Popular psychology and many therapists will tell you that anger is a cover-up or defense for other emotions, namely hurt, sadness, or fear. It is true that, in some cases, we might “lead” with anger, when underneath that, we’re struggling with feelings of sadness, anxiety, or vulnerability.
But sometimes, anger is simply anger, and accepting and honoring this emotional experience can have significant positive consequences.
Anger is one of the core human emotions, as described by psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman. It appears cross-culturally, a universal human experience. We don’t always need to decode it, and if we try to, we’re invalidating the experiencing and losing out on a powerful learning opportunity that anger can signal.
For instance, let’s say that a colleague is mistreating you at work. As a result, you might feel anger (or variations on this theme, such as frustration, irritation, or even rage). These feelings are signals to you that something isn’t right. Experiencing anger can help you notice when you’re being mistreated and possibly take action to address the problem. Similar sensations might arise with family and friends, with strangers in traffic, or in any other situations that create a sense of being disrespected or devalued. If we didn’t feel angry, it’s possible the mistreatment would continue without an alarm system that creates discomfort and precipitates action.
Women, in particular, are socialized to avoid anger and its expression. But this denial can be damaging. Pretending an emotion doesn’t exist doesn’t lead to its resolution; in fact, it only creates additional struggles as we deny our reality and silence our voices. Learning how to experience and express our emotions effectively is a cornerstone of well-being and of mental health.
Again, anger might be the “tip of the iceberg,” a red herring for fear or vulnerability. But it can just as likely be its own standalone emotion, alerting you to injustices you experience or observe. Emotions serve as powerful indicators of our internal experience and directives for an appropriate course of action – listen!