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Understanding and Processing Anger

Looking beneath the "blanket" of anger can lead to deeper understanding.

Key points

  • An estimated 90 percent of aggressive incidents are preceded by anger.
  • Anger is largely perceived as a secondary emotion.
  • Anger shows up when a person feels the need to defend themselves. It’s a sign that something needs attention.

Learning to look beneath the "blanket" of anger can lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and more compassionate, authentic interactions with the people in our lives.

Anger is an emotion we’re all familiar with. We’ve all been disappointed and hurt, and felt used, threatened, or let down. When anger shows up, we experience physical symptoms, like muscle tension, a knot in the stomach, and a sudden racing heartbeat. Anger never feels good, and it often leads to unpleasant interactions with others, with damaging negative consequences. Anger is a negative emotion, like jealousy, hate, and sometimes sadness. Anger can be explosive, violent, and destructive.

There’s a Chinese proverb that cautions against acting out in anger: If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow. Wise words… but as anyone who has ever experienced anger knows, dealing patiently when feeling angry is easier said than done. What are we talking about when we talk about anger? Is it possible to control anger while standing up for ourselves when we’re feeling threatened or hurt in some way?

A secondhand emotion

Most of us have at least one regret about acting out in anger. And most of us would love to know how to better handle ourselves and our interactions with others when we’re angry. Let’s look at exactly what we’re dealing with: The American Psychological Association defines anger as “a negative feeling state that is typically associated with hostile thoughts, physiological arousal, and maladaptive behaviours.” Further, their research shows that “about 90 percent of aggressive incidents are preceded by anger.” Anger is widely recognized by mental health professionals as a secondary — what I refer to as a "blanket" — emotion.

Anger on the rise

With daily reports of heated confrontations in airports, grocery stores, and other normally neutral settings, it is clear that anger is on the rise. According to Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Report, “In 2020, the world was a sadder, angrier, more worried and more stressed-out place than it has been at any time in the past 15 years.“

Hans Steiner, Professor Emeritus at Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, explains how the pandemic has contributed to the rise in anger: “The COVID situation does present us with unprecedented challenges which interfere unrelentingly with all our lives. Social isolation may be the best tool to keep the virus under control, but this clashes directly with the need for social interventions helping us resolve anger and rage when being at the mercy of injustice and uncertainty.”

In a January 2022 New York Times article, Sarah Lyall examined consumer rage and interviewed a number of people on the receiving end of consumer anger. One merchant described an encounter with an enraged customer: “You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”

It’s most definitely not about the cheese, or the long line at the grocery check-out, or the bad driver in the parking lot, or wherever and however else anger shows up. It’s about that secondary blanket emotion of anger, and what lies beneath it. And there’s no better time than here and now to learn how to understand what’s going on and process our anger.

Funneling anger

Anger shows up when we feel the need to defend ourselves. It’s a sign that something is wrong and needs our attention and consideration. Neither acting out in anger nor holding it in produces a desirable result. Anger demands our attention, as it buries our more authentic primary emotions, and prevents us from seeing ourselves and our situation clearly, and understanding what is happening within ourselves.

In my 25 years as a clinical psychologist, I have successfully used the Anger Funnel to help patients better understand and process their anger and relate to others in a more positive, authentic, and effective way.

With the Anger Funnel, the process of understanding and processing anger is less difficult. Learning to lift the blanket emotion of anger and explore our true feelings leads us to a better understanding of and greater compassion for ourselves, and healthier, more positive, effective, and authentic interactions with others.

Here’s an illustration of the Anger Funnel from my book, A Deeper Wellness:

 A Deeper Wellness, Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety, and Traumas, @2022 by Dr. Monica Vermani, C. Psych
Here’s an illustration of the Anger Funnel from my book, A Deeper Wellness
Source: Source: A Deeper Wellness, Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety, and Traumas, @2022 by Dr. Monica Vermani, C. Psych

Step One: Think of a situation in your past that made you feel angry; a time where you acted out in anger or suppressed your anger and failed to stand up for yourself.

Step Two: Take a moment to remember that anger is a secondhand, blanket emotion that stems from primary emotions, such as sadness, feeling abandoned, betrayed, unsafe, lonely, scared, or taken advantage of. Think about what contributed to your feelings of anger in that situation.

Step Three: Using the example of that situation, place the primary emotions that led to feelings of anger at the top of the Anger Funnel. Imagine these feelings trickling down the funnel and eventually pouring out the bottom as anger.

Step Four: Imagine — and write down, if you wish — how you might have processed your anger had you been able to better examine, understand, and communicate your feelings and concerns, rather than act out or suppress your anger.

Step Five: Put the funnel to work. The next time you’re angry with someone, take a moment to think about the feelings that have led to feeling angry. Have compassion for yourself and how you are feeling. Take the time to consider how best to resolve whatever is causing you to feel unsafe, threatened, or insecure. With these insights, respond compassionately, rather than reacting in anger.

A new way forward

Anger is a fight-or-flight emotion and an indicator that you need to find a new way forward. Learning to lift the blanket emotion of anger and explore the true feelings beneath will lead to a better understanding of, and greater compassion for, yourself and others. When you explore what lies beneath anger, you improve communication with yourself. This, in turn, leads to better and more authentic interactions with others.

What to do when anger shows up

  • Step back, rather than act out in anger.
  • Take a time out to allow feelings of anger to decrease.
  • Use the anger funnel to explore underlying primary emotions like sadness, disappointment, or fear that triggered your anger.
  • Acknowledge the true feelings beneath your anger.
  • Take steps to tackle the problematic situations in your life.
  • Seek help from a mental health professional if you find your anger is out of control.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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