George was on his 10th year of working at a law firm. He devoted his life, neglected relationships, and sometimes missed out on significant moments with his family all so that one day he could become a partner at this firm. After many sleepless nights of juggling between managing his family conflicts, and keeping up with difficult clients, he found out that someone else was selected to be a partner. As you can imagine, George was furious! He began to feel very irritated, often yelling at his kids, and becoming impatient with clients and fellow associates. Finally, after a few months of noticing no improvement to this pattern and continuing to feel angry, George decided to see a counsellor to figure out how to make a change.
Anger is one of those emotions that we typically feel in response to another deeper emotion, or primary emotion. Anger would then be what we call a secondary emotion. It is typically the emotion that we are able to notice and can be at the forefront of our experience. So for George, it made sense that he was attuned to the anger he was feeling. What wasn’t clear, initially, was that George was feeling more than just anger. After some reflection, it became evident that underlying the anger was sadness around his boss’s decision. He was sad that he had worked so hard to stand out amongst his peers, had sacrificed his personal life and despite it all, his hard work had not been recognized. Although, we may have focused solely on the anger that George was attuned to, it was essential to discover the most fundamental feelings underlying his experience, which was sadness.
Even though George was feeling sad, it makes sense that he reacted in anger. Many of us are exposed to anger more than other emotions. This may be because emotions such as sadness and fear are often seen as being “weak” or “vulnerable” emotions and therefore as emotions that should be avoided or hidden, whereas anger is often associated with “strength.” As kids we may have heard our teachers or parents say, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be a big baby!” Those who heard such messages growing up likely learned that it is wrong to feel sad and afraid, and therefore, probably did not learn how to deal with such emotions other than with anger. There are times when anger is helpful, and there are times when it is not.
Sometimes the secondary emotions we feel (e.g., anger) influence our reactions (e.g. yelling, being irritable, etc.), which may be unhelpful and sometimes cause more harm. With George, his “reactions” to anger were negatively affecting his relationships with clients and his relationship with his kids. It was also keeping him stuck as his anger and frustration continued to build.
Therefore, perhaps a more helpful way for George to deal with his distress would be to address and act upon his truest emotion – sadness.
So next time you’re feeling angry, stop and take a second to think about it.
What is it that is making you angry?
Is there a clear explanation?
Are there any other feelings underlying the anger?
Asking yourself these questions can be a helpful way to promote a more truthful understanding of what you are experiencing and can often be the first step in moving towards problem solving and meaningful change.
Identifying and addressing our primary emotions can be challenging. If you, like George, feel you may be caught in an unhelpful cycle of anger and aren’t sure of how to get out of it, it may be helpful to consult with a counsellor to help you understand what may be underlying this anger.
Shezlina Haji, MA, has extensive experience in the area of anger and anger management, emotional regulation, and personal growth, plus many more. For more information on Shezlina and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.