Anger: A Review

Anger is a powerful emotion.   And, it is highly misunderstood.

Some basic concepts about emotions…

The words emotion and feeling mean the same thing.

  • Anger is an emotion and all human emotions are tools which you can use to improve and gain control over your life.
  • We are born with primary emotions including mad (anger), sad, glad (happy), fear, disgust, surprise and interest. These feelings are tools that our ancestors used to survive.
  • Just like the tools in your kitchen (the stove, specific pots, the thermometer, and the microwave), the tools in your office (the computer, the telephone, and the printer), and the tools in your garage (your car, the hammer, and the washer and dryer), each emotional tool has a specific purpose and serves you best when it is appropriately used.
  • Your eyes, nose and skin are sensors which, like radar, scan your environment. Your emotions inform you about what your senses have picked up. This is the message of your emotion. Your feelings also prepare you to take action and give you the opportunity to choose whether you want to do something about the situation facing you or ignore it.

The truth about emotions…

  • Your emotions are your first line of defense against threat.
  • Your senses first register a possible threat.

For example, you are on a hike in the woods and you see a snake on the path in front of you. The information from your eyes is picked up by a part of your brain called the amygdala which registers the threat and causes you to freeze in your tracks. This is done without any thought on your part as your survival may be at stake. The job of your brain is to keep you alive.

You want this reaction to happen automatically if your life is really on the line.

  • You REACT to your primary emotions the same way your ancestor, Mr. Caveman, reacted to his basic emotions.

When threatened by a predator (animal or human), here is what happened to Mr. Caveman…

  1. He got angry
  2. He made menacing facial and verbal expressions.
  3. Adrenalin rushed through his body.
  4. He was ready to fight for his survival.

When you get angry, the same process occurs, and you are ready to fight for your survival.

The problem is that, while the threat to Mr. Caveman was always real and his survival was at stake, with most modern threats your survival is rarely at risk.

You create the emotion you feel.

A short time after the amygdala receives its information from the eyes, the thinking part of your brain, the cerebral cortex, picks up the information and gives you the opportunity to evaluate how real the threat is. If you decide that the threat is real, the emotion you feel will reflect the nature of the threat you have decided exists. If there is no threat, there is no emotion. When you realize that the snake is really a tree branch, you calm down.

Your emotions are the result of the thoughts you have about your situation. You create your thoughts and the feelings follow

Because your feelings come from your thoughts about your situation, reading your feelings tells you how you perceive what is happening to you.

For example: Your anger tells you that you see a threat that you can eliminate if you throw enough power at it. The threat may be to your safety, your body, your values, your finances, your goals, or your ego. Your anger tells you that you need to evaluate the true nature of the threat.

The actions you take are based on this evaluation and are your response to the situation. Acting without this evaluation is called a reaction and will often get you in trouble.

A basic misconception about anger..

  • People or situations make you angry.

Fact: You make you angry.

I know this is a tough one for most of us to accept so we can take a closer look and use a traffic jam as an example.

If you are in a hurry to get somewhere, you will get upset or even angry at the traffic. If, however, you have all the time in the world, your favorite artist is on the radio and your car and the air conditioning are both working great, you will tend to sit back and let the moment pass. The same situation, the traffic, results in two completely different emotional responses.

If the traffic jam made you angry, it would affect everyone the same way.

The sun makes us hot. It affects everyone the same way and what we think about it is irrelevant.

The truth about anger..

  • The message of anger is that you believe you are facing a threat that you can eliminate if throw enough power at it.
  • When angry, your body prepares you to either fight off the threat or run away from it.
  • Anger causes you to focus your attention and your energy on the perceived threat. Your thinking is directed to how you can deal with the threat you see.
  • Being prepared in this way to deal with the threat is very healthy if the threat is real

Real threats involve significant risk to your life, your goals, your core values, your finances, your property, or your family.

It is the anger that gets blamed for the aggression that angry people engage in. In truth, it is the misjudgement about the nature of the threat that leads these people to REACT with aggression when the actual level of risk calls for some other, less offensive, RESPONSE.

  • Managing your anger involves CONTROL and is only a first step.
  • Mastering anger goes anger management and involves assessing the nature of the threat, choosing an adaptive response,  and focusing the energy of the anger to eliminate the threat.

Three anger mastery  techniques you can use today as soon as you notice you are getting angry…

I. Take a deep breath before you take any other action.

What does this do?

Taking a deep breath does two important things:

  • First of all, it has a calming effect on you.
  • Secondly, it gives you an extra second or two for your cortex to kick in so you can evaluate the nature of the threat.

II. Evaluate the nature of the threat.

What does this do?

Evaluating the nature of the threat allows you to choose a response that fits the situation rather than react to your first impression which may not be correct if there really is no threat.

Take a moment to ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is at risk?
  2. How real is the threat?

For example:

  • Will the traffic jam I am stuck in kill me, my goals, or my core values?
  • While I do not want to stay at work, what are the life or death consequences at stake when my boss tells me that I have to work overtime?

III. CHOOSE the RESPONSE that best fits the nature of the threat.

If the risk is to your life, your core values, or your primary goals, you have only one choice

  • Use all the power provided by your anger that you need to overcome the threat.

Note: You can always choose what means you will use to eliminate the threat.

If the threat is not significant, you have three choices:

  • Choose an action that deals with the situation as it is.
  • Choose to walk away from the situation.
  • Choose to let it pass by ignoring it.

Choosing your response based on your evaluation is using your anger as a tool to interact with your environment. This is mastering your anger.

I welcome your comments.

Anger Mastery: Respond, do not react when using your emotions as tools

Think about the last time you got angry.

Maybe, you were driving and another driver cut in front of you.

If you immediately got angry, gave him, or her, the one-finger salute, or used language you would not want your five year old to repeat, it is safe to say that you reacted to the situation.

The emotions as tools model teaches you to use your emotions to gain control over your life. In other words, your emotions are tools that inform you about your world and help you to become more effective in the actions
you choose to take.

The critical word here is “choose”.

When you choose what you want to do, you respond to what is happening.

There is personal power in responding.

When you act without thinking, you are reacting.

Reacting often leads to regret for having done something you later wish you had avoided.

As tools, each emotion communicates a message about how you perceive the situation you are in.

The message of anger, according to the emotions as tools model, is that you have perceived a threat that you believe you can remove, defeat, or eliminate by throwing enough energy at it to overpower it. You viewed the actions of the other driver as a threat and you IMMEDIATELY threw your energy into overpowering the threat. In other words, you reacted.

So, what was the threat you perceived? Was it to your safety, your sense of driving etiquette, your ego?

Even if there was a genuine threat, how much did the action(s) you took help to improve the situation?

A second example..

I was at the airport recently and there were long lines at the counter. I observed a man who was loudly complaining and becoming increasingly more angry every time he looked up at the screen announcing the flight information. When it was his turn, he focused all of his energy on the clerk. She apologized to him for his inconvenience and said that
there was nothing she could do about his cancelled flight.

This was an emotional reaction that reflected the degree of energy behind the anger but was totally ineffective in resolving the “threat” to his travel plans.

A few minutes later, this same clerk was approached by a passenger who effectively utilized her anger and responded to the situation. She acknowledged that the situation was not the clerk’s fault, stated her need to get home as soon as possible, and noted that she would appreciate anything the clerk could do. The clerk responded in kind by making
a few phone calls and securing a flight out of the airport.

This passenger responded to her anger and chose a course of action that was appropriate to the situation.

Responding-Not Reacting

* is acting impulsively
* does not involve any reflection upon or thinking about your situation
* is usually ineffective in eliminating the threat
* typically results in your doing something you later regret or need to correct (as in offer an apology)
* may often make the situation worse

* is acting effectively
* always involves thinking about your situation
* requires weighing your options
* allows you to choose the best action to take
* results in the threat being eliminated or at least weakened

The three important functions anger, as an emotional tool, performs for you:
1. Anger informs you that you face a threat.
2. Anger alerts you to the need to think about what action you can take to eliminate the threat.
3. Anger gives you an opportunity to choose the best response to handle the threat.

When you respond to your anger, you empower yourself and you effectively utilize your emotions.

I welcome your comments.

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.