How Anger Works and Why We Feel It
When people use the term anger management, the objective most people think of is finding ways to better control or prevent the explosive outburst of anger that often leads to destruction of some kind. But this only serves to demonstrate how limited our understanding is on how anger works and why people have such a hard time “managing” it.
ignoring the warning signs
What most people don’t realize is that anger is actually a very useful and helpful emotion. Much like a “pressure valve" that regulates and warns, anger signals there’s a problem that needs attention. Anger is what’s known as a secondary emotion, and its job is to indicate that there are other “primary” emotions to be uncovered. That’s the good part. The bad is that anger is also a flooding emotion, meaning it comes at times with such force that it overwhelms and drowns out our ability to sense and discern other emotions.
Anger comes on strong to get your attention, but it can be so strong it’s easy to miss what it’s trying to tell you, which leads to the ugly part. Unprocessed anger, or anger that never leads to understanding and resolution of primary emotions, leads to unhealthy expressions of anger itself. Outbursts of anger, disproportionate responses, and passive-aggressive behavior are all indications that the “pressure value” indicator has been ignored for far too long.
stuffers, Leakers & spewers
When we think of people with anger issues, we tend to think people who are explosive. These are the spewers. The wrong word or trigger can cause a spewer to unload their anger and aggression on anyone and everyone nearby. While that’s certainly one kind of angry person that’s hard not to notice, there are a couple other angry types that often slide in under the radar. Stuffers shove their anger inwardly, often because they believe they shouldn’t be angry or because expressing their anger will lead to no good. Stuffers eventually turn into:
- People suffering from depression (because they’ve shut down and detached emotionally)
- Spewers when they’ve stuffed all they can and decide enough is enough
Leakers believe they aren’t angry individuals because they don’t spew but only leak or hint at their frustrations. Many leakers don’t realize how angry they really are because their behavior often goes unchallenged and the damage is far less noticeable than that of the spewer. The common denominator between all types of angry individuals is that none of them actually deal with or listen to what their anger is trying to tell them. The "pressure valve" indicator stays on and on until something begins to breakdown internally.
Why It's So Hard to Deal with Anger Well
Reason #1: Easier out than in
Anger usually causes us to focus our frustration externally on people around us. When things don’t go the way we want or expect, it’s easy to think that it’s the people or situations we’re in that are causing us problems. If somehow people could just get their act together, we wouldn’t be so disappointed and upset. The problem with this thinking is that it places the power and control to change in the hands of other people.
Check-engine lights should prompt us to look at what’s going on within our car, not the road conditions our cars drive on. The reason most people have a hard time dealing with anger is because they constantly feel out of control, like things are being “done to them” and they have no real power to change, so they resort to unhealthy expressions of their anger as the only means of communicating dissatisfaction. They are completely externally focused instead of inwardly curious about what their anger is trying to tell them.
Reason #2: It's Easier Than Pain
Anger is an empowering emotion. It floods a person with a sense of strength to speak up and speak out when something wrong happens. While this is helpful, it also distracts us from having to feel the pain of being wronged. Anger feels powerful whereas emotions like hurt, fear, and disappointment feel weak. The irony is that it takes a certain measure of strength and courage to allow oneself to feel these more vulnerable emotions and even more to communicate them rather than anger. What sounds easier and safer to say?
“What’s the matter with you?! Why can’t you just listen to what I’m trying to tell you?!”
“You know when you don’t acknowledge what I’m trying to say, it feels like my words don’t matter and I’m not important enough to you to actually be heard.”
The first version feels safer, more powerful, and less vulnerable to attack. It focuses on the problem on the other person and expresses only anger, frustration and disappointment. It creates the illusion of control. This person thinks their voice has no power, and because they can’t control what the other person does or doesn’t do, they resort to expressing their unprocessed anger as a means to regain some sense of control. But how likely is it that the response to this would be, “You know what? Thank you. I hadn’t seen it that way until you scolded me like that. Thanks for helping me to see things more clearly now.”
The second feels softer, weaker, and more susceptible to attack. There’s a higher likelihood the response to the second version would be, “That’s completely stupid. What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?” Again it takes an incredible amount of insight and courage to speak like this.
This, among a handful of other reasons, is why it’s so hard for people to manage their anger well. Like a rudder for a ship, various skills and an awareness of how anger works helps to navigate and guide us through the overwhelming waters of our anger. Without them, it’s natural and easy to get swept away by its flood.
Ready for some help?
Interested in getting some help with acquiring some of these skills to navigate life? Reach out to us and we can help you to better understand yourself and regain a sense of power in your life and relationships.