A more adaptive, way to look at (and discuss) anger.

Have you ever needed to address the anger of yourself or another person and got resistance, justifications, or rationalizations whenever you opened a discussion on the issue?  Read on.

Anger is often portrayed as a negative emotion.  Not only is this portrayal incorrect but it is also potentially destructive as it implies that anger should be eliminated.

This is like saying that you should toss the smoke detector in your house because it sounds an alarm when you burn the toast or it wakes you up at night with that annoying chirp when the battery is low.

Anger is never a negative emotion.  It is always adaptive and should not be eliminated.

Let’s take a closer look at the concept of negative emotions.

Emotions as Tools

I maintain that there are no negative emotions. 

My reasoning has been that all the emotions are adaptive tools in that they provide us with actionable information we can use to improve our lives and our relationships.  Emotions as tools are neither positive or negative.  While you may get annoyed at it, your computer is neither positive or negative.  It is just a tool you need to learn how to use.

With emotions, you need to learn how to strategically deploy them and the information they provide.

Experiencing an Emotion

Emotions can also be viewed in terms of their hedonic quality. 

In other words, how is the emotion experienced?   Is it experienced as “good” (I like this feeling and want it to continue.) or as bad (This feeling sucks and I want it to end.) An emotion that feels “bad” tends to get incorrectly labelled as “negative” based on how it is experienced.

Emotions and Behavior

The function of emotions is to motivate us to take action.   As I illustrate in the Anger Mastery Cycle, our senses constantly scan our surroundings for threats.  When a threat is subconsciously perceived, the body automatically goes into fight or flight.

The emotion that you experience is linked to the perceived threat and automatically prepares you to deal with it.  This is the message of the emotion.  The actions you want to take should match the nature of the perceived threat.

Hence, when you are sad, the perceived threat is loss and you want to withdraw and recover. With anxiety, the threat is a future based something that might occur and you want to either escape from it (distress) or prepare for it (eustress).

This fight or flight process is very quick, happens outside of our immediate awareness (until we experience the emotion) and was designed to save our lives when we lived on the Savannah (or in caves).

Today, if the action our emotion motivates (not causes) us to take is seen as destructive, the emotion gets blamed for the behavior.


The message of anger is that you perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Anger prepares you for war.

Anger often gets labeled as “negative” because some people tend to do negative things when angry and then blame their anger.

Interestingly, anger (hedonically) feels good.  Anger is energizing.  We feel powerful and ready for action. It is the action we take that is often problematic.

Incidentally, this is the reason that men may choose to use anger as a secondary emotion.  Anger is substituted for emotions such as anxiety, vulnerability, hurt and guilt which do not feel good (are hedonically negative).

A Different approach: Constructive verses Destructive anger. 

I developed the Emotions as Tools Model because I needed a way to talk about feelings such as anger with the under-educated incarcerated teen age girls I was treating in therapy and the often jaded men and women correctional staff I was training to deal with the girls I was treating. What I learned in graduate school didn’t prepare me for these tasks. 

I needed a new model and the Emotions as Tools Model worked well.

And, it still does.  But, sometimes, a different approach might be useful.

From the perspective of talking about anger to others or understanding our own anger, the idea of constructive and destructive anger might help you open up a discussion.

Constructive anger moves us forward and is beneficial. 

Destructive anger elicits actions we later regret and wish had never occurred.

Anger, per se, remains just a tool that is used constructively or destructively. If you take a hammer and destroy a vase when you are pissed off, this is using the hammer destructively.  If you use the same hammer to build a house… I think you get the idea.

Let’s explore the idea of constructive anger in more detail.

Constructive anger is strategically deployed.

  • You have assessed the nature of the threat and determined it is valid
  • You use the motivational impact of your anger to propel you to take action.
  • You match the amount of anger force with the nature of the perceived threat. This is what it means to strategically deploy your anger.
  • You may use additional anger force, if necessary, to deal with the threat.

This is called assertion and escalation.

Destructive anger is problematic.

  • The actions you take when angry are either excessive given the threat or unnecessary in that no threat exists.
  • The anger is a substitute for another feeling (secondary anger).
  • Anger is used to manipulate others into taking the action you want them to do (instrumental anger).

Using this Approach

Your teenager, spouse, employee, or friend gets angry and does something they later either regret or make excuses for.  You need to address their actions but get resistance when you do.

Note: This discussion can also apply to you if you put up a wall whenever your anger (and behavior) are discussed.

Here is a way to open a discussion and avoid the resistance.

When you need to address your own anger or the anger of another person, talking about constructive and destructive anger enables you to discuss the topic of anger without placing blame or establishing responsibility. While you may have to address the issue of responsibility for one’s actions, it can be done at a later date once you have opened a dialog about constructive and destructive anger.

How helpful was this post?

I welcome your comments.

Managing vs Mastering Anger: Let’s clear up a misunderstanding.

And the judge said:

“Guilty! You are sentenced to 30 days in county jail and anger management classes!”

You see it in movies, on TV and in the newspapers.

Someone (usually a public figure or a celebrity) acts out inappropriately, goes to court, and gets sentenced to, among other punishments, Anger Management (emphasis added) classes.

This is one way that many people get introduced to the misuse of anger. The other way is by observing their own behavior. Observing the misuse of anger is responsible for maintaining belief in the anger myths. One myth says that anger is a dangerous emotion which should be eliminated. A second myth says that one should not get angry because there is always a negative outcome.

All the myths are false.

So, what is wrong with this scenario?

There are two implied assumptions behind anger management classes that are rarely acknowledged.

Two implied assumptions.

  1. The first implied assumption is that anger is like a wild animal that must be tamed, caged, controlled, and managed or it will turn a person into a wild robot who has no choice but to act out and hurt others.
  2. The second implied assumption is that this person’s behavior is caused by his out of control anger and that he needs to go to classes to learn how to regain control of his anger.

Both are incorrect and misleading.

The basic (misunderstood) facts.

Anger is just an emotion, the function of which is to prepare your body to fight off a perceived threat.  Anger is a motivator of action but does not cause any specific behavior

Each person is always responsible for the actions they take based on the decisions they make.  There are always options.

Those people who act out and get in trouble when they get angry represent only a small minority of people who get angry.  For the vast majority of people who get angry but who do not break the law, anger management as a general approach to dealing with anger falls short.  For these folks, anger mastery is a more fulfilling option.

The facts explained.

Anger is one of 6 primary emotions.

The other 5 are sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise.  While some writers say there are only 3 primary emotions and some say there are more, 6 is a standard widely agreed upon number.

Emotions have existed in humans since we lived on the Savannah and/or in caves and, it can be reasonably argued, are responsible for our survival as a species.

Here is how emotions worked when we were a very young species.

Our senses constantly scanned our surroundings for threats which, if not dealt with, would kill us.  All threats were survival threats. When a threat was perceived, a subconscious process was set in motion which involved a fast track message going to the Amygdala and from there to the Thalamus.  The Thalamus prepared the body for action. This is what you would want if your life depended on your reaction.

Each primary emotion elicited a different reaction based on the nature of the perceived threat.

Anger prepared us for war as the threat was perceived to be one we could eliminate by throwing enough force at it.  By contrast, disgust prepared us to move away from a threat which could harm us and fear prepared us to run away (or freeze) from a threat that would kill us.

Today, the same primitive reactive process still exists. However, the nature of the threats we face has changed. Most of the threats we face are psychological.  In addition, we now have the ability to respond to the threat.

As our brains grew and developed over eons, the cerebral cortex gave us the ability to assess the nature of the threat and choose a response. So, while a fast track message still goes to the Amygdala for fight or flight, a slower track message goes to the cerebral cortex and gives us options.

Revisiting the original implied assumptions:

  1. While anger autonomously prepares us to take action relative to the perceive threat, it does not force us to take a specific action.  Anger is a tool we need to learn to use not a wild horse we need to break.
  2. The cerebral cortex always gives us an option to choose the actions we take relative to the perceived threat.  Consequently, we are always responsible for what we do. 

By the way, the perpetrator who hurts others and blames his (or her) anger is trying to avoid taking personal responsibility for their actions so blaming the anger is an easy out.

The statement: “If I wasn’t angry, I wouldn’t have done (xyz).” may very well be true.  The implication that the anger made him do it is always false. Unfortunately, this distinction is often not recognized.

Managing versus Mastering an emotion:

Managing anger involves lowering your level of physiological arousal by taking a breath or using relaxation techniques.

This is fine as far as it goes.

However, while the anger management folks concede that anger is a natural emotion, it is viewed as the cause of the behavior and the focus of treatment.

This is where most anger management classes often fall short.

To be fair, good anger management classes will teach you ways to develop empathy and build trust and to use good communication and conflict resolution skills.

This is excellent. But, I maintain, for many people it doesn’t go far enough.

I believe there is a place for anger management skills. But, I believe you should learn to master your anger as a tool.

In my Amazon best seller book, Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, I discuss the Anger Mastery Cycle. You can download a copy of the Anger Mastery Cycle by scrolling up to the welcome post on this blog.

The Anger Mastery Cycle does not demonize anger.  Anger is viewed only as a tool which provides information about one’s surroundings. As a tool, anger can be mastered so that it works for you. The Anger Mastery Cycle includes the assumption that you are always responsible for how you use your anger as a tool.

The Anger Mastery Cycle starts with you constantly, and subconsciously, scanning your surroundings for threat. When you perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate by throwing enough force at it, you experience anger and your body automatically goes into fight mode.

This is the fast track primitive reactive process I noted above.

Once you recognize that you are angry by knowing how your body alerts you to this emotion (your physical correlates), the Anger Mastery Cycle suggests that you create some “space” between you and the threat.

This takes us into anger management.

Creating space serves to protect you both physically and psychologically. By taking a step backwards (physical space), you protect yourself and you communicate to the person who you are angry at or who is angry at you that a moment of reflection is needed.

The skills you learned in your Anger Management classes to lower your arousal level serve to create some psychological space. Psychological space is needed to give your cerebral cortex some time to kick in so that you can decide how you want to respond rather than react.

This is where we move into anger mastery.

The anger mastery process begins with assessing, or validating the nature of the threat.

The perceived threat may be genuine in which case action to eliminate the threat is justified.

Or, the original perception of threat is not accurate and something else is precipitating your anger.

When you realize there is no threat, your anger should subside. If you are still angry and there is no threat, you are either using your anger as a secondary emotion or you are using anger instrumentally.

Anger mastery includes but goes beyond anger management in its conceptualization of anger as a tool that can be understood and utilized in different ways.  The skill sets which comprise emotional intelligence imply an anger mastery approach to this emotion.

For some people, managing their anger may be the best they can do. These folks may not be very emotionally intelligent and may not be able to move beyond a behavior-focused concrete approach to anger. And, they may not do well in anger management classes.

For others, however, mastering their anger gives them an understanding of what anger is and provides more options for dealing with their own anger and anger directed at them.

I value your comments on the above.


Your emotional toolkit.

As I have discussed before, the most adaptive way to conceptualize and think about your feelings is to view them as tools.  This metaphor not only accurately describes the way emotions “work” (as tools to accomplish a specific task) in your brain and body but also allows you to demystify emotions in general.  When you view emotions as tools, it is easier for you to realize both that the tool (your feeling) doesn’t control you and that you can learn to master the tool to get the most out of what it was “designed” (by evolution) to do.

Emotions are experienced as happening very quickly and, therefore, seem to have a life of their own.  This is how you would want emotions to work if your life depended on an emotional reaction to a survival threat.  A good example is the emotion of fear (not anxiety).

Based on this experience, however, many people tend to (incorrectly) believe that their emotions control them.

But, think about it.  While you may have some challenges getting your smart phone or TV remote to do what you want, you never complain that the phone “made” you upset, controlled you in any way, or acted upon you in some autonomous manner. The phone or remote is just a tool.  You control (or not) it and not vice versa.

You have, however, probably said (or heard someone say) “You made me angry.”(Someone else has absolute power over you.) or “I wouldn’t have (fill in the blank) if I hadn’t been so angry.”(Your anger has absolute control over you.)

Your emotions were “designed” by evolution as tools to do a specific task. My goal, with my books and posts, is to help you learn what the task of each emotion is and how to master each emotion as a tool.

That being said, let’s carry the analogy another step forward.

And, by the way, while it may be applied differently, the information in this post is useful to both men and women

If you are like me, you have a tool kit, tool bag, or some collection of familiar tools in your shop, your car, your kitchen, or some other easily accessible place.  While the specific tools you have in your kit will vary with the job your set of tools is designed to help you do, let’s look at a standard household tool kit.

The kit probably contains a hammer, a pair of standard pliers, two screw drivers (both Flathead and Phillips), a tape measure and so forth. These are basic tools which will allow you to do most of the repair jobs that come up. You may also have some “specialized” tools like different size screw drivers (tiny for your glasses or small parts of your sewing machine) a rubber mallet,needle nose pliers, power tools and so forth.

You set up your toolkit to be there for you when something requires your attention because it needs to be fixed.

Have you ever been faced with a job that required a tool you didn’t have and you either tried to use the tools you did have to do the job or you gave up?

For instance, you needed to fix the side of a piece of furniture or cabinet and, where you should have used a rubber mallet (which you didn’t have), you used your regular hammer and left a dent. Or, you tried to use a Flathead screwdriver and stripped the Phillips head screw.

Or, you couldn’t get your cell phone or TV remote to do what you wanted and just gave up.

Now, while the analogy isn’t perfect, it can be informative. So, please, allow me a bit of leeway here.

You also have a “standard” emotional tool kit which would include all the basic emotions you are used to experiencing including  anger, sad, happy, anxiety, surprise, vulnerability, fear, and disgust.

Unlike the physical toolkit we spoke about above, all the emotions are somewhere in your emotional toolkit.  However, while they are all there and you can learn to access them, you may not experience most of them. For example, you might not experience Guilt, Envy or Jealousy but they are there. And, the emotion of Shadenfreude (feeling pleasure about the discomfort of another) is also in there but would be invisible to you unless you spoke German as there is no English equivalent.

Let’s look at some of your basic emotional tools and what they do.


Anger, as a tool alerts you to a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.

The proper use of this tool is to assess the nature of the threat your anger has alerted you to and, if it is a valid threat, use the energy of the tool to motivate you to make a plan and eliminate the threat. This may be the tool you use the most.

Anger prepares you to go to war.

There are three main issues with anger.

You might deploy your anger when no real threat exists as that you might have misjudged the threat. You have misunderstood what tool is needed and just grabbed a familiar one from your tool kit.

You might not be able to use your anger directly because the environment in which the threat occurred either does not tolerate the expression of anger in general or specifically denies you the expression of anger because of your gender, status, or color. You have a hammer but you can’t use it because it is too heavy, too big, or not the right material for the situation.

You are deploying your anger as a secondary emotion.  In this case, it is the wrong tool for the job but it is the only tool you feel comfortable using.


Anxiety is a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a threat out there that MAY harm you.

The proper use of this emotional tool is to check out how valid the future threat is and use the energy of the tool to motivate you to prepare for what is out there. This is anxiety as “eustress”.  When you use the energy of your anxiety about an upcoming speech you have to give to prepare yourself, this is using your anxiety as a tool to move you forward.

Many people, however, experience anxiety as distress and get stuck. This is a misuse of this emotion.  Anxiety, as distress, reacts as if the perceived (possible) threat is both inevitable and that there is no way to avoid being harmed by it. I’ve discussed the process of catastrophising as a worst case anxiety scenario in a previous post.


The message of vulnerability is that a weakness of yours may be exposed.

The proper use of vulnerability as a tool depends on the circumstances. Being vulnerable in a relationship and sharing your concerns can enhance the relationship. Women, in general, may be better at using vulnerability as a tool.

Men, in general, tend to misuse the feeling of vulnerability because of a belief that weakness is to be avoided.  Instead of examining the perceived weakness and whether it has any merit, men will tend to express anger to cover up feeling of vulnerability. This is anger as a secondary emotion.

The next step is to look at your emotional toolkit.

  • Are you familiar with the emotions you typically use, the information they provide, and the best way to master them?
  • Do you have the right tools to match the interactions you have with others?
  • What information do you need to get in order to make you better at mastering your emotional tools?

I welcome your comments.

Is anger an “objective” term? Yes and No.

This is a question someone asked on Quora.com and as I hadn’t really thought of anger in this way, I decided to address it.

YES    Anger, as an emotion, is an objective term as it can be as it can be clearly and “objectively” defined. We tend to think of anger only as an objective term and as I will discuss below, this can be problematic.

NO Anger  as experienced and expressed by an individual is a subjective term because how you experience and express your anger is very “subjective”, or unique, to you.


Anger, as an emotion is one of the 6 primary emotions “discovered” by Paul Ekman. These emotions are mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise. All of them can be seen across human cultures and in some subhuman species. If you have kids, you have learned to recognize these emotions in your kid’s faces when they were too young to think about, or subjectively configure what they were feeling.

With the exception of glad and surprise, all of the primary emotions are primitive threat detectors the evolutionary function of which is to alert us to the presence of a threat and subconsciously prepare our bodies to deal with the threat. You can think of emotions as tools. I have written about this emotional process in my first Amazon best selling book entitled Emotions As Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings. You can download the first chapter of this book by scrolling up to the Welcome post on this blog with no opt-in.

When a person is subconsciously alerted to a threat through the Amygdala and the Thalamus and experiences anger, he or she is “set up” to REACT to the anger. With anger, we are set up to go to war.  When we were living in caves, this was a good thing and helped insure our survival.


There are two aspects to anger as a subjective term.

The first is how you experience anger physically.

How does your body alert you to the emotion of anger?  This is important information to have as your “physical correlates” of anger are the first indicator to you that you are getting angry.  I have included several checklists to help you identify how your body reacts in anger in my first Amazon best selling book Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Emotions.  You can download the first two chapters to this book by scrolling up to the top of the blog.

The second aspect of anger as a subjective term is how you respond when you are angry.

Today, we have a choice about how we want to RESPOND to a perceived threat because our nervous system alerts our cerebral cortex (thinking part of the brain) about the situation we are facing.

While our brain automatically sets us up to react, the threats you face today are psychological not survival based. How you choose to respond to the threat is highly subjective and can either be adaptive and useful or maladaptive and problematic.

There are three general subjective responses to anger.

The first personal subjective response to anger is to go with the anger rather than learn to master it.  It this tendency to go to war without really assessing the nature of the threat that has given anger a bad reputation. This choice can get a person in trouble in that it leads them to blame their anger for their inappropriate behavior. They feel their anger controls them and do not take personal responsibility for their actions. This may not feel like a choice but it is. In addition, this choice is very maladaptive in that it does not work to the advantage of the angry person

The second personal objective response to anger is to master the anger as I discuss in my current Amazon best seller book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.  By the way, you can download the first chapter of this book for free with no opt-in by scrolling up to the top of the blog.

The choice to master your anger is adaptive because it takes into consideration what is happening in the situation, what your strengths and weaknesses are and what works best for you and the other person.

A third personal subjective response is to use anger as a secondary emotion.  This is dishonest anger as the anger is used to cover up other feelings such as anxiety, vulnerability, sadness, hurt and so forth.  While the emotion looks and feels like anger, there is not obvious threat and the “angry” person knows the emotion is a cover-up.

Problems can arise when we treat anger as if it is always an objective term. This implies that anger is the same for everyone. With the exception of anger as a secondary emotion, it is true that everyone who gets angry perceives a threat. But, and this is the important part, how a person defines, perceives, and responds to that threat is highly subjective.

When we deal with another person who is angry, we need to find out how they are subjectively responding to the situation.  We can use this information to develop our response to them.

As always, I welcome your comments.