Anger Doesn’t Exist

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Dr. Yossi Shafer

…or does it? 

If anger doesn’t exist, you counter, why can I tell you about 10 times I’ve gotten angry in the last week or so? 

I got angry at my son when he talked back to me. 

I got angry at my husband when he didn’t buy the one thing that I specifically asked for. 

I got angry at my coworker when he dropped the ball on an important project. 

I got angry at my sister for skipping her visit to our mother. 

I got angry at the driver in front of me when he cut me off. 

So obviously anger exists! 

And you’d be right. Anger exists. But its real definition is very different from how you see it. 

Most of us consider anger as one of the basic emotions. When you examine anger more closely, you’ll discover that it’s not an emotion at all – it’s a reaction, a protective measure, a secondary response to another emotion. 

When Does Anger Arise? 

Anger is what surfaces when we “man up” and quash our emotions, when we’re hesitant to express – or to experience – what we’re actually feeling, when we’re uncomfortable with our true emotions. This happens completely subconsciously, but when you find yourself feeling angry, dig deeper and you’ll likely be surprised by what you discover. 

Have you ever seen two little kids embroiled in a serious fight? They’re red-faced and furious, slinging insults (or fists) at each other, their voices at ear-splitting decibel levels. That’s the very picture of anger, right? Break up the fight and see what happens. Chances are, 30 seconds later you’ll have a couple of crying kids blubbering about their hurt feelings. He ruined the game I worked so hard to set up! She called me a stupid head! I was trying to help and he didn’t let me play! 

When the in-the-moment anger is removed from the equation, the real feelings – or primary emotions, such as hurt, guilt, rejection, sadness – have a chance to rise to the surface. 

Anger serves as a highly effective defense mechanism that is useful when we suppress our real feelings, insecurities, and vulnerabilities. It takes vulnerability to express to your wife, “I feel uncared for and unloved when dinner isn’t ready when I come home. I can prepare my own dinner, but I really need your care and support.” Anger effectively minimizes and suppresses that painful vulnerability. The angry response will sound more like: “I’ve been working nonstop all day, while you were just home doing nothing, and you couldn’t even heat up the leftovers for me.”  

What’s Beneath Our Anger? 

When you start feeling angry – when your teeth clench, your muscles tense, your face heats up, your heart starts to race – stop, tune in, and ask yourself: what am I really feeling right now? What’s making me feel angry? Am I offended? Irritated? Embarrassed? Disrespected? 

This is an important skill for dealing with others who are angry as well. When someone yells at you or starts an argument, it’s easy to slip into your own anger, which accomplishes nothing – or worse. But when you take a moment to examine the angry person’s real feelings, you seize the opportunity to achieve real understanding and problem-solving. 

As we discussed in the previous article, “doing nothing” is one of the most valuable parenting “techniques” you can add to your arsenal, and “nothing” is largely defined by tuning into your child’s feelings. The anger-is-a-secondary-emotion concept is lifechanging when dealing with an angry, sullen, or unreasonable child – especially a teen – who seems to explode whenever you talk to him or her. 

The effects are twofold: firstly, you’ll be able to see past your child’s anger to find what’s really lurking beneath it. Is he feeling hurt? Is she constantly feeling misunderstood? Afraid? Overwhelmed? Instead of tuning in his “emotion” of anger, you understand what’s driving his behavior and address that appropriately. 

Secondly, you’ll delve deeper into your own emotions and reactions. It’s easy to slip into anger when your child is angry at you, but if you take the time to think about how you really feel – stressed, helpless, resentful, exasperated – then you’ll be able to move forward effectively. The way that you react to your child’s actions reflects on you and your own emotions, insecurities, strengths, and shortcomings, and the best way to become a better parent – and a better person – is to get to know yourself. 

This may sound simple, but it takes a lot of effort and practice. In the upcoming articles, we’ll explore specific examples and strategies for overcoming anger. 

Dr. Yossi Shafer, PhD is the clinical director and a clinical psychologist at Empower Health Center, a private practice of multispecialty psychotherapists. They have offices in Deal/Long Branch and Lakewood and can be reached at (732) 666-9898 or office@empowerhealthcenter.net.