides this, prolonged anger has clear health consequences. According to Dr. Herbert Benson, these include heart attacks, hardening of the arteries, strokes, hypertension, high blood pressure, heart rate changes and metabolism, muscle and respiratory problems. (The Relaxation Response, 1975)

Responding To and Learning From Anger

Anger is an intense emotion. It is evidence that we feel strongly about something. As with every emotion, it has a lesson for us. It can teach us what we value, what we need, what we lack, what we believe and what our insecurities are. It can help us become more aware of what we feel strongly about and which emotional needs are important to us. One way to learn from anger is shown in the example below:

Instead of saying,

She never should have done that. I can't believe how irresponsible, insensitive and inconsiderate she is. What a cold- hearted, evil witch she is.

a more productive response is:

I am really upset by this. Why does it bother me so much? What specifically am I feeling? What are my primary feelings? What need do I have that is not being met? What principles of mine have been violated?

From the answers to these questions, we can decide what course of action to take in view of what our goals are. Simply being aware that we have multiple options and that we can decide to pick the best one helps soothe the anger. It may help, for instance, to ask if we really want to frighten away the person we are angry at. As soon as we "upshift" and begin to think about our options and their consequences, and make appropriate plans, we start to feel more in control and less threatened. We get out of the automatic stimulus-response mode and realize that we have choices.

There is a quote which goes like this:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. - Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (bookstore)

It may be helpful for us to try to widen this space during our lives. In fact this may be one sign of wisdom and maturity. It may also give us an increased sense of control over our feelings and reactions.

Simply remembering that we have a choice helps us feel more in control. I have found it helpful, for example, to identify when I am feeling provoked. Once I realize this I feel more in control of my response. Not surprisingly, studies show that people feel better and are healthier when they have a sense of control over their lives. This is where the balance between upper brain and lower brain comes in. Part of developing our emotional intelligence is learning to channel our anger in productive ways to help us achieve our goals rather than to sabotage them. Keeping our goals clearly in mind at all times helps us accomplish this.

Here are some suggestions for responding to your anger:

1. Ask what you are afraid of.
2. Ask what feelings preceded the anger.
3. Ask what other feelings you are feeling.
4. Ask what you are trying to control.
5. Ask what you can control.
6. Consider your options.
7. Choose the one which will bring you the most long term happiness.

Finally, here is a technique I sometimes use to help me cope with "anger" (if I haven't already "downshifted" to a purely reactive animal instinct state). When I catch myself starting to say "I feel angry" or "I am starting to get really pissed off," I say instead, "I feel really energized." Then I ask myself how I want to channel my energy to its best use. It is a simple little technique, but sometimes it has made a big difference in how I feel and how I respond.

.See also this story about feeling destructive in Germany

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