The message of anger: It is more than just the perception of threat.

In an earlier post, I noted that all of the primary emotions, with the exception of glad (happiness) and surprise, were primitive threat detectors designed by evolution to insure our survival as a species.  The “job” of these primitive emotions was, and is, to alert us to the presence of, prepare our bodies to deal with, and motivate us to take any action necessary to eliminate the perceived threat. This is the fast track message from the senses to the amygdala. Each emotion has a different message.

Remember that the message of anger is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  You see yourself in a situation where you, your values, your physical body, and so forth are vulnerable and you are prepared to go to war.

While this is true, there is a deeper component to the emotional message of anger that, while often overlooked, is crucial to both understanding and mastering emotion.  This is the cognitive component of moral judgement.

Here is how it works..

You get angry at something someone has done but you may not know what is it about their actions that has elicited your anger.  I say elicited and not “caused” as it is your perceptions of the situation that are the underlying cause of your emotions). The primary component underlying your anger is the perception of threat. Their actions have put something important to you at risk. You believe that your beliefs, your values, your goals, or your physical person are being attacked and are vulnerable and that they need to be defended.

Two other components underlying your anger is your perception that the other person’s action are:

  • wrong (You judge what they have done as violating your values.)


  • intentional (You believe that they have chosen to do what they did.).

Both of these elements are critical to anger.

If the other person’s actions are inappropriate or unlikable but not, in your judgement, wrong, you might choose to avoid the other person or comment on the behavior but there is no threat and, therefore, no anger.

If what the other person does is accidental, they are not aware of the impact their actions have had, or they are not directly responsible, for some reason, for what they have done, you might not like what they did and you may take action to correct it, but you do not interpret their actions as a choice they have made or as a threat and you are not angry.

Let’s take the example of someone who knocks over and breaks a lamp in your living room.

If the lamp goes down because that person accidentally hits it or because he, or she, is roughhousing with your kid and gets too close to the lamp, you may chide the person for being careless but you don’t hold onto or stay angry at them (If you get angry at all.). There is no threat to your values, you may think his actions are wrong because the lamp is broken, but there was no intention to break the lamp.

If, however, the person has consumed too much alcohol and angrily kicked the table with the lamp on it to “make a point”, “blow off some steam”, or avoid hitting you, your sense of right and wrong has been violated (the threat), a good lamp has inappropriately  been broken (His actions are wrong.), and he (or she) is directly responsible for what they did (He “chose”  to drink too much.).  All three components are in place and you are angry.

In both cases, the lamp has been broken but your feelings are different because of the intentions or underlying motives of the person who broke it.

A second example is that your boss publishes your work under his (or her) name. You get angry because taking credit for your work is a threat to and violates your sense of right and wrong and you know that your boss intentionally did not give you credit in the published report.

So how do you use this information to master your anger?

In my earlier post on anxiety, I talked about V.E.M.A (validate, examine, motivate, and act) as anti-anxiety techniques.  V.E.M.A. is a simplified, easy to remember, formula for dealing with all the primary emotions including anger. While I will discuss the whole (a bit more involved) anger mastery cycle in future posts, for now, let’s focus on V.E.M.A.

When you experience the anger, your first step (V) is to validate your emotion by acknowledging to yourself that you are angry and if your initial perceptions are correct, your anger is appropriate. You are giving yourself permission to be angry.  You have not yet decided what action to take.

What you do depends on the nature of the threat. This is the (E) examination step. Here is where the components of your anger perception are relevant.  If there is any  ambiguity or uncertainty regarding what the other person has done, you will need to determine if your initial perception that they have intentionally acted inappropriately is correct or you have misunderstood what, and why, they did what they did.

If you decide that they did choose to engage in behavior which is wrong, then the the perceived action is, indeed, intentional.  Thus, the action is a threat, is wrong and was intentional. You choose to remain angry and you can then use the energy of your anger to (M) motivate you to (A) take action.

I welcome your comments.

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