What Is Anger?

Anger is amongst the most potent of emotions, which everyone feels and expresses in a variety of ways. As one of the six universal emotions it is recognised across cultures and since time immemorial.

Often, anger can express shadow behaviors that we all know well. It serves a purpose, which is to disclose and admit to the environment that something needs to change. 

As people of all ages and backgrounds begin to awaken to an inner collective wisdom, it is also increasingly understood that anger is nothing more than an outward expression of hurt, fear and frustration negatively expressed. When our needs are not being met and we don’t know how to have them be met responsibly, then anger is the ultimate way to vent – either in an aggressive or a passive way. 

This dynamic is natural and normal. Evolutionary Psychology outlines that anger is a means of communicating to our environment that this is not viable for us, that a personal boundary has been crossed.  It is a clear – if maladroitly manifested – means of expression, that is needed in order to change what we perceive as not being right for us.

‘Give me space.’ The purpose of anger is to create distance and reinforce boundaries; between us and the world. Six-year old Tobias shouts when his sister uses his coloring pencils. Leila rants to her friends about her demanding boss. Ahmed’s hands grips his steering wheels when someone cuts him off in traffic. 

Anger creates a narrative that separates us from what we view as wrong in our environment, which often can translate to hectoring, provoking, judging, alienating and demonizing  the ‘transgressor’ through a volley of abusiveness; either verbal or physical – or both.  After all, it is a lot easier to be angry at someone than it is to tell them we are hurt, isn’t it?

Okay, But What is Anger Really?

If we consider our own anger episodes, chances are that we will identify that this disruptive tendency always masks a pain of something deeper. Exclusion, disrespect, mistrust, fear, powerlessness and humiliation can all hide behind anger. These deeper emotions are initially encountered and imbibed in childhood. So that later on, when a situation triggers us, anger acts as an emotional release valve reminiscent of a past environmental pattern that we had experienced or seen, as children.

Is Rage the Same as Anger?

Rage occurs when egos are threatened by anyone, for any reason. When we lack an internal stability and authentic sense of self, even a perceived slight is grounds for a relentless assault. Since anger is such a potent emotion, it carries distinct gradients to its expression. Therefore it can easily become all encompassing and consuming. Which means that we can get lost within it. This type of anger is defined as rage.

Another word for it could be ‘I am furious’, rage has a completely different intention than anger. Rather than just wanting to express that something does not feel right, rage is about insisting on being right and the other wrong, it is about forcing one’s agenda on another – no matter what. It makes things more personal and more destructive.

If expressed appropriately, healthy anger is a unique catalyst for change, for shaking up an untenable status quo. If we look down the course of history, popular social justice movements always started with a sense of rightful anger. For instance, Rosa Parks was angry and being forced to sit at the back of the bus. The abolitionists were angry at the ugly reality of institutionalised slavery. Their anger propelled action. 

In this context, anger is about fostering change and connection by speaking one’s’ truth and being vulnerable. Rage is about attacking and annihilating the other person, like their character by insulting them. Rage is often the end manifestation of the anger scale. 

When our needs are not being met we often go up the quantum scale that begins by expressing quite calmly, moves into irritation, escalates to desperation then bursts into anger and finally explodes into rage when we are met by the other who will not relent and give way; thereby expressing anger by way of abject stubbornness. This dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, when an interaction is becoming fraught is a dangerous trigger, for which unbiased responsibility must be taken by whoever is acting in this way if any level of healing is to ever take place between the aggrieved parties. 

To trust, respect and treat the other as mutual is the expression of healthy anger. When we take accountability for our own contribution to the angering situation, is a true sign of personal development.  As in all interactions,  there is room for movement in discourse, taking responsibility for what we have contributed to fueling a tense situation and the awareness that all emotions are temporary, especially if a positive resolution is sought. .

Rage however, is binary and it is about winning, as a way to reinforce one’s sense of self and control by rejecting the other. It is not a truly holistic experience. By silencing the other, the anger helps the individual reclaim the interpersonal control.

THE Four Types of Anger

  1. Aggressive anger = an immediate emotional outburst. 

Shouting, judging, blaming, hitting, shaming, lashing out, and being loud. It can be the most overtly-visible forms of anger.

It is a form of rage, as it negates the discourse of anger with the other. There is a lack of respect and seeing the other as a mutual. It immediately attacks, belittles, silences and blames the other as a means for communicating and directly getting the change one wants.

2. Passive aggressive anger = an attack that is distanced, sarcasm. 

One of the most common forms of anger, passive aggressive anger is still aggressive and uses attacks but in a covert and depersonalized manner. The anger is expressed in an affronting manner, but passed off as a joke to neutralize any possible negative response and escape accountability of the attack. This is also a form of rage, because there is no discourse and the blame is set – even though it is not owned up

3. Passive anger = unexpressed anger, the silent treatment. 

Completely detached in expressing anger, however it is very much felt. The angry individual retreats, ignores and does not communicate. To some degree, it is an avoidance behaviour to protect ones’ self by disengaging. However, it is an unhealthy expression of anger as the other knows something is wrong, but does not know what. This is also a form of rage, as it is to hurt the other. The silence is used to gain control of the situation and the other.

4. Assertive anger = expressing anger, in an accountable, open, present and non-attacking way.

The healthiest expression of anger. The assertive anger is based on the present and current situation, it is not about history or future. Therefore, there is no narrative. There is a willingness to change the situation, a desire for change whilst maintaining connection with the other. It is the most ideal form for healing relationships. There is respect for the other, and the anger is expressed as a reflection of personal feelings, and not as an attack. 

How is Anger Related to Self-Worth?

Assertive anger relies on having a grounded self-worth. It comes from a place of knowing that we have the right to be heard, respected and included. Therefore, we do not have to attack, silence or blame the other in order to get the change we desire. 

Children express pure, unadulterated anger. When something unfair happens, they say so without getting lost in the narrative of anger. They trust in a presence of a higher power which can override them, like parents and teachers for example.

Growing up is a process of adaptation, as we become well-mannered adults. Parents tell children off for doing something inappropriate, like running around. With or without meaning to, children’s feelings, thoughts and selves are disrespected, silenced and humiliated in the process of becoming an adult. Unfortunately, truly perfect childhoods do not exist. As we grow up, our self-worth gets impacted.

Children intrinsically ask themselves how far they have to move away from their core self to be accepted? To be relevant? To be part of this family? To be respected? To be heard? They learn to express anger in a way that is modeled to them, and allowed in their environment.

Adolescence marks being ‘cool’, which means being unaffected. It is more connected with passive aggressive anger, sarcasm, as a way to mask hurt feelings. Showing anger may give the other person information about what matters to us, and therefore gives them power to hurt us. The fear of losing face stops them from owning up to their feelings and communicating directly, without attacks. Mature, assertive anger takes vulnerability and courage. 

How to Understand Your Anger Better?

  1. Allow yourself to talk aloud without thinking about it, and allow a dialogue.
  2. Refrain from saying,’ always’ or ‘never’. It starts the narrative which alienates the other person. First of all, these other accusations are probably not true, and will lose the context of the certain event in the chatter.
  • Remember that you are looking for connection, not disconnection of the other. You want to relate to the other and open up, rather than assassinating their character. Acknowledge your role in creating the anger in the situation.
  • Take accountability of your feelings and suggest concrete changes you would like. Allow for flexibility and dialogue with the other.
  • Take five second to respond and try to maintain eye contact, to stay with our feelings and the other.                                                                              

Unconscious Anger

As an emotional release therapist here at Art of Being,  I see this form often in my Creative Expression workshops (art therapy classes), or in Kundalini Yoga classes. We can hold anger at times, without realising that we are angry. We feel the feelings, thoughts and bodily-sensations associated with anger, but we do not label it as anger. Anger can be an uncomfortable feeling, so there can be an inclination to suppress it. Culturally and through conditioning, it may be a feeling that we are taught to ignore. With inner-child healing, this is something that we have to face.

As compared to an emotion with positive affect, anger presents a tangible risk. As mentioned before, it can be easy to get swept up in it. Our actions have real consequences, because, who knows what we say or do when we are angry. The suppression of anger here is based on the fear of not just losing control, but also of the effects of expressing anger.

Perhaps as a child, a caretaker would reprimand us when we expressed anger or did not model how to express anger in a healthy way. So now, anger is not expressed because of fear of the others’ reaction. We can not be entirely certain about how the other will respond to our expression of anger – will they become defensive? Scared? Leave? 

On the other hand, being agreeable and smiling ensures a lower risk for the other to react negatively, and a much higher chance that the other will respond positively.

However that is simply not healthy, it does the rerseverse to our self-improvement. Anger is there for a reason, and it deserves to be expressed – because all our emotions have a value and they need to be expressed ideally in a calibrated way. That’s what a process of inner awareness and acknowledgement of one’s truth is ultimately for. If properly metabolised anger always eventually moves to self awareness, acceptance, making amends and making peace by cultivating forgiveness.