Anger Management – Part 1

Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).

We have looked at how to help an angry person (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

This post series is about how to manage your own anger, which on the one hand is easier because it is you, and on the other hand is harder, because it is you.

First we will understand what the feeling of anger is about and how to measure it.

In the next post [link], we will work on understanding what our responses to anger are likely to be and how they are useful to us.

Lastly [link], we will look at how you can change your anger and manage it when you realise the automatic feeling and response aren’t useful to your situation.

Understanding Anger

Humans have a range of emotions that help us to identify a situation and come up with a valid response. It takes far too long to manual perceive everything around you and manually process what it means and then manually go through your decision tree of actions to remain safe in a timely manner. We use feelings to automate a lot of this process and prepare the body for calm, flight or fight.

Angry child's face
Anger

The Anger feeling is triggered when our feeling assessment part of our brain (mostly thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala) recognises a situation that indicates that something is wrong and to our detriment. You don’t get angry when you win a door prize of $100, but you do get angry when someone tries to take that $100 away.

Impact – judging threat, consequence and boundaries

Something that goes wrong that has little impact upon you will only prompt a small reaction, while that same thing that goes wrong that has a big impact upon you will have a stronger reaction. The impact of a the event is based on our perception of the threat and the strength of the consequences that event has.

Because the feeling of anger is based on our perception of the event rather than the reality of the event, how we interpret the situation and its consequences is key to how angry we get. Anger is personal rather than objective. The same event can affect different people in different ways.

We all have boundaries which vary from situation to situation. They may be physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, social boundaries, conceptual boundaries, intellectual boundaries and so on. Boundaries indicate the edge of where someone or something else affects you, and each progressive stage of affect until it is actually you that is harmed.

If someone is far distant they are not a factor to your safety. As they cross your first boundary line, you become aware of them and their potential threat, as they come closer you become more ready to act depending on who they are and what they represent to you. If they are a trusted loved one, those boundary lines are much closer, if they are a dangerous looking stranger, those boundaries are further away.

Each progression past each boundary that heightens threat increases our anger level if the perceived outcome is negative.

Powerlessness

In therapy, power is defined as the capacity one has to affect change. If we perceive ourselves to have a great deal of capacity to affect the change we want, we feel powerful. If not, we feel powerless.

Man standing in front of tanks in Tienanmen Square - a depiction of power
Man vs Tank – an interesting depiction of power

Once an event has occurred that affects us, we feel the need to address it. If we can do so without much effort or risk, then we feel we have sufficient resourcesĀ  and ability – capacity – to fix the problem. While we often don’t feel powerful per se, we do note the absence of power – that is, when we can’t fix the problem.

Power is a strange concept. Every time we succeed at a task, we generally dismiss it as easy and not really worthy of notice – we minimise successes. If we have put a huge amount of effort into it, then we can feel accomplished and powerful.

We supplement our effort with anger. This form of anger is often secondary to the initial event as it has to do far more with ongoing consequences to the event than the initial reaction to it. More on that later. However it is important to note that the more powerless we feel to an event, the more it angers us and the more we want to be aggressive to compensate.

Culture

Different cultures have different ways to display anger, defining suitable methods of addressing things that provoke anger and what is a transgression of a boundary that should prompt you to be angry.

Some cultures include displays of mock aggression to symbolise social stature, or actual aggression to enforce social stature.

Respect is a concept that can either mean authority, recognition of capability or fear. If the definition you are using is recognition of fear, then you will use aggression to try to inspire respect from another person. For the person who sees respect as recognition of capability, they may fear you and disrespect you. Culture can have a strong foundational part of which definition of respect someone uses.

Treating another human as equal to you is a relatively new concept that is slowly propagating around the globe. There are cultures who still view “others” as lesser, or a part of that countries population as lesser. Each country has a sub-culture that suppresses another group. If you find that you are easily angered at someone for who you identify them as rather than what that person is actually doing, then you are practicing cultural suppression – an ism of some kind. Racism, sexism, ethnicism etc. You see that group as less than you, or a threat to you. This ism often ties into subcultural stereotypes and the disgust emotion.

Stressors and Compound Anger

In physics, stress is a force applied to a material and the effect that force has on a material. In psychological stress, the person feels a force acting upon them – work, arguments, hunger – and experiences that effect as stress. Some ongoing low level stress is good for us, and occasional large amounts of stress are also beneficial, so long as that force applying the stress doesn’t break us or last for too long.

Person being handed a phone, list, pen and writing pad indicating stress
Too many stressors

The more stress we feel, the shorter our fuse is with anger and the more prone we are to react with aggression. Suppressing the aggressive reaction to anger is stressful and so compounds our shorter fuse and our aggressive response.

This plays into one of our responses to anger – passive aggression / transference. More on that later in Part 2 [Link].

Primary and Secondary Anger

When anger is informing you that something is wrong and needs to be addressed in the absence of other strong feelings such as fear or disgust, then it is the primary feeling. The trigger may need to be addressed or monitored (more on this later).

Often anger is secondary to an initial emotion. This is common in some subcultures where feelings are represented by either good or anger. Feel happy? Translate to good. Feel comfortable? Translate to good. Feel surprised? Translate to anger. Feel disgusted? Translate to anger. Feel scared? Translate to anger. Feel sad? Translate to anger.

Disgust expression then triggers anger
Disgust can often trigger anger

Sometimes the correct fear response is aggression – if I a see a big nasty dog coming to bite me, I should swell up, raise my voice and scare the dog so it doesn’t bite me. I need to be ready to fight theĀ  beast if this fails or face the consequence of being harmed by it. This aggressive fear response is going to trigger anger as a secondary feeling. After the event, where the dog has been fended off, I will continue to feel anger because I was scared and had to defend myself. I may look for reasons to feel angry to justify my secondary emotion.

Often the anger I feel towards a thing isn’t well balanced. If that is the case, then it may be that my anger towards this thing is secondary to a problem I have somewhere else.