Anger is often misunderstood. This is because it is often represented by an outside behavior that serves to obfuscate the inner anger experience. When an individual feels angry, he tends to express this experience with destructive behavior – whether it's physically destructive (i.e. breaking things) or emotionally destructive (i.e. making hurtful comments).

The response by others is often focused on the external behavior rather than the internal experience of the destroyer. Like post-hurricane efforts, the tangible destruction must first be addressed by those on the ground prior to evaluating the causes of the storm or how to prevent future vulnerability. And for the one acting out, the outburst serves to divert attention away from his emotions toward a more tangible (and less personal) problem: the damage created.

The goal of this article is not to condone the destructive actions that may come about due to an individual’s feelings of anger. Nor is it meant to encourage others to ignore such behaviors. In fact, if one finds themselves the recipient of hurtful remarks and/or physical abuse or harm, I urge them to acknowledge the issue and seek help and safety for themselves regardless of their understanding of the underlying emotions surrounding such behaviors.

I hope to provide a degree of understanding of the internal emotional experience of anger to assist people with understanding themselves and others in their lives who may struggle with anger issues.

Desire for Emotional Connection

Relationships are upheld by feelings. Cultivation of positive interactions provides for emotionally flourishing relationships. But sometimes an individual may begin to feel distant from their significant other (this can be parent/child, friend/friend, romantic partners) and not know how to healthily repair the connection. They desire a closer relationship but don’t have the tools to accomplish this with finesse. And so, they resort to a more chaotic and raw form of emotional infusion: anger.

As a result of the “fight” both mother and daughter likely feel more emotionally connected, even if the emotion present is one of anger or hate.

Think about a mother and her teenage daughter who love each other, but have minimal emotional contact. Their days consist of crossing paths with little engagement. Suddenly, the daughter makes a snarky remark to which the mother responds angrily. The two spend the next five minutes yelling at each other slinging insults back and forth. The mother-daughter relationship, in those five minutes, is infused with the emotions which were so lacking during their generally meaningless daily interactions. As a result of the “fight” both mother and daughter likely feel more emotionally connected, even if the emotion present is one of anger or hate.

Of course it would have been healthier for the mother and daughter to find ways of expressing their feelings of care, concern, or love for each other without resorting to anger and fighting. But they seemingly did not know how to execute this sort of healthy interaction. So the two resort to anger, albeit unintentionally, to re-establish the emotional bridge between them.

With repetition, anger becomes synonymous with love and angry displays represent a comforting reassurance of connection. Anger becomes the emotional embrace that allows the two to maintain their relationship.

Replacement for Another Feeling

Anger is sometimes referred to as an umbrella emotion. When one experiences a feeling that he or she (often without awareness) deems intolerable, anger surfaces and overshadows the initial emotion. Anger serves as a replacement emotion which pops up to protect the individual from other unbearable feelings that arise.

The perceived intolerability of certain feelings can be rooted in familial or societal messages, whether overt or covert. Hearing messages or witnessing behaviors that communicate the wrongness of having certain feelings can leave an indelible mark on the developing psychological mind. Receiving messages of “Men don’t cry” or “just suck it up” to feelings of fear, sadness, or physical/emotional pain, serve to invalidate one’s internal emotions and send the message that these feelings are “not okay.” And when these feelings arise in the course of life (and they will because they are part of the human experience), we may find ourselves at a loss for what to do with these feelings.

So anger swoops in, with its mask and cape, and saves us from these uncomfortable feelings. Anger shoves aside the “not okay” emotions and, often with behavioral representation, distracts from the internal experience that is unwelcome-and often confusing and scary, as well.

Attempting to Assert Control

There is a sense of comfort and power that comes with having an internal locus of control. Believing that one plays an integral role in dictating the outcomes of his own life provides a sense of safety and security. When that sense of control begins to tip toward an external locus, which is a common occurrence, one may feel exposed, nervous, and vulnerable. To mitigate these feelings, a person takes steps to tilt the scale toward personal control. Anger is the finger on the scale that often shifts the perceived power back into one’s own hands.

You call your internet provider to dispute a charge. After being passed along the “hierarchy” of representatives, you are told that the charge will not be refunded. You yell, scream, slam the phone against the wall, and angrily express your discontent. Why this response? Because you are in a bind. You need your internet. You were already billed for that time period. You feel slighted, helpless, and as if you have no alternative but to pay the bill. You realize that the internet company, at least to a certain extent, has control over your finances. The control-scale has tipped in their favor.

Anger provides the illusion that you, and you alone, dictate the outcomes of your life.

So you try to shift the scales with anger. “I’m the customer!” “I’m going to switch service providers!” The louder you yell, the meaner you are, the more powerful you feel. You are reminding them that, in this relationship, the control is yours. While you may not get your billing issue changed, you feel more powerful, less helpless, and less vulnerable. Anger has provided you the illusion that you, and you alone, dictate the outcomes of your life.

Recognition of one’s own vulnerability in life, which is a reality since one does not have control over others or much of what happens in the external world, can result in feelings of fear, anxiety, a sense of helplessness, and overall experience of despair. Feeling as if one is not in control of the outcome of their life creates a loss of agency that can be paralyzing. Anger’s behavioral representation (yelling, breaking things, etc.) often provides an individual with a feeling of power and control.

With Understanding Comes Responsibility

A nuanced understanding of anger can act as an x-ray into an angry individual’s world and assist others in healthily interacting with said person. Importantly, people are not expected to be radiologists. It is each person’s own responsibility to learn to effectively express and manage the range of emotions, a task that is certainly made easier with insight into the source of their emotions.

Tips for effective management of anger:

  1. Step away: remove yourself from the situation until your anger subsides.
  2. Take a breath: breathe deeply and slowly (inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 7).
  3. Intensely exercise: defuse your body’s energy with intense physical movement.
  4. Soothe yourself: positively engage your senses (smell, taste, touch, vision, hearing, smell). Smell a pleasant aroma, view images that elicit calm/joy, listen to music you like, eat something tasty.
  5. Understand yourself: When not in “anger mode,” take the opportunity to reflect upon your feeling/reaction, what triggered it, and work to understand what is causing you to feel as you do. Daily journaling can assist with personal exploration. Working with a mental health professional may also provide a forum for development of more intricate self-understanding.
  6. Rectify: With all the skills you may employ, there will be times when you act out. When that happens, take the time to regroup, own your behavior (verbally to the other person), and work to repair your destruction.

Recommended reading: Calming the Emotional Storm by Sheri Van Dijk MSW