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Anger is a misunderstood emotion, here’s what it really means when you’re angry

While it’s not possible to completely control anger, psychologist Andrew Fuller explains how to stay sane when things go pear-shaped.

Feelings are like unexpected dinner guests: some of them are welcome; some are picky eaters and hard to please; some don’t stay long enough, while others stay well beyond their use-by date.

Then there are those that become too rowdy and won’t settle down, while others are hard to engage, amuse and entertain.

One problem we all face is that these random dinner guests often show up without much notice and we don’t have the faintest idea what to do with them.

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So, what does anger really mean?

Although anger is usually viewed as a negative emotion, it’s a very valuable feeling because it shows we care deeply.

It signals what’s really important to us. It’s also a sign that we need to protect ourselves from something.

It arises in the face of a real or even perceived threat to our personal boundaries or core beliefs. If we miss that message, not only may we find ourselves in harm’s way, our anger can also go unchecked and become uncontrolled.

And projecting anger on to someone doesn’t help: you risk missing what it’s trying to tell you. It’s an outer response to an inner sense of vulnerability.

Deeply buried behind anger is hurt and grief. It can lurk and smoulder for a long time before erupting in a wild flash.

Most things that make us angry are deeply rooted in incidents experienced in our earlier years.

How do strong emotions come about?

One day during my clinical-psychology studies we were learning about the concept of human behaviour being caused by an external stimulus or trigger – in other words, something tangible and physical had to happen to cause a person to act a certain way.

When I asked where feelings came in and if they could also act as a trigger, the lecturer drew a diagram on the board that read, “Stimulus > Black box > Behaviour or response”.

“What’s in the black box?” I asked, to which the lecturer replied, “Don’t worry about the black box. Just focus on what the stimulus and outcome is.”

At the time, I rather glumly concluded that clinical psychology, the study of psyche and soul, was not much interested in feelings.

And this puzzle only increased as I sat with people in my therapy room – people who were grasping on to their last hopes, who thought their lives were wasted, who felt worthless, who were suffering from chronic disease, grief, trauma or sadness.

Despite their varying conditions, what all these people had in common was that as they became more aware of their feelings, they began to heal.

Fortunately, psychological science has evolved from when I was first studying.

The role of feelings, in and of themselves, has been reassessed and we now know a whole lot more about them and the powerful role they can have on our lives.

Deciphering the language of your own feelings is like developing a special power. It enables you to comprehend the complexities of day-to-day life without becoming a victim to them, and can help you learn:

  • What upsets you and what to do about it
  • How to calm yourself down or get to the bottom of worries
  • How to replicate times of happiness, inspiration and creativity
  • How to react more positively to moments of anger or conflict

This, in turn, can give you better insight to:

  • Differentiate genuine people from those who are fake
  • Know who truly desires you
  • Learn from your experiences by looking inwards, as well as outwards

The A To Z Of Feelings by Andrew Fuller ($32.99, Bad Apple Press) is out now.