Anger, the misunderstood primary emotion
Journal of Psychiatry Reform Vol 11 #7 May 2022
Caroline Giroux, MD, FRCPC 1
Sandy Ngo Moubarek, MD 2
- Associate Clinical Professor, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA.
- Psychiatry 2nd-year resident, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA.
Most of us can reflect back on our childhood and identify at least one instance when the expression of our anger was not welcome at best, shamed at worst. We might have been told this emotion was ugly, or that we looked ugly while angry. Our parents’ anger towards us was probably experienced as frightening. And our ow might have been unbearable to them because it triggered their own childhood trauma in them or caused them embarrassment if there was a public display of the emotion.
Yet, anger in the form of temper tantrums is developmentally expected and normal. Anger when one experiences oppression is desirable. Plus, we know that repressing too much anger for too long can have destructive consequences. Hence, why does anger still seem to have such a bad reputation?
Anger as compass
Just like any of the other core emotions (fear, sadness, joy), anger is a messenger and indicates important aspects of our internal experiences. Just like fear is essential in warning us against potential danger, anger can signal crucial information for our survival or mental equilibrium. Anger is not bad in and of itself (no emotion is, really), but it is how we choose to express it that matters. At times, it is a cover for other types of emotions like shame or sadness because it helps defend against a sense of vulnerability inherent to the latter. Many of us, especially certain oppressed groups like ethnic minorities, children or women, have been taught to repress anger or defend against it. Consequently, this creates further layers above the core suffering. For some, anger is the go-to emotion because it can be invigorating, almost addictive.
Various narratives and myths around anger stem from cultural influences and can create a barrier to healthy expression of anger. There is a taboo component to it in certain cultures, and even gender differences. For instance, anger has often seemed more acceptable in men, the level of which is underestimated and applauded because it is perceived as assertive. Whereas women, even in a pre-anger mode and just at the assertiveness phase, can sometimes be labeled as angry and judged or reprimanded for that. Anger can also be confounded with aggression or violence, but it is a matter of degree and the latter two pertain more to attitudes and behaviors than to emotions. Anger that is not attended to or poorly channeled can lead to violence.
In our role as mental health professionals, it is important to learn how to decode, reformulate anger and channel it. It can be a sign that a boundary violation has occurred. We must rule out such a fight or flight response. We must also develop our ability to discern and distinguish healthy anger from destructive anger (that tends to lead to violence).
The concept of sacred anger legitimizes it more by juxtaposing anger and activism. Let’s think about protests or marches where people are vocal and explicit about what they disagree with. Anger is a force that helps us to be vocal about injustices and change the world for the better. Anger is sometimes necessary to make ourselves heard.
Often, we don’t allow ourselves to feel or express our anger. A potential barrier to the expression of anger is that we may have been conditioned to deny it. We fear being judged or labeled as too sensitive from being angry. But many have in mind instances when it was helpful to hear and to see how upset someone can be for the other. There is something reassuring about seeing someone standing up for another person. It models healthy anger and gives permission to feel, name and express anger. It makes us wonder if it is more acceptable to be angry for someone else than for ourselves.
Anger can be a motor to change. Engaging in continuous reflection and changing some of the narratives around anger can start by stepping up for someone who is more fragile and needs our voice, our angry voice. Being angry for someone else who has been wronged gives that person permission to be angry. In turn, this promotes advocacy, by modeling speaking up for someone who is afraid to. Before accomplishing that though, we must learn to make peace with our own anger. It means de-triggering ourselves if we were frightened by anger at some point by learning to put it into context. It is a flow of energy that can open the door to deeper suffering (and therefore, healing) while at the same time helping us to take action by pointing towards what is in disequilibrium in a situation. Such a core emotion will go away faster and allow us to make room for joy once we take it seriously and address it as it arises instead of ignoring it. Anger, just like tears, can be a superpower.