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Anger: What It Is and What It Isn't

by Dave Decker M.A.

Just what is the feeling of anger that many of us experience so much of the time? When does it become something other than the normal and natural emotion that it is supposed to be? All too often, we equate this feeling of anger with hostility, punishing and abusive behavior, and even violence. In reality, anger is very different from these other attitudes and behaviors, which are actually distortions and perversions of anger the emotion.

Let's illustrate this through an example.

It's 6 o'clock on a Saturday night. Kent has gone to the grocery store to pick up a few items that he needs for a party that will be starting at 7:00. He grabs a cart and quickly gathers the goodies. Then he arrives at the check-out lines. He's glad he has only gotten 10 items because it means he can go through the express lane. He is already feeling rushed and he doesn't want to be late. It is his friends who will be coming over and his wife has already made it clear that she does not want to be there alone to greet them when they arrive.

But then things start to go very wrong. The store is packed with people. The express lane is as long as all the others. And what's worse, there is someone in the express lane with a whole cartful of groceries. Kent starts muttering to himself. "This is nuts. Why are there so many people here right now? What the hell is wrong with that stupid jerk ahead of me...Can't she read? How can she be so damned rude and inconsiderate? No one should be able to do this to me." His heart begins to pound. He is breathing heavily. He becomes sweaty. His mouth is dry. His hands start to shake. He begins to fidget.

By the time he gets to the cashier, it's 6:45. He knows he will never make it home on time. His thoughts continue: "Damn it, Jane is really going to be pissed at me now. That means the party and the rest of the weekend will be ruined. She has no right to keep me on such a tight leash. Why does she have to be so damn rigid? She had better watch what she says when I get home."

He doesn't respond to the cashier's "hello." He is angry at her too. He views her as a big part of the reason he is now running so late. She should have done something about the woman in front of him who had so many items in her cart. As she rings through his groceries, he continues to escalate. Finally, as he is paying, he throws his money on the counter and blurts out: "What's the matter with you people?...Can't you do anything right?...I'm never coming back to your damn store again...I just don't have time for anymore of your bullshit."

Kent started out by feeling rushed. But now he's mad at everyone and everything and has a good chance of going home and taking his disrespectful anger out on his wife and children or having a miserable time at the party he was originally so excited about. What happened?

Anger begins as a physical experience.

All strong emotions---anger, fear, surprise, excitement---trigger powerful hormones liike adrenaline that are released into the body. They produce very real physiological changes. This is the automatic "fight or flight" stress response. It occurs in both humans and animals and causes us to want to strike out or run away. This response was critical to our prehistoric ancestors' survival. They had to deal with very real and ongoing threats to their lives. But it often is not very helpful for us at this point in our history. When we are angry with someone now, we cannot just hit that person or run away from the situation. What is important to us today is figuring out how we wish to react to the hormones coursing through us.

Kent experienced this physical arousal even prior to entering the store. He was excited about the party and having guests over. He had been busy all day cleaning the house and preparing for the get-together. He was already feeling frustrated about not having gotten the items he needed for the party earlier in the week. He knes he was "cutting it close" in terms of getting back to the house on time. His wife is very perfectionistic about how parties are supposed to go and he always worries about her attitude when they entertain because they have had fights about various related issues in the past.

There is nothing we can do to completely stop these hormones from circulating through our bodies at times. That is part of our "hard-wiring" as human beings. This physiological response can arise when we are startled, when we feel fearful or threatened, when we believe that our expectations are not being met or that things around us are "out of control," and when we feel insecurity, uncertainty, or self-doubt. But there is plenty we can do to make sure that what happened with Kent above does not happen to us in our everyday interactions with others. Let's look at anger and how it differs from what actually happened to Kent in the grocery store.

ANGER is a normal and natural EMOTION that arises from our interpretation and labeling of the physical stress arousal that we all experience at times. You cannot eliminate anger from your life, as much as many people would like to do this. It is a fact of life and a part of the human experience. Anger has a number of important and useful aspects and is appropriate whenever it is handled effectively and respectfully.

Anger is a "warning signal" that helps you understand when something is going on around you that needs to be attended to. Anger could arise from "core hurt" from your childhood or the past being activated by a person or situation in the present. For example, if you were ridiculed or put down by parents or peers in your childhood, you are especially prone to react very strongly as an adult if someone is hurtful or disrespectful to you in the present. Anger could be a sign that your wants, needs, rights, or core values are not being adequately addressed in a current situation. It could arise if you've compromised yourself in some important way or if an injustice has been done to you or to others you care about.

Anger can be a source of discovery to help clarify and define who you really are and a means to educate others about the differences between you and them. It can be an important part of being assertive and taking care of yourself by setting personal limits and maintaining healthy boundaries for yourself and by enabling you to cope with difficult people and situations. It can serve as an energizer and catalyst to help motivate you to accomplish what you need to do. Anger can also even be a gift to others, although this is difficult for many angry people to swallow, since actually sharing your anger and the other feelings it often hides allows you to become vulnerable and invites others into dialogue with you about the situations or issues that triggered your anger. This process can potentially open a door to new information about yourself and others and to trust and intimacy in your relationships.

Learning to deal with your anger in a productive way is important because it takes an enormous toll to try to try to deny and suppress it. This potentially creates even more tension and can often lead to both emotional (e.g. becoming anxious and depressed) and physical (headaches, stomach upset) consequences.

It makes sense that Kent felt frustrated and angry about the situation in the grocery store. The key was to try to find a constructive way to address it. He might have spoken up and been assertive with the customer ahead of him or with the cashier about his concerns. If neither of them cared much about how he felt, he might have, at that time or even later, lodged a complaint with the store manager about his experience. He might have used his anger to figure out how to handle pre-party preparations more effectively in the future (e.g. making sure that he had everything he needed a day or two before the party). Finally, he might have brainstormed with his wife some better ways to deal with feelings prior to entertaining so they were working together as a team rather than creating more tension for one another. But this isn't what happened.

If anger heads in the wrong direction, as it did for Kent in the store and as it often does for many of us, you can end up hurting both yourself and others. When you hang onto your anger, allow it to build and fester, and continue to interpret your experience in a negative, blaming, and non-productive way, you create CYNICISM, HOSTILITY, DISGUST, CONTEMPT, and ultimately a SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT.

These are ATTITUDES that consist of mistrusting the motives of other people and focusing on and brooding about others' real or imagined injustices toward you. They also involve believing that "the world owes me" respect, approval, fairness, and the like. In addition, these attitudes create the mindset that you are completely justified in blaming people and situations for your anger as a result of not getting what you have a right to expect. This sets you up to continually look for and expect other people to be incompetent and inadequate; to be inconsiderate, unfair, and untrustworthy; and to go out of their way to hurt or mistreat you, take advantage of, or "cross" you in some fashion. These attitudes can also involve critical, demeaning, and judgmental thoughts about yourself, your mistakes, and your problems.

Cynicism, hostility, disgust, contempt, and entitlement promote the idea that you are powerless and a victim in the living of your life. They also scream out at you that the situation is hopeless and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. The best way to look for these attitudes at work within you is to look for your negative thoughts or "negative self-talk:" the words, phrases, and sentences that made up the muttering that Kent was doing when he was in line at the store. When he thought to himself about "The stupid jerk ahead of me," how angry his wife was going to be, and how the party and the weekend would be ruined, he was engaging in negative self-talk.

Everyone has negative thoughts at times. But, when they become a regular and ongoing part of your daily life, you are constantly fueling your stress response and increasing the intensity of and prolonging the anger that you do experience. It makes it much more difficult to intervene in your anger effectively when you are continually pumping more and more stress hormones into your system. This is why it is so critical to notice the first signs that you are beginning to allow your anger to escalate. It is significantly easier to intervene if you tune into yourself and what is going on with your thoughts and feelings. Chronic hostility and cynicism always exact an enormous toll on you both emotionally and physically.

Eventually, if these attitudes become your way of looking at other people and the world around you, they then contribute directly to the violation of another person's rights or boundaries through AGGRESSION OR WITHDRAWAL. These are BEHAVIORS directed toward others to try to address the anger and hostility you have allowed to build within yourself.

AGGRESSION involves behaviors acted out with the intention to hurt, punish, intimidate, or control others. This can be done emotionally, verbally, physically, or even sexually. These actions serve as a means to seek revenge for those real or imagined wrongs done to you when your negative thoughts have taken over or as a means to forcibly attempt to get your way in a particular situation. At this point, there is often an illusion of power and invulnerability and a strong desire to act out a reprisal on the person or situation that we believe is "offending" to us. When Kent verbally attacked the clerk at the check-out by saying "Can't you do anything right" and talking about the "damn store" and her "bullshit," he was being aggressive.

Hurtful and disrespectful behaviors can also be represented by a WITHDRAWAL that is designed to disengage emotionally from difficult situations. If Kent had tried to hurt and intimidate the cashier by ignoring her with a hostile and ominous silence that communicated to her that he thought she was "bad" and "wrong," this would have represented a punishing withdrawal. This type of withdrawal is designed to get back at or get even with someone and includes behaviors like the punishing silence connected to sulking and pouting. If he was too overwhelmed and confused to say anything at all, he might have gone into a protective withdrawal, where he felt uncertain and unsafe, became passive, and "stuffed" and suppressed his anger and any other feelings that might have been part of his experience. He might also have done any of these behaviors with his wife when he returned home, especially if she was angry at him for being late for the party. These behaviors, when used on a consistent basis with others, especially those close to us, will always eventually result in disrespect, a lack of trust and safety, and emotional distance and estrangement in our relationships with others.

What is important here is to realize that you are continually making choices when you get angry.

Your anger and where it goes are not beyond your control, even when you have continued to increase your physical arousal with a negative thought process. Keep in mind, however, that, for most people, it is much easier to intervene in an escalation earlier in the process before you have "added more fuel to the fire." How you perceive and react to those hormonal surges from the "fight or flight" response, what you do as you are becoming angry and how willing you are to recognize your anger will determine whether you remain with your anger as that normal and natural emotion discussed above or allow your anger to proceed to the unhealthy attitudes like cynicism and hostility and the destructive behaviors like aggression and withdrawal that are, in fact, distortions of anger.

You are the captain of your ship when it comes to handling your anger. Start working today to notice when you are allowing your anger to build and become distorted. Tune into how you are reacting to people and situations around you. Whenever you feel irritated, frustrated, anxious, or angry, stop the process for a moment and ask yourself "What am I saying to myself right now?" Begin to notice the negative thoughts that fuel your escalation to disrespectful or hurtful behavior. And then learn to do something different and more productive with the anger that you do feel.

Some things to think about related to this article


© 1996 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 -





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