Anger is such an interesting emotion. It is so misunderstood and seen as something Bad. There is no question that anger can be scary. But it is not in itself bad. The “badness” so to speak is when:

  • it causes fear in those around us where fear is not useful
  • it is expressed in violence where violence has no place
  • where it overwhelms us without any adaptive or useful purpose in itself

I have two understandings of anger that sit side by side.

  1. That it is a very base survival emotion, linked to the other base emotions such as fear, sadness, pain, happiness and joy.
  2. That it is a secondary emotion, and that is that it comes as a result of other emotions.

When we look at Anger as a secondary emotion, there are many ways of seeing this, and it depends whether we see Affect, feelings and emotions as the same thing or not. I subscribe to the definition that feeling is what our senses specifically tell us, Affect as being the way our body responds to that (such as Anger being experienced as heat, energy etc) , and emotions being a mixture of the two.  

Anger as a response to fear, pain, danger.

In this case I see anger as being the response to pain or fear. We sense/feel danger/pain and our body reacts to fight or flight – sometimes by going to the Amygdala (see below)- which has an almost immediate response to threat based on what has gone before (ie experienced by the person before) or even not reaching that and dealt with in the primary sensory systems – such as when we touch a fire we pull our hand away without any brain activity.

Overall the question is what is the purpose of anger? The purpose to protect the individual. The next question is protect it from what? – the what is the primary experience, the anger secondary. 

And this is where we seem to get into hot water. I see couples, families, parents with their kids, and individuals who struggle with issues of anger, violence, dysregulation, hurt and pain.

Help My Amygdala has been Hijacked

I just wanted to go off on a tangent for a moment and suggest reading an article on our responses to our senses and the place of the Amygdala which I mentioned earlier and How the Amygdala works in; Help My Amygdala has been Hijacked by Taryn Oaks of Attuned Psychology.

Here Taryn doesn’t distinguish between the emotions as they are hitting the primary response made by the Amygdala. The main point being – Danger is sensed (what I call the primary emotion/feeling) and then a processed – secondary response happens.

Anger Is A Valid Emotion

One of the problems when we talk about anger is the cultural fear of emotion that just says either Anger is Bad or Emotions in themselves are bad.

My son was doing some listening training rescently. The poor thing gets over-theraped sometimes with parents as therapists, and lots of friends and colleagues who happen to have a lot of techniques that can make his life better and overcome any delays he might be experiencing. The listening training had 2 lists Good Feelings and Bad Feelings. I pointed out to the therapist (being annoying and feeling a little hesitant about it, but not wanting that message reinforced) that feelings are feelings, they have no moral place as either bad or good, they just are.

Anger is so often invalidated as being OK. I feel what I feel, I am allowed to feel angry. What I am not allowed to do is oppress or hurt others with the responses to that feeling

But is the way we express our Anger Adaptive?

The Idea of adaptive is the question “Does that really work for me?” Do I get what  what out of the expression of any of our emotions. When Anger is expressed in a violent, aggressive or oppressive way it shows what it is for. those three responses are for, to move ourselves out of danger, to survive the sabre tooth tiger roaming around the clan’s hearth. To protect kin and kind from others who are trying to take life, limb land and livelihood from us.

Even then many philosophies would advocate a ‘higher path’ where we respond our position of danger with pacifism, non violent resistance, non violent direct action, or other forms of non aggressive or violent responses, taking the risk of harm or death, but that being seen as the lesser to the evil of violence.

Other philosophies advocate violence as a response to violence, or at least to protect self and loved ones from violence, or protect others from violence.

Yet too the same hormones that fill ourselves in the fight response to danger, at the very least, Adrenalin and Cortisol, give us the same energy for the flight response, to not stand our ground but run.

Jumping back to the question Does this really work for me when our child turns off the Television (an old fashion device that displays video streams to our home), screaming and tantruming may not be the most adaptive response, but it may be the expression of how we feel. Angry, hurt, scared, in pain because we just missed the full-forward of Sturt kicking the game winning goal. But is it worth having a child that is scared of us? Is it worth the fracture and damage caused? Are we able to respond in other ways?

There are many helpful therapeutic processes that can help us, desensitise our immediate responses to a fear event that means we can control the expression of our Anger in a useful way.

Redirecting the anger to get done what needs getting done, using the anger to protect rather than harm our family. Understanding what Anger is for, allowing us to feel anger, redirect it, breathe it out, and give us the space to have a bit of a laugh at ourselves, about our base response. Enjoy the primal rage that overcame us, and not direct it where it harms or hurts  someone we love. We didn’t need to see that kick, Sturt was going to win anyway.

But even more so, the purpose of this article, to get behind the Secondary emotion to the primary one – admit our hurt, pain, fear, danger, find out what it is and then use the anger, the energy to fix it or again just have a giggle to ourselves and embrace that we are not perfect and fix whatever damage we caused by losing the plot.

Help is Around

If you want to explore your emotions,, and find another way of experiencing and expressing them, of feeling comfortable and safe with your family, or helping them feel comfortable and safe with you, feel free to contact us. We have Therapists who can work across the age range to assist any member of your family find perhaps a more adaptive way of dealing with Anger.

[The picture tantrum in the collection by Lovelorn Poets taken from Flikr on 27/08/2018 and is used under a creative commons licence 2.0]

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