Anger is instinctive, or at least that’s how it often feels. Someone cuts you off in traffic? Anger. Stub your toe? Anger. Think you’ve been unfairly reprimanded by your boss? Feeling angry is probably not far away. The immediacy with which we often experience anger has led many to conclude that anger is one of the “primary” emotions. Primary emotions are instinctive — hardwired in the brain because they traditionally relate to survival. In addition to anger, the other primary emotions are usually defined as disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. But simply because anger is a primary emotion doesn’t mean that what’s behind the anger is necessarily simple. In fact, anger can be telling you something important. You just have to dig past the anger to find out what it is. Gabrielle Gawne–Kelnar suggests asking yourself five questions the next time you feel angry.
- What’s this anger trying to tell me?
- What’s missing in this picture for me?
- What would resolve this for me — and why?
- What do I actually need right now?
- What’s this really about for me?
In other words, explore your anger. Get curious about it. Ask yourself why something makes you angry. And don’t just stop at one why. Keep going. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic and you get frustrated, ask yourself why you are frustrated. Your internal dialogue might go something like this: Why am I angry? Because that jerk cut me off. Why is that so upsetting? Because I could have gotten in an accident. At that point, you might realize that what you are really feeling is a combination of fear (of getting into an accident) and adrenaline (from a narrowly missed collision). Or perhaps it goes like this: Why am I angry? Because that jerk cut me off. Why is that so upsetting? Because I’m careful when I merge, and other people should be as well (i.e. a feeling of injustice). Both of these likely scenarios are consistent with the four reasons Dr. Alex Lickerman, theorizes about why we get angry.
- To harm oneself. Being depressed often results in anger directed at oneself for feeling and being powerless, and represents a wish for self-destruction.
- To achieve control. Whether arising from paralyzing fear or merely irritation that things are going differently than we want, anger is often used to intimidate in order to manipulate.
- To feel powerful. If we feel small, getting others to feel smaller makes us feel big in comparison.
- To fight injustice. Righteous indignation coming from a person’s moral center, outrage at an inequity being committed against oneself or others.
Taking the time to figure out what is making us angry has myriad benefits: first, refocusing your attention from the fact that you’re angry about something to a more inquisitive line of thinking about why you are angry forces you to stop and think. It shifts the attention from the external to the internal. Instead of blaring your horn at the other car long after the danger has passed, you can focus on something that might address the reason you are feeling angry. If your anger comes from the combination of fear and adrenaline from a near-miss accident, pull over somewhere safe and take a few minutes to calm your breath. Recognize that you had a scary experience and that the danger has now passed. When the jittery/adrenaline feeling has calmed down (as has your anger), pull back onto the road. If determining the cause of your anger feels like too much of a challenge, you can still take stock of your feelings. Dr. Jeffrey Brantley talks about the role mindfulness can play in diffusing anger. In the April 2016 edition of Mindful Magazine he says: Apply steady attention on your body by feeling the shifting sensations as you move or the subtler interior ones if you are sitting still. Resting your attention on your breathing, take a few mindful breaths, noticing the different sensations as the in-breath and the out-breath come and go in various places in your body. You don’t have to do anything special. Just relax and trust your awareness to notice. Allow yourself to rest in that awareness. While Brantley proceeds to suggest asking yourself the aforementioned questions about what’s making you angry — what’s beneath the anger — just taking those deep breaths and being mindful of the physical sensations of breathing in and out can be helpful. Your pulse will slow as oxygen flows to your brain and through the rest of your body. At that point, you can either decide to investigate what you are feeling further, or you can be grateful for a renewed calm and go about your day.