The Secret Life of Anger

We can all think back on times when anger lead us to poor decisions, regrettable behavior, or hurt feelings. But for some of us, anger leads to far greater consequences—from strained relationships and job loss to chronic stress and legal trouble.

No matter what role anger plays in your life—from occasional irritability to incarceration—the key to dealing with your anger more effectively is to understand how it works. Unfortunately, almost everybody misunderstands the basic mechanics of anger.

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at some of the common myths and misunderstanding we all have about anger. Along the way, I’ll highlight eight key takeaways about the psychology of anger and then summarize them together at the end.


The Most Important Fact About Anger Everyone Misses

When it comes to any discussion of anger or anger management, there’s an essential distinction we have to make right off the bat, and it forms our first anger takeaway:

Anger Takeaway #1: Anger is different than aggression.

Psychologically speaking, anger is an emotion while aggression is a behavior. Even though these two words seem almost synonymous, they differ completely on one key dimension—control.

Technically speaking, you can’t exert direct control over any emotion, including anger: You can’t simply decide to turn up your feelings of joy any more than you can turn down your feelings of sadness or fear.

And because you can’t control your emotions directly, you can’t be responsible for them. In fact, this distinction is embedded in our legal system: Nobody gets sent to prison for how they felt—no matter how angry or enraged they were. Instead, we get punished or not based on what we do, including acting aggressively toward other people.

You can only influence your emotions indirectly by way of how you think and how you behave. For example, when you mentally ruminate on how terrible all the drivers in your town are, your anger will likely increase. On the other hand, if you cue up your favorite song on Spotify and contemplate how grateful you are that you’ve never been in a serious car accident, your anger will probably subside.

Anger Takeaway #2: You can’t control anger directly.

While you don’t have direct control over the emotion or feeling of anger, you do have control over your aggression, which is the decision to act on and express your anger, either mentally or physically.

For example: You feel angry after your wife criticizes the way you folded the laundry, so you snap back with a sarcastic comment about her own folding skills. Or you recount the 101 past examples of her being (in your opinion) too critical of you. Your decision to speak sarcastically and mentally ruminate are acts of aggression that are under your control, even if they feel compulsive or habitual.

Anger Takeaway #3: You can control your aggression.

Most of us struggle with anger and aggression far more than we need to because we misunderstand this basic distinction between anger and aggression and how it relates to control. Specifically, most people assume they should manage their anger (after all, everybody talks about anger management!). But when they try and inevitably fail to do so, two unfortunate things happen:

  1. They feel angry and disappointed with themselves.
  2. They waste valuable psychological resources that could have been much better spent managing their aggression.

Put another way, the opportunity cost of trying to control your anger is losing control over your aggression.

Anger Takeaway #4: Trying to control your anger makes it harder to control your aggression.

If trying to control your anger only makes it stronger, and makes it more likely that you’ll act aggressively, the solution is to invert or flip the relationship: Acknowledge and accept your anger for what it is and direct your efforts at control toward your aggression instead.

And remember, aggression doesn’t just mean big acts of violence. Being overly-critical or judgmental of someone in your mind is an act of aggression, as is replying sarcastically or rolling your eyes at someone.


2 Myths About Anger Almost Everyone Believes

In the first section of this article, we talked about the distinction most people don’t know between anger and aggression. And why understanding how these two are different, especially in terms of controllability, is key.

In this section, we’re going to look at two beliefs about anger most people have that are actually false. Unlearning these anger myths is the second step we need to take to truly understand how anger works in our lives so that we can stop being infuenced by it so much.

Anger Myth #1: You have to express your anger in order to “release” it

The idea that we need to express, release, or vent our anger or else it will become destructive has been around since the days of Freud, which is certainly long enough to seep its way into the popular culture and imagination. The only problem is, it’s not true.

Research consistently shows that the cathartic theory of anger—venting or ruminating on your anger in order to “release” it—does nothing to lessen its intensity. And in fact, it actually makes it stronger! On the other hand, doing nothing or simply distracting yourself tends to lead to less intense anger and a lower likelihood of acting aggressively.

Anger Takeaway #5: Rumination and venting only intensify anger.

That being said, there’s an important distinction between the emotion of anger and the issue behind the anger. If you’re frustrated with your co-worker for being late with their monthly report—again!—venting about it to a friend over drinks isn’t helpful. However, having a respectful but honest conversation with your co-worker about the issue likely will be.

In other words, try to address the source of the anger, not the anger itself.

Anger Myth #2: Anger is a negative emotion

We mistakenly classify anger as a negative emotion because people who are angry often do negative things:

  • After missing that 2-foot put to win the golf match, you hurl your club 70 yards down the following hole, insuring a couple penalty strokes and a healthy dollop of shame.
  • A speeding Corvette cuts you off on the freeway… You’re so upset that you speed up yourself in an ill-defined attempt to “catch” the offender, only to get pulled over for speeding yourself.

But if you think about it, it’s a little silly to define a thing by the quality of thing that follows it:

  • A hot pan on the stove isn’t bad or negative just because it leads to you feeling pain when you accidentally rest your thumb on it. Here the consequence (burning) is unpleasant, but in reality, it’s a good thing—your burn would be much worse if your body’s pain signals didn’t alert you to a dangerous situation.
  • Similarly, anger isn’t a negative emotion just because, after feeling criticized and angry, you lash out disrespectfully at a family member over Thanksgiving dinner. Your behavior of lashing out was in fact wrong and disrespectful. But the emotion that preceded it was a natural response to a perceived injustice your family member was supporting.

When it comes to cultural attitudes toward anger, we’ve thrown the emotional baby out with the behavioral bathwater. Because we as a society want to discourage aggressive behavior, we’ve labeled the emotion that often precedes it as negative, implying that the emotion itself is bad or wrong.

Anger Takeaway #6: Don’t define anger by the moral quality of the behavior that follows it.

To review, the first reason we think of anger as a negative emotion is because it often precedes negative behavior. But just because a behavior is bad or negative doesn’t mean the emotion the came before it is.

Now, there’s also a second reason we tend to think of anger as a negative emotion: Because anger often precedes bad behavior, we assume the feeling and experience of anger is aversive and unpleasant.

Most people would tell you that joy and excitement feel pleasant while sadness and guilt feel unpleasant. And most people would toss anger into the second category of unpleasant emotions. At least that’s what they’d tell you after the fact…

Turns out, in the moment, the experience of anger is actually far from unpleasant—in fact, it’s often extremely pleasurable. Here are a handful of common ways anger leads to feeling good, not bad:

  • Anger makes you feel morally superior. Every time you criticize someone or something, the unsaid implication is that you’re better: He’s such an idiot… (but I’m pretty smart). God, her sense of fashion is atrocious… (but I’m incredibly discerning). People who vote for so-and-so are morally bankrupt… (and I posses the correct moral compass).
  • Anger makes you feel in control. When you watch the news and feel terrified and helpless at the state of the world, getting angry at some person or group gives you the illusion of control, like you’re really doing something and making a difference. In fact, the entire news industry is simply selling people their own anger and outgrage.
  • Anger makes you feel like the sympathetic victim. Ruminating endlessly on how you’ve been wronged by other people creates a compelling story in your head that you are the victim, the person who’s been unfairly slighted and (hopefully) will have justice done to them eventually.
  • Anger distracts you from more painful emotions. One big reason so many people are so angry all the time is that getting themselves angry is the way they’ve learned to avoid or “take care of” other painful emotion. This is especially true of men in most cultures for whom anger is an “appropriate” emotion while fear, sadness, or guilt are not. Because anger is A) quite strong, B) ego-boosting, and C) comes on fast, it makes a great tool for temporarily avoiding another painful feeling. This process can becomes habitual (addictive even) such that for some people, generating anger is their default response to any painful feeling. This is actually such a common phenomena that anger has been called The Great Antidepressant.

Anger Takeaway #7: Anger feels good, which means we often seek it out and try to maintain it.


The Many Flavors of Anger

Before we wrap things up, it’s important to understand that anger takes many forms. Of course there’s the obvious cartoony picture of anger that we all imagine, which usually involves, yelling and shouting, faces turning red, steam coming out of ears, etc.

But there’s actually a much wider diversity of forms that anger takes (technically, it’s arguable whether anger is actually a single thing or not). And it’s important to be aware of these sometimes subtle forms or variants of anger because—while many people don’t think of themselves as angry people—there’s a good chance anger plays a strong role in their life, albeit in more hidden ways.

Here are a few examples of non-obvious forms of anger and how they can operate in our life:

  • Impatience. Impatience is anger along the dimension of time. We become impatient when we have a specific timeline in mind for something and that timeline is forgotten our dismissed by others. As a result, our expectation of what should happen is violated and we feel anger in the form of impatience along with the impulse to hurry things along.
  • Passive-aggressive communication. Passive-aggressive communication happens when we want to get a jab in or make someone feel bad but we want to appear good at the same time. The most common form is sarcasm—which is just an insult disguised as a joke. Ultimately, we’re passive-aggressive in our speech because we want to be aggressive toward someone else without taking responsibility for it.
  • Irritability. Chronic irritability is often a sign of unaddressed anger. When you’re consistently angry and upset about something but are unable or unwilling to understand it better or take action to address the issue at hand, you may find yourself frequently short or snippy with people, overly sensitive to criticism, or simply agitated much of the time.
  • Resentment. Like irritability, resentment is the result of unacknowledged or unaddressed anger. But in the case of resentment, it’s directed at another person specifically. Resentment often builds up between people—couples, especially—when one person wants something of the other but either doesn’t know how to ask for it or is afraid to speak up for themselves. Assertiveness is the cure to resentment.
  • Frustration. In one sense, frustration is simply a milder form of anger—it’s the emotion we feel when we have a goal or desire and are thwarted in reaching it for one reason or another. But I’ve also found that many people use the term frustration as a form of intellectualization to avoid using the term anger. Many people feel as though it’s wrong or bad to feel angry, so they compensate by using other similar terms like frustrated or upset. The problem is, if you are consistently angry about something but continually downplaying it by labeling it as frustration, that anger is likely to go unaddressed longer than it should.

Anger Takeaway #8: Anger takes many forms, from mild impatience to road rage.


Putting It All Together: The Secret Life of Anger

To sum up everything we’ve talked about so far, there are eight key ideas about the psychology of anger that most people don’t understand:

  1. Anger is different than aggression. Don’t confuse the emotion of anger with the mental or physical act of being aggressive.
  2. You can’t control anger directly. We can influence our emotions indirectly via our thoughts and behaviors, but we can’t control them directly.
  3. You can control your aggression. Even though aggressive thoughts and behaviors can become habitual, they are still fundamentally under our control—especially if we do the work to become more aware of them and how they work.
  4. Trying to control your anger makes it harder to control your aggression. “Anger Management” is a misnomer; it should be called, “Aggression Manangement.”
  5. Rumination and venting only intensify anger. Strive to address the source of your anger, not the anger itself.
  6. The emotion of anger is not negative or bad just because the actions that follow it often are. Getting judgmental with yourself for feeling angry only makes it harder to respond to anger constructively.
  7. Anger feels good, which means we often seek it out and try to maintain it. Avoid using anger as an emotional crutch and try to cultivate healthier ways of dealing with emotional pain.
  8. Anger takes many forms, from mild impatience to road rage. To better understand your anger, increase your emotional vocabulary.

It’s important to understand the counterintuitive psychology of anger because understanding how anger actually works—the mechanics of anger—is key to developing healthy and effective strategies acting in a healthy way when we’re angry.

Stay tuned for the upcoming Part 2 of this article where we’ll discuss practical strategies for dealing with anger in a healthy and effective way. If you haven’t already, join the newsletter and you’ll get it delivered to your inbox as soon as it’s published.

19 Comments

Theresa Aslin December 16, 2019 Reply

I look forward to these every week. I get so much out of them. Thank you for all that you do.

Nick Wignall December 16, 2019 Reply

So glad to hear it, Theresa!

Lois December 16, 2019 Reply

Thank you, Nick. This opened a helpful dialogue between me and hubby re a family member who defaults to aggressive anger to deal with depression and anxiety (Anger as anti-depressant). Knowing this (I’d always suspected it) helps a bit, but we’ll look forward to your suggestions next time!

Nick Wignall December 16, 2019 Reply

You’re welcome Lois! I especially love hearing about when my stuff facilitates convos, so thanks. Actually, a lot of my article ideas start as conversations between my wife and me so cool to see that it works for my readers that way too 🙂

Chill December 16, 2019 Reply

This was awesome highlighting various forms aggression can take. I also appreciate acknowledging anger is not the problem and as an emotion it can be healthy when processing appropriately. I am one who road rages due too feeling I had no other outlet for my frustrations. I will utilize and share with others.

Nick Wignall December 16, 2019 Reply

Glad it was helpful!

Annie K December 16, 2019 Reply

I’m excited for part two! I had an out-of-control angry parent and historically have a fearful, shut-down reaction when people in my life (including my partner) display anger. I’m interested to hear how healthy people and couples might communicate when someone’s angry. Do you wait until the anger subsides, and then just the issue at hand can be addressed? Or can the conversation be had while angry, as long as both people have read this article? 🙂

Nick Wignall December 17, 2019 Reply

Good questions, Annie! There might need to be a part 3 about handling other people’s anger…

Jonathan McCarthy December 18, 2019 Reply

Another great article thank you Nick I too would find it very helpful if you could do part 3 on handling other’s anger.
Kind regards from England
Jonathan

nick hadley December 16, 2019 Reply

Informative and illuminating article, thank you

Nick Wignall December 17, 2019 Reply

You’re welcome, Nick!

josephine December 17, 2019 Reply

thanks for the article is helpful to me

Nick Wignall December 17, 2019 Reply

You’re welcome!

Daniel Reichert Sr. December 29, 2019 Reply

Very interesting to identify the root causes and thank you.

Nick Wignall December 30, 2019 Reply

You bet, Daniel!

Fatima January 3, 2020 Reply

Thanks for the clarity

Nick Wignall January 4, 2020 Reply

You’re welcome!

Morolake January 22, 2020 Reply

Thanks. This is enlightening.

Nick Wignall January 22, 2020 Reply

You bet!

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