Anger, that all-encompassing, powerful and potentially destructive emotion, tends to arise quickly and uninvited. It can leave us reeling in its aftermath, often wondering “Where on Earth did that come from?” Often, we can pinpoint trigger “events” which appear to have caused our anger. Maybe another driver cuts us off or a colleague belittles something we’ve worked hard on. But the anger we feel is internally generated, as opposed to something that happens outside of us. So, where does it come from then?
Some psychologists and therapists now agree that anger is likely a defense mechanism. Anger arises when our ego perceives itself to be threatened, either through threats to our individual status or to our personal safety. And this makes sense when you consider the examples above. If another driver cuts us off, it is likely that, before the anger, our experience was fear for our safety, however momentary. Once the immediate fear passes, we feel angry that someone else’s terrible driving endangered us in this way. We may not even be aware that it was initially fear that triggered this. And when a colleague dismisses our work, perhaps our anger stems from a sense of failure, or anxiety that our professional reputation would be diminished. Our ego feels threatened by our colleague’s refusal to recognize the value of our work. (Learn more about fear in The Nature of Fear.)
So, anger is not the primary emotion. Even when it seems like it is, anger actually comes from another feeling, perhaps of fear, shame, inadequacy or failure, which the anger then masks. Why? Probably because these emotions are not something many of us feel at all comfortable with. To experience these feelings often makes us feel vulnerable, and our egos do not like to feel vulnerable. Anger, with its more aggressive, dynamic energy, can preserve our sense of power and control.
Why is it useful to understand this? Anger can actually be an invaluable teacher for us, helping us to understand our ego and our emotions, but not if we simply allow ourselves to get sucked into its story. The learning comes when we get really honest about what feelings the anger may be masking. And as unpalatable as they seem, having the courage to experience and face those directly is what helps us to grow and change in a positive way. Honesty about where our anger comes from makes us vulnerable, but also opens the door to our own transformation.