Anger: A Complicated Emotion
Anger often has a bad reputation in the spectrum of emotions we experience as humans. First of all, it usually makes people very uncomfortable. Whether you are the one experiencing the anger or on the receiving end, it’s usually not a pleasant experience! But anger is actually an extremely useful emotion to us and is often very misunderstood. Let’s take a look into what makes anger an essential part of our emotional intelligence!
First, anger in itself is not a bad emotion, although it usually gets labeled that way. We must differentiate between the emotion itself and the action attached to the emotion. That is to say that what we DO with anger may not always be the best decision, but the actual emotion separated from its action is not problematic in itself.
For example, if I get angry with someone and I decide to punch them in the stomach, I may have a very good reason for my anger, but how I expressed it (the action) was ill-advised. There are plenty healthy ways to express and tend to anger that don’t involve problematic and painful (physically or emotionally) reactions. We can release anger through physical, emotional, mental and spiritual means that don’t involve problematic behavior. Some ideas include doing some intense exercise, using mindfulness and meditation, talking it out with someone before addressing the issue directly, taking a pause and walking away for a minute, validating your own anger and giving yourself permission to feel it. These are just a few options but it is important to remember that the emotion of anger and the expression of anger are two very different things.
Secondly, we frequently refer to anger as a secondary emotion. Primary emotions are what we feel immediately after something happens. Secondary emotions are the feelings that we have about the primary emotion. Confusing? For sure, so let’s break it down a little further.
If someone comes up to me and calls me a name or insults me, I could very well feel hurt, confused, and embarrassed. Those are the primary emotions. But those feelings tend to be leave us in a very vulnerable state, so that’s when I start to feel the secondary emotion. I’m now angry that I feel hurt, confused, embarrassed and vulnerable. Secondary emotions are generally the ones that we make visible to others when the primary emotions are too difficult to express.
For this reason, anger is an emotion that gives us a wealth of information about our emotional well-being!! If we think of anger as the tip of the iceberg, we can understand that below the surface, there is so much more going on. Anger is really good at alerting us when an emotional need is not being met and helps us figure out how to address those needs. Let’s say I’m angry with my partner for leaving dirty socks on the floor. There is a saying in my house that goes, “It’s never about the socks!" I start to feel angry and that alerts me that there are some primary emotions happening. It may be showing me that I am feeling under-valued because I think my partner is not valuing my time by expecting me to pick up after them. It may lead me to understanding that I am feeling tired and resentful of the amount of work I do to keep our house clean. Whatever it tells me, I now have much more information to be able to address it with my partner. I can now say to them “I notice I am needing more help around the house lately because I am getting burnt out. I know you may not mean it this way, but when you leave dirty clothes on the floor, it feels like you don’t value my time.” That can be more impactful and helpful than a shouting match or blame-fest.
In the end, anger is part of our emotional repertoire for a reason. It’s ok to allow yourself to be curious about your anger and let it lead you to the root of the issue. Beating yourself up for feeling angry will only cause more frustration. Self-compassion and curiosity will help you understand your emotional needs more acutely.