What to do when it feels like anger but isn’t.

In my most recent Amazon Best Seller Book, Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, I discuss the Anger Mastery Cycle.

The Anger Mastery Cycle:

By the way, you can download a copy of the Anger Mastery Cycle by scrolling up to the top of the page, looking over to the Right hand side of the page and clicking on the “Anger Mastery Cycle PDF”.

Once you have labelled the emotion you are experiencing as anger and moved into anger management which involves lowering your arousal and creating both physical and psychological distance between you and the perceived threat, you can then move into anger mastery.

You master your anger when you take a moment to assess and validate the nature of the threat.

There are only two options here:

  • You are expressing anger and there is a genuine threat.
  • You are expressing anger but there is no threat.

If the threat is genuine and your initial perception is accurate, you stay angry and you choose how you will respond to the threat.

If you are angry and there is no threat, there are three possibilities:

  1. You have misunderstood or misperceived the situation in which you find yourself
  2. You are using anger as a secondary emotion
  3. You are using anger as an instrumental emotion

If you have misunderstood or misperceived the situation, you can change your thoughts about what the interaction in which you find yourself. When you do this, the anger goes away because there is no threat.  This is what you want to do when your understanding of an interaction changes.

Secondary and Instrumental Anger

This is the real focus of this post.

Both secondary and instrumental anger look like valid anger but do not function as valid anger.  There are at least three reasons for this.

  1. Definition:

Valid anger is an emotion, the function of which is to alert you and prepare you to deal with a threat you believe you can eliminate.

Secondary anger is an emotion that is deployed to substitute for another emotion you would rather not feel

Instrumental anger is deployed as a blunt force instrument designed to manipulate another person into doing what you want them to do.

2. Threat:

With valid anger, there is an observable threat.

With  both secondary and instrumental anger, there may not be an observable threat to your goals, physical integrity, or basic values.

3. Function:

The function of valid anger is to prepare you for battle.

The function of secondary anger is to insulate you from experiencing uncomfortable emotions.

The function of instrumental anger is compensate for inadequate social skills and facilitate you getting your way.

Some explanation:

Anger, by evolutionary design, is a powerful emotion.  This is true in both how we experience anger and in how our anger is experienced by those with whom we interact.

This is the key to understanding secondary and instrumental anger.

Secondary, or substitute, anger.

For men, primarily, emotions such as hurt, anxiety, and guilt are experienced as uncomfortable. With these emotions,  a man can experience himself as vulnerable, exposed and even weak. Vulnerability and exposure, while part of the message of hurt, anxiety and guilt which can be utilized to master these emotions, typically elicits a desire to avoid these uncomfortable emotions. Men are not used to these feelings.

Anger, on the other hand, elicits a feeling of power.  When angry, men are prepared to take on the world and go to war.  In addition, men are socialized to experience and are usually comfortable with anger.

Consequently, a man is motivated to substitute anger for feelings of hurt, anxiety and guilt. Hence, anger as a  secondary emotion.

  • The upside of secondary anger is that a man can avoid uncomfortable feelings.
  • The downside of secondary anger is that it is dishonest and that it prevents its user from dealing with the issues at hand about which the adaptive emotions of hurt, anxiety and guilt are alerting him and attempting to prepare him to address.

Instrumental, dishonest, or manipulative, anger.

Anger, by evolutionary design, prepared us to deal with a survival based threat. We were set up for fight or flight.

Well, “fighting”, which involves confrontation, can take many forms.  We can go to war and physically engage the aggressor. Or, we can display our superior force and hope the aggressor backs off or disengages.

  • You see this in movies where an aggressor assesses the armies of an enemy and decides whether armed aggression will be successful or not.
  • You can see it when you look at videos of “aggressive facial expressions of  pacific islanders”.
  • And,  you can see it in news stories of people backing away from someone on the street who appears to be angry and aggressive.

Anger, with its accompanying facial and physical expressions, communicates the message that you are a formidable and powerful individual who should not be messed with. Our cave dwelling ancestors may have lived to fight another day if their display of anger “convinced” a marauding predator to leave and go somewhere else.

Based on this function of anger, men, more so than women but women as well, can use a display of anger to manipulate another person to change their behavior and conform in order to avoid the wrath of the “angry” person.

Please note that I am not talking about the display of valid anger.  If there is a valid threat, you experience and display anger, and the threat is neutralized, you have mastered your anger. This is honest, or valid, anger.

However, when you are not angry because there is no valid threat and you display anger because you know the other person will submit to you, then you are using anger to manipulate that person. You are using anger as an instrument to accomplish a specific end.  This is dishonest or manipulative anger.

Hence, it is instrumental anger.

Your next step

If your goal is to master your own anger or the anger of another person, the most important question you can ask, in the presence of anger, is this: “What is the perceived threat?”

If you are using anger as secondary or instrumental emotion, it will become clear to you that there either is no significant threat or that you are experiencing an uncomfortable or unfamiliar feeling informing you that an issue you are facing person needs to be addressed.

  • Hurt: Someone has done something that leaves you feeling interpersonally wounded or damaged and you need to address this with them.
  • Anxiety: There is a future possible threat that you need to evaluate and possibly prepare to confront.
  • Guilt: You have done something wrong that you need to take responsibility for and move to address and make right.
  • Manipulation: You are using anger to manipulate another person either because anger seems more efficient in the moment or you lack either the power or the interpersonal skills to interact with this person and facilitate their changing their behavior.

Once you identify your anger that isn’t anger, you can choose to approach the situation in which you find yourself in a different manner.

You might have to acquire some new skill sets to do this.  But, it can be done.

If the secondary or instrumental anger is being displayed by someone elce, questioning the nature of the threat should begin the process of understanding and mastering their anger for your and their benefit.  Just be aware that a man covering up feelings of vulnerability with secondary may not be willing to give up his cover.

I welcome your comments.



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