Why Anger is Often Misunderstood

Jeremy Sharp, PhD Anger Leave a Comment

Anger—a primitive emotion that we have all felt at one point in our lives. What can stir up this complicated and powerful emotion? Perhaps, we may feel angry when we are betrayed, hurt, or even threatened by a circumstance, whether that be someone or something. However, we often feel angry before we can even comprehend what has occurred. Why is this?

Well, anger is one of the six basic emotions that have been “hardwired” (Burton 2016) into our brain. Dr. Neel Burton explained that the six basic emotions “are innate and universal, automatic, and fast, and trigger behavior with a high survival value,” (2016) meaning people can often react to situations or people with anger without even realizing why. This unconscious reaction is due to the evolution that our ancestors had to undergo in response to their environment; if they did not evolve with these emotions (the other five including happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, and surprise), it could pose a threat to their survival (Burton 2016). 

Although anger was implemented in our limbic system, or as Gerry Vassar puts it, the “emotional center of the brain,” (2018) for the sake of survival, it can become an issue if it hinders the ability to live a healthy life. If anger is triggered in seemingly ordinary situations, such as driving or regular, day-to-day inconveniences, it can be considered an anger problem (Legg 2017). Although anger issues are not the most common problem, getting down to the root of the emotion could offer insight as to why people seemingly overreact in fits of rage.

Anger can often be a front for emotions that may not be widely accepted. For example, men are taught from a young age that they should not feel emotions like sadness or fear. However, because men are human beings, they will inevitably feel these feelings at one point or another during their lives. Unfortunately, due to phrases like “man up” or “don’t be such a baby,” men do not have an outlet besides expressing a feeling that would be acceptable in societal terms. What might this emotion be? You guessed it—anger. Although this is a reason, and not an excuse, for if a man shows anger in a way that does not seem “appropriate” for the circumstance (e.g., during bereavement), it may offer a different perception as to why that occurs. 

Additionally, anger can be a projected emotion for underlying emotions that may not be able to be named by the person experiencing them. An angry person might actually feel annoyed, humiliated, or frustrated. Having said that, they may not know that what they are feeling is, well, what they are feeling. Below you’ll see what is known as a wheel of emotions (Deshpande 2020). This wheel pictures the six basic emotions (with the addition of “bad”) aforementioned above in the center, and surrounding each emotion are emotion words that could be underlying feelings beyond the basic sentiment. I find that understanding that anger may not always just be anger can help to better recognize areas where people may be struggling in their lives, or where you may even be struggling. 




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