Anger: The Misunderstood Affect

Anger is an SOS signal—a call for help.

Posted Jan 05, 2021

“…Anyone can get angry—that is easy…but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.” —Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics

“All the negative affects trouble human beings deeply…. Anger is problematic above all.” —Silvan Tomkins, 1991

In this time of great distress, perhaps it would be useful to take a look at the feeling of anger.

Anger is one of the negative affects—and like all negative affects, it is an SOS signal: a call for help. “Something is wrong here.” Anger is excessive distress. It is a quantitative concept: It is “too-muchness.”

While anger may be the basic affect, with age and development there are many shades of anger. Each has its own connotation, and each resonates slightly differently in the human personality. Language can complicate the expression of anger between individuals, making it misunderstood or too harsh, and clinically it can complicate the efforts of the therapist to use words to improve insight and understanding of self.

“Anger” labels a primary affect. “Annoyance” is less intense, as is “irritability,” which waxes and wanes in response to provocation. “Hostility” refers to affect too, but with the additional notion of a more complex feeling and cognitive state. “Rage” refers to anger of very high intensity.

There are also adjectives attached to anger. “Vicious” adds a qualitative moral normative judgment to a presumed intense anger, adding the complication of intention to hurt another. “Aggressive” also adds behavioral criteria to the affect.

“Destructive” speaks not to the behavioral aspect but rather to the consequences and outcome of the behavior: A person may be destructive by action or by speech; he may be conscious of his destructiveness or not. But the word “destructive” may have nothing to do with anger, since one may kill accidentally and since natural disasters such as hurricanes may be “destructive.” These are some of the ways Tomkins broke down anger (1991, p. 51), and they launch us into an exploration of three aspects of anger:

  1. Anger as an affect
  2. Anger as contagious
  3. How anger can be manifested and dealt with in the clinical arena

Anger as an Affect

Let’s start from the beginning. In this model, anger is one of the nine innate affects, a response to both internal and external stimulation. It can be readily observed early in the infant’s life.

Anger is a quantitative affect. It is linked to the affect of distress. Everyone has his/her own stimulus threshold which triggers the various affects. Any excessive sustained increase in the level of stimulation, such as a continuing bright light or loud noise, will activate distress: Arched eyebrows, corners of the mouth turned down, tears and crying, and so on. If the stimulation persists and heightens, anger is triggered: Frowning eyebrows, narrowed eyes, red face, the roar of rage.

With age, distress may manifest with irritability, annoyance, snippiness. Consider the small child, or adult, when tired, sick, or hungry. With continued and heightened stimulation, distress becomes excessive and anger is triggered. With adults, the stimuli may be quite varied: stress and pressure involving one’s work, children, spouse; physical pain; conscious and unconscious fantasies; and so on. Distress increases—and annoyance, snippiness, and irritability can morph into anger.

The term “stressed out” is right on target: There is “too-muchness,” stress, stimulation. Thus, there may be a process of summation with anger, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Things may be going along reasonably well, but then one event after another begins to push the envelope toward anger. Any one or two or three of these issues might be easily handled; too many of them piled up can exceed the individual’s tension-regulatory capacity and lead to anger. As discussed below, these processes have important clinical implications for affect regulation.

In addition, anger can be viewed as a final common pathway of all negative affects. Excessive distress, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell all can ultimately trigger an anger response, sometimes followed by “fight or flight” or employment of defenses such as externalization and projection, repression and disavowal, and more (see below). This too is important clinically, with respect to understanding anger which may have roots in excessive fear or shame.

Anger as Contagious

Anger is also what is known as a “contagious” affect—anger in one person seems to spread to another. How and why?

How? probably because someone else’s anger adds to your level of distress. Think of road rage, a car honking behind you. This increase in stimulation can feel like an attack, an assault, something personal.

Why contagious? Probably, from an evolutionary perspective, because anger in another person creates enough stimulation to mobilize the distress and anger to respond to a potential threat.

Some Clinical Issues

There are a variety of symptoms and psychopathology related to anger, including: obsessive-compulsive disorders, paranoia, anxiety disorders, depression, delinquency, violence, and more. Some of these involve the internalization of anger, and some involve behavioral expressions of anger.

Affect theory may be of use in understanding some of the various clinical issues involved with anger. For example, it appears that anger scares us. It triggers fear. Recall that affects can interact with each other, trigger each other. Excessive distress, shame, disgust can trigger anger, and anger can trigger fear. Anger often brings with it loud noise, impulsivity, shame, pain and violence, loss of control, and violent fantasies.

In one sense, anger is supposed to alert the individual and the environment. The negative affects are signals for help, and anger conveys that something is really wrong. A major function of the mind is to create order and coherence (Basch, 1988; Demos, 2019), and anger can be destabilizing and disorganizing. However, in life-threatening situations or competition, anger may be very motivating and focusing.

  • Narcissistic rage is a particular type of anger; it occurs when one’s sense of self, self-esteem, or competence and capabilities have been wounded or diminished (Kohut, 1971). This can be the result of external provocation or internal self-abasement and incompetence. The dynamics are similar as noted for anger: They involve excessive distress or shame or fear, often disrupting one’s internal world.
  • The common psychodynamic defenses used to cope with anger and fear include repression, disavowal, projection (often leading to paranoia), displacement, denial, withdrawal, externalization, and others. As Freud (1915) noted, all defense is a defense against affect: Aall defense is a form of isolation of affect (Basch, 1988).
  • The mutative factors in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy include interpretation (childhood antecedents, transferences, themes.) and various aspects of the patient-therapist relationship. With anger, one goal is to detoxify the anger, often by addressing the defenses and allowing the anger to see the light of day, to become talkable about. Much of this process includes enhancing interest and self-reflection so that the affect of anger can be explored and better understood—what and who trigger it, what images and fantasies occur, what does it feel like in the body and face, and so on.
  • Verbalization is a crucial aspect of “working through,” understanding and detoxifying the anger. Verbalization allows for symbolization, communication, metaphor, all of which can enhance capacities for self-reflection and tension-regulation. Many clinicians and theoreticians emphasize the importance of putting into words the various triggers, feelings, fantasies, and so on associated with anger (eg, Katan, 1961; Gedo, 2005; Tyson, 2005).
  • Child/parent work. Much child/parent work involves the affects of interest and anger. Interest is involved in one’s efforts to help both parents and children appreciate that the behaviors of children have meaning and are motivated by underlying feelings. The idea is to help the parents and children become curious about their feelings and actions and what triggers them.

The affect of anger often troubles parents the most. I have found two approaches particularly useful. One is to help the parent and children to understand the affect of anger as a quantitative issue, “too muchness,” excessive distress, a call for help. The other is to focus on allowing the anger to be expressed (rather than inhibiting it) and to put words to that process. This is similar to what one tries to do with adult patients, working through the defenses and enhancing verbalization of the processes. The emphasis on interest, understanding anger, and verbalization also has a preventive aspect as well as curative, in that it helps protect against developmental derailments and formation of psychopathology.

Children’s nightmares can have a variety of antecedents and meanings—trauma, loss and separation, fear of fragmentation and non-existence, and others (see Wilkerson, 1981). Frequently, repressed anger can be readily projected—onto the “monsters in the closet and under the bed.” In this way the child rids herself of the frightening, forbidden anger—it is the monsters who are dangerous and angry. Often, helping parents and child understand and discuss the child’s anger and fear can lead to a resolution of the nightmares, as well as an enhanced awareness of one’s intrapsychic world.

Anger is also an important aspect of psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic transference and countertransference reactions. In such cases, it can be beneficial for the clinician to become increasingly aware of his/her own anger, his/her own childhood antecedents, and the conscious and unconscious communications from the patient that may be contributing to mobilizing the therapist’s reactions.

Understanding anger from the perspective of affect theory can often be useful in sorting out the complexities associated with transference and countertransference reactions.


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Demos EV (2019). The Affect Theory of Silvan Tomkins for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy: Recasting the Essentials. New York: Routledge.

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Gedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188.

Kohut H (1971). The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.

Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.

Tyson P (2005). Affects, agency, and self-regulation: Complexity theory in the treatment of children with anxiety and disruptive behavior disorders. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 53: 159-187.

Wilkerson DC (1981). Children’s dreams – 1900—1980. Annual of Psychoanalysis 9:57-71.