If you often feel angry with other people it’s likely you feel threatened by them, maybe without realising it. The ‘without realising it’ part is what many people struggle to understand and therefore get stuck when trying to feel less angry day to day. This article explains why anger is usually a symptom of fear, why it’s hard for many people to understand this and how reflection on thoughts and emotions can help with persistent anger issues.
Anger is one of our three potential biological responses to danger, the ‘fight’ response. When we get angry our bodies release hormones into our blood and send neural (nervous system) signals making us temporarily stronger, faster, more alert and more focused on what has made us angry. We may get angry when we sense real or imagined threat. In other words when we’re angry, we are really afraid (or at least, feel we are in danger) even though we don’t necessarily experience fear at the time we are angry. If we are very angry we are very aware of it. But a lot of the time, we are only a little angry and not so aware of it.
We don’t necessarily know we are afraid (or angry) because emotions can occur in various strengths. When an emotion is very weak, we often experience it as thoughts without being aware of the emotion that has generated them for example, ‘Oh I wish you wouldn’t do that’ or ‘Not this again!’. Sometimes people also describe weak anger in terms of what they would do in response to it for example if asked ‘How would you feel if someone smelly sat next to you on the train?’ They might respond, ‘Oh I would move,’ or, ‘I would ask them to move.’ They may not say, ‘I would feel angry.’ The anger in this case is so low level it instantly translates into thoughts and actions and the person may never experience much noticeable physical change in state or ‘arousal’
Language has many words to describe the level and actual personal experience of anger because just saying ‘anger’ doesn’t necessarily describe the full experience; it doesn’t describe how much anger, what the likely response to it might have been; it just doesn’t capture the experience fully. Annoyance, furiousness, irritation, vexation, feeling miffed and aggravation are all expressions indicating various levels and personal experiences of plain old anger and also communicating likely reasonable responses to it. If you say to someone you are furious with them, they know they have upset you a lot. If you say you are annoyed with them, they know they haven’t upset you much and in both cases, they have a choice of altering their responses to you in accordance with your mood.
Anger feels different in different situations and at different levels. If you feel annoyed or slightly irritated, you might experience a slight tightening of your face, you might snort or ‘exhale disgustedly’ but overall remain calm and try to alleviate the cause of your irritation in a thoughtful way. You may even opt to simply accept the cause of your irritation knowing it will soon go away. If on the other hand you feel furious, your heart might beat faster, your cheeks could flush and your muscles may tense. You might shout, or even physically lash out. Even though all these responses feel different and come with a range of different behaviours they are all based on the same emotion, anger. Psychotherapists and people who have had significant engagement in psychotherapy are highly trained to be aware of their emotions as they happen, even if their emotions are not very strong. These people are able if necessary to quickly reflect on their experience, cut through the thoughts and possible actions their emotions generate and describe their experience in its simplest emotional form (anger, fear, hate, love, happiness, sadness etc). People who are less used to reflecting on their day to day experiences tend to work more with the thoughts and actions than the feelings for example their thoughts might be ‘I don’t want to go to work today because someone has been talking about me behind my back and I don’t like them’ (notice how the language subtly expresses the sense of threat and the angry rejection of the source of it but also the fearful withdrawal from the entire situation). What is more likely to be going on during the few milliseconds it takes to have that thought might be more accurately expressed as, ‘I am afraid to go to work because someone has been talking about me behind my back and I’m angry with them for gossiping and afraid everyone else has listened to and believed them’. For most people the former ‘shorthand’ way of making sense of our interpersonal experiences is healthy and all that’s necessary to conduct interpersonal relationships.
Functioning mainly using thoughts and actions with emotions automatically managing themselves in the unconscious or at such low levels as to be out of conscious awareness becomes unhealthy if a person grew up with a bad model of the world or has at some point been exposed to serious threat for too long. In both cases, the person begins to see threat around them where there may not be any. Because a person’s way of relating to other people is very ingrained and automatic, it can be hard for them to see it’s them experiencing the threat from someone else rather than generating the sense of threat unnecessarily inside themselves. When a person experiences threat in this way, they will defend themselves against what they see as threatening and a common defence is anger.
Often in their lives though, such people have some natural ability to reflect on their ‘inner experience’ and compare it to ‘the outside reality’. They may begin to realise they are unnecessarily angry with the people around them and that the people around them aren’t actually a threat (or ‘out to get them’). At an even simpler level, it isn’t pleasant to feel angry and if someone feels angry a lot, they are unlikely to be enjoying life much and may begin to wonder if there’s a more contented way of being. Either of these realisation can be emotionally painful because the person may feel responsible, guilty and regretful at how they have treated others in the past when feeling unnecessarily threatened and angry.
In a way, it’s almost easier for them to keep blaming ‘the world’ for threatening them and rousing their anger than to accept their anger may for a long time have been unfounded and they may have attacked people around them (verbally or even violently) who meant them no harm. Added to the unpleasant realities a person in this situation is likely to face when they begin to examine themselves, there is a further difficulty in that many of their behaviours are unconscious or only on the edge of conscious awareness – they literally don’t know what they’re doing. These unconscious responses can be deeply ingrained and habitual and were likely formed over years or decades. Old habits die hard and even harder if you don’t even know you have them.
The split second habitual and unconscious nature of angry ways of relating combined with the harsh realities people trying to change their way of being often face when they begin to become more conscious of how they are relating to people make understanding and changing angry behaviours a tough and often time consuming reality to face up to and understand. But in this case, the hard road is the good road. Once a person admits responsibility for maladaptive anger through personal reflection in psychotherapy or a similar process, they can also begin to accept they didn’t know any better, forgive themselves for past angry responses and form a new way of experiencing a less threatening interpersonal world.