Anger seems pretty simple in the moment. You were wronged. You’re mad. And you feel justified. You can feel your blood boiling, your shoulders tensioning, and your chest burning. You’re just plain angry. Seems pretty straight forward, right?
Well, not quite. Your anger is a lot more complex than you think. And it’s trying to tell you something super important. So click below to learn what your anger is trying to tell you and what you can do about it.
Anger seems pretty straight forward. But in reality, it’s a lot more complex than most people realize. It’s not quite what meets the eye. First, think of anger as a “family” of emotions. Feeling angry, mad, frustrated, irritated, annoyed, pissed off, aggravated…these emotions are all a part of the anger family. They’re all related.
Now here’s the important part. Anger is what we call a secondary emotion. It’s a reaction to another emotion. So first, we feel hurt, disappointed, betrayed, insignificant, lonely, overwhelmed, dismissed, vulnerable, or invalidated. And then, because that emotion is too scary, too intense, or too vulnerable, we flip it and code it as anger.
So while anger, frustration, or irritation is what’s showing up on the surface, the emotions are actually much deeper than that. And knowing those deeper, primary emotions, is absolutely critical if you want to feel better.
Here’s a helpful example. Several years ago, my little brother had planned a visit to Chicago. I was super excited to see him, and I took off work and planned all sorts of fun stuff. My brother and I are super close, and I was really looking forward to seeing him. The day before his visit, he called to let me know he had a slight change of plans. He had plans to spend more time with friends, go to a Cubs game, and a few other things. He wouldn’t be spending as much time with me as he had originally thought.
I was a bit caught off guard in the moment, but as soon as we hung up, I called our dad to vent. “This is so annoying,” I exclaimed. “I’m so frustrated. It’s impossible to make plans with him! Why can’t he communicate better?” I huffed and puffed on the phone for about five minutes before I caught myself. I heard the anger. And I felt the frustration. So I stopped, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that anger is a secondary emotion. If I’m feeling mad, there’s got to be some deeper emotions underneath this.
So I thought about it. I did an emotional check in. And I realized that I felt hurt and disappointed. I felt unimportant and a little bit dismissed.
Now, at this point, you might be thinking, “Well geez, those emotions don’t sound that much better. They still sound pretty painful.” And you’re right, they are painful. But when we dig below the anger, we identify what’s really going on. And when we identify what’s really going, we can deal with that emotion. We can deal with the real issue, not the smokescreen known as anger.
In that example with my brother, once I identified how hurt, disappointed, and unimportant I felt, I was able to use a variety of coping skills to deal with those emotions. I was also able to talk with my brother in a much more productive way about what I was feeling, instead of just being pissed off about it.
So when you feel yourself getting angry, when you notice frustration, irritation, and annoyance, stop, take a breath, and notice those feelings. And then, use those emotions as cue. Use those feelings as a yellow flag to say, “Hey, something else is going on here. There’s another, deeper emotion going on.” Challenge yourself to dig beneath the anger and be descriptive in naming those primary emotions. The more specific, the better.
If you’re frustrated at work, feeling like no one appreciates what you do, recognize your anger as a secondary emotion. Name the emotions underneath it. Maybe you feel unappreciated, powerless, and discouraged. If you’re annoyed with a friend who keeps flaking out, ask yourself what’s underneath your annoyance. My guess is you feel disappointed, hurt, and insignificant. And if you’re angry after a deal or an agreement goes south, my guess is that underneath your anger, you feel cheated, betrayed, or victimized.
Dig deeper, and name what emotions are underneath your anger. Because when you name what’s really going on, when you identify what’s underneath your anger, you give yourself a better shot at working through it. You give yourself a better chance at moving forward.
So when you’re angry, stop and take a breath. Recognize your anger as a secondary emotion. Use your anger as a cue, a reminder that something else is going on. Then ask yourself, “What emotion is underneath this anger?” You’ll be surprised at how much is below the surface, just waiting for some attention.
PS: Need some help identifying what emotions are underneath your anger? Here’s a super helpful cheat sheet to get you started.