Let’s talk about anger.
There is a lot of unhelpful pop psychology about anger: anger is a "secondary" emotion; anger is just a way to avoid vulnerability; anger is unhealthy. I'm going to explore the underlying problems with this treatment of anger through the lens of that first "truth." Or more specifically, why I find calling anger a “secondary emotion” often unhelpful and even destructive.
Let’s establish some background. People often say “anger is a secondary emotion” based on the idea that anger is responding to (or covering up) a primary emotion. Usually people will say the anger is covering up fear or sadness. Counselors will try to guide people to look past anger to what’s “really going on.”
This framework is usually well intentioned. Sometimes cultural norms support expressing anger but not other emotions. The “secondary emotion” concept often wants to allow people to acknowledge and address other negative emotions, especially those that are less culturally acceptable.
The problem? It's inaccurate and muddles how we perceive and deal with anger. So let's dig in.
1. Anger is a primary emotion.
Paul Ekman is perhaps the most famous for his research on universal emotions, but other research in emotion regulation supports this finding: humans have six primary (I like to call them hardwired or reflexive) emotions: anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear.
2. All emotions can be secondary emotions.
DBT is a therapy based on a lot of the newer research on emotion regulation. It includes a model for describing emotions which helps to outline the process of having an emotion.
Essentially, an event happens, we interpret/make meaning of that event, we have an emotional reaction, and that emotion causes aftereffects. Those aftereffects can take the form of mental, physiological, and emotional changes—and they can become a prompting event for a new reaction chain. You can see a visual model describing the process below.
Let’s use an example.
A coworker describes their pet dying. I interpret that event by thinking about the death of their pet and how hard that might feel. I start to feel sad. As I am feeling sad and thinking about the pet, I think about when my pet got hit by a car speeding in the neighborhood. Now I feel angry (maybe at the car, maybe at myself, maybe both.) That feeling of anger is a new prompting event. Now I interpret that memory as “too many people drive recklessly and put others in danger,” prompting more anger...and the cycle continues. Sometimes these cycles increase an emotion, sometimes they prompt new emotions.
The point is, “prompting events” can be internal or external: something happens; I have a thought: I have an emotion; I have a physical response, etc.
Let's look at the same example but with a different interpretation. Maybe as I think about how sad my coworker must be, I think about my dog in his outdoor kennel. I interpret the event as, "My dog could escape and get hit too." Now that thought prompts anxiety. I start wondering if I locked the kennel gate with the padlock. My anxiety increases.
The same situation led to different emotional cycles. So every emotion can be a secondary emotion, not just anger.
3. Primary emotions have a valid purpose.
Emotions—when working as intended—are extremely functional. Emotions communicate to others (through changes in our expressions and presentation); they communicate information to ourselves (e.g. responding to a compliment with happiness vs. fear/disgust says something different to us about the situation); and they prompt certain actions.
For all of this to work, we are hardwired for certain events to prompt certain emotions. Let’s briefly look at some examples. (In each case I only list a few aspects of each emotion; if you want more information you can take at look at Marsha Linehan's work with emotion regulation).
Happiness can be prompted by: getting what we want; receiving respect, esteem, or praise; or being with people who like or love us. When we feel happy, we can feel at peace, more open, and want to continue doing whatever is causing the happiness. We may smile, say positive things, use an enthusiastic voice. Aftereffects can include having a positive outlook, doing nice things for others, and tolerating worry easier.
Let’s break this down functionally. If we spend time with someone and they treat us well, we feel happy. We then want to continue that activity (spending time with them) and express it in ways that make others want to be around us more too. Afterwards, we feel more positive, which will make us more likely to spend time with that person again in the future. The happiness helps us build up and maintain positive relationships which build up our tolerance for worry and stress. Super functional, right?
Now let’s look at anger.
Anger can be prompted by: having an important goal blocked; losing power, status, or respect; not having things turn out as expected; feeling physical or emotional pain. It can be prompted by interpretations like, “I’m right”, judging the situation is wrong, believing you have been treated unfairly, or thinking your goals have been blocked. It can cause us to tense up, our heart to race, feel flushed. We can respond by complaining, physically or verbally fighting back, withdrawing from others. The after-effects can include only focusing on what makes us angry, numbness, or imagining future situations that will be similar.
Let’s break anger down functionally. If we have an important goal blocked (or feel pain, or feel disrespected), that could be overwhelming and make us shut down. But anger is an activating emotion. It forces us to focus on what is wrong, shoots adrenaline through our system, and makes us more likely to confront the situation or separate ourselves from the situation (or people). Afterwards, we think about possible future problems…or we might go numb as almost a “shut down” effect that gives our nervous system a chance to recover. It pushes us to address problems or remove ourselves from them; both can be health-promoting moves.
4. All emotions can be problematic
Anger can get a bad rep, especially when we dismiss it as a “secondary emotion,” not as important as sadness or fear or guilt. But the truth is, all emotions are dysfunctional when they no longer work as intended.
A range of things can cause this misfire, but they can be identified with a few questions:
These three steps lead to one question: is this emotion justified? Not is this emotion valid—all emotions are valid because all are caused for a reason—but instead, is it justified based on this specific event?
If the answer is no, then we want to look at how to change our response. If the answer is yes, then we want to use our emotions as intended. If angry, we want to confront or get distance. If happy, we want to engage and pursue. Etc.
It's easy to focus on unjustified anger, but what about unjustified happiness? If someone treats us badly, but we focus on the previous times they treated us well and feel happy, we might stay in a toxic relationship. Or if think about the future and become afraid we'll be alone if we lose this relationship, we might try even harder to make a toxic relationship continue. Unjustified emotions are unhealthy, regardless of which emotion it is.
5. When we label anger as the problem, we are using it as the scapegoat for other problems.
When anger is viewed as “the problem” I raise an eyebrow. (Okay, I raise two eyebrows because I’m not Spock). Saying anger is a secondary emotion in the "look at your real emotions" is invalidating the anger and treating it as a barrier. Here are some ways I’ve seen anger blamed for a different problem:
There are more examples. These are two really common ones that come to mind.
6. Anger can be helpful . . . when justified
To bring the last few points together into one: anger can be really useful. Anger can give us energy, numb us to consequences so we push through despite risk, and take on challenges we might not otherwise. Anger is a primary, hardwired emotion for a reason.
There are a few caveats to this.
There is a final question we should ask when we want to decide if an emotion is justified: is it effective to act on this emotion?
Sometimes anger can fit the facts of the situation and the intensity is appropriate, but acting on it will cause problems. So we need to change our emotion. Note: "effective" includes "effective to keep feeling this way." Anger kicks off an adrenaline response that puts stress on our nervous system, potentially leading to mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. There are times that stress will not be helpful for our current state.
So how do we use anger effectively? Ask that question. Notice how you are feeling, label the emotion, and ask yourself, "How can I put this energy to good use?"
Sometimes you can direct it at the prompting event; other times you might need to ride that energy to complete a different tasks. (I clean a lot when I feel angry and can't act on it.) The important part is to focus on the the usefulness of anger, once you identify one. If you keep returning to the original prompting event, you'll kick off the anger cycle again.
Changing emotions is a whole set of skills in DBT. You can find some information about one of those skills here.
So the TL;DR?
Anger is a primary emotion; like any emotion, anger is extremely helpful when justified; inaccurately labeling anger a "secondary emotion" or a "problem" invalidates and weakens the person experiencing anger.