This is the second of two posts addressing three possible explanations for the experience of feeling angry when there is no reason to be angry. In my last post, I discussed the first two possibilities. In this post, I discuss possibility #3 and give some additional suggestions for actions you could take if this experience applies to you.
3. It feels like anger but isn’t.
a. Anger as a secondary emotion.
Sometimes men (more so than women) will express anger when there is no immediate threat. When this happens, anger is a secondary emotion. It feels, and looks like, anger but isn’t.
There are at least two reasons why anger is expressed as a secondary emotion.
The first is that men, in our culture, are very familiar with and, in most cases, comfortable with the emotion of anger. They are less familiar with emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and vulnerability. As a result, a man who feels vulnerable may express anger to cover over this other, uncomfortable, feeling.
Secondly, and similar to the above, anger is an empowering emotion which is experienced as energizing. Other feelings such as anxiety, sadness and vulnerability are experienced as uncomfortable and weak. Because of this, anger may be expressed as a secondary emotion in order to avoid discomfort.
b. Anger as an instrumental emotion.
When we lived in caves, our display of anger communicated to others that we were not to be messed with and should be left alone. In caveman times, this anger display might have saved our lives.
Fast forward to today. You are walking down the street and you see a person who is obvious angry and is loudly ranting and raving. You probably will do what you can to avoid this person.
Because of the nature of anger, it is possible to use anger to manipulate others into doing what you want in order to avoid having to deal with, or be subjected to, your anger.
When anger is used as an instrument to manipulate others, it is called instrumental anger. It looks like anger but there is not threat so it is not valid anger. If you are not aware that you are using anger instrumentally, you may experience yourself as getting angry for “no reason”.
The antidote to all three of the above explanations is mastering your anger.
The Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC), a copy of which you can download by clicking on the link to the right of your screen, visually depicts the anger process and covers both valid (primary) anger and invalid (substituted) anger.
Once you have become aware that you are angry, the AMC indicates that you need to “assess/validate” your angry reaction. In this step, you are engaging your cerebral cortex to determine whether a threat exists or not.
This will take some practice but I have given you some guidelines which should help focus your attention on what it is you are looking for in your assessment.
Possible arenas of threat include your goals, your sense of right and wrong, the way you think things “should” be, your values, your ego, your family, your finances, etc. The next time you get angry, take a breath, take a step back from what is going on, and ask yourself “What is being threatened?”
As soon as you become aware of your anger,
- Take a deep breath
- Next, take a physical step backwards from the situation.
- Then, just observe for a moment what is going on. Consider both your own perceptions and the feedback you are getting from others. In this step, you need avoid getting defensive (not easy to do but doable with practice) and remain open to the possibility that what others are telling may be correct.
If you can ID a threat, great. You can choose how you want to proceed. In this case, you really are angry for a reason.
If you are unable to ID a threat, no problem. You may be angry “for no reason” and you have options.
- You can walk away and revisit the situation later.
- You can apologize to the other person.
- You can learn about what anger might be when it isn’t anger including anger as a substitute for other feelings such as anxiety, guilt, or sadness and anger as an instrumental emotion which is designed to manipulate another person.
The bottom line here is that you need to learn to always validate your anger as it is an important emotional tool that provides you with information. Validating, or accepting your anger does not mean that you have a valid reason for your anger.
Sometimes, you will be angry for a reason and sometimes you will be angry for no reason. The goal is to learn the difference.
One issue is that the information your anger gives you, while based on your perceptions, may be incorrect because you have misperceived what is going on. Explanation 1 and 2 covered this and I gave you some ideas about what you can do.
The second issue is substituting anger for other feelings or intent. This is explanation 3. Becoming aware that this is how you are using anger requires that you be honest and open with yourself, get feedback (and help) from others, and work on developing new emotional habits.
Over time, you will become more adept at recognizing threats, when they exist.
I welcome your comments.