Anger is an emotion that can turn us into someone we’re not – at least if we let it control us. I’m always reminded of that old Disney cartoon. The usually mild mannered Goofy is getting behind the wheel of a car. He’s the most easygoing person until he starts driving his car. Once he turns the ignition, he turns into someone else entirely. The road rage kicks in and he’s angry at the world.
It’s amazing watching a seemingly rational person gripped by anger and that’s what the above analogy illustrates. Anger is an ugly emotion that can turn us into someone we’re not. We often do things we regret later when we’re angry. We don’t think about it, we just react to the situation. We’re not thinking rationally – in fact, most of the time we’re not really thinking at all.
When we’re in the grip of anger, we’re completely oblivious to others around us. To them, we probably look like a raging lunatic and that’s probably not far off the mark. If we’re going to be able to control our anger and perhaps even overcome it, we have to understand where it comes from. Let’s take a closer look at its root causes.
Anger as a Secondary Emotion
Anger is a secondary emotion – it’s not a primary emotion. What does this statement really mean? It’s simple. At the root of the anger you feel are other overriding, more primal emotions. It’s these emotions that are causing you to feel anger and by understanding them, you can eventually control your anger.
There are essentially three different emotional stems from which anger springs and when you sit back and look at your own situation you’ll find one of these are the root of the problem. If you choose not to do this, the anger will eventually overwhelm you and you’ll end up looking foolish to those around you.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t good reasons to feel angry sometimes. If you went through life without ever getting angry at anything, you wouldn’t be human. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to control it and shape it. Once you have a true understanding of where anger comes from, you can begin to decipher your own anger and make decisions that are more rational. At the root of your anger is the real reason you’re feeling the way you do and that’s where you should really be concentrating your focus.
Getting to the Root of Your Anger
I always find it helpful to use an analogy when I’m struggling with a concept. Think of your anger as a tree. To the outside world, the tree looks solid and immoveable, but the tree would never stand on its own. What you don’t see are the roots underneath the ground. It’s these sturdy roots that make the tree the strong example of nature that it is.
The same is true for your anger. Your anger doesn’t stand on its own. It has its own roots and these emotions are the real cause of the anxiety you’re feeling. If you can recognize them for what they are, you can easily control your anger in just about any situation.
Your anger may have deep roots that are hard to find, but they’re there. The root causes can be broken down into three different categories. The first of these is guilt and shame. These words are used interchangeably, but they actually have different emotional foundations.
We experience guilt when we feel responsible for something we’ve done. We might have offended someone or we might have committed a crime, or we might simply feel like we did. Whether or not the offense is real or imagined, doesn’t really matter – it still feels very real to us. It’s something that we believe violates our own value system and for us that’s the real measuring stick we judge ourselves by.
We feel shame when our peers have called us out for our actions. This is a very public emotion. Our flaws are on full display for those around us and everyone knows about it. It’s a very intense and painful experience knowing that others think we’re flawed or unworthy.
The second potential root cause of our anger is fear. An acronym that’s used to describe fear is False Evidence Appearing Real and it’s an apt description. We feel fear when we’re worried about a potential outcome, but in most cases, our fears are unfounded.
Our own emotions feed our fear and we let it take control of us. This can cause great anxiety which we feel both physically and emotionally. It’s not a rational emotion, but it feels very real. It often sneaks up on us quite quickly.
When you feel fear building, it’s important to sit back and take a breath. I find it helpful to picture a more positive alternative outcome in your mind’s eye and focus on that instead. It’s amazing what a difference shifting your focus to emotions that are more positive can make.
An example from my own personal experience might help to illustrate what I mean. When I went to prison, I could have been overwhelmed with fear. Instead, I made a conscious effort to take control of my anxieties and overcome my fears. I knew my situation was only temporary and I made the most of the situation by doing a lot of inner reflection. I read a lot as well. The point is you can take control of fear if you just take time to breathe and accept the situation for what it is.
The third root of fear is pain and loss. No matter how painful a situation is it will pass with time. Anyone who’s experienced significant loss knows this – it’s just hard to convince others that it’s true. It’s natural to act out with anger when you’re experiencing a loss, but in the end, it doesn’t help. This is another great time to just breathe and reflect instead.