- Will Smith's anger was natural and human.
- Anger needs to be validated, but the impulses must be slowed and channelled.
- There is a difference between experiencing anger and "acting out" anger.
- We all need tools to work with our anger.
Anger is a natural, core human emotion. We all have it. We feel it when we or someone we love is hurt, attacked, threatened, or violated.
We can all understand Will Smith’s impulse to protect his wife. It’s lovely in many ways. He wasn’t bad or wrong for feeling angry at Chris Rock. He wasn’t wrong for wanting to protect Jada. Our primary attachments, be they our parents, partners, or children, connect us in such a way that we feel each other’s pain and are moved to protect those we love. The problem was only that Will Smith acted on his anger. He indulged anger’s impulse unchecked by rational thought. As a result, he physically assaulted another human being and set off a cascade of regrettable events for himself and many others.
This unfortunate event illustrates why understanding a few basic things about emotions and practicing tools like the Change Triangle is necessary for all children and adults in the modern world. This is a perfect moment to share some emotions education about core emotions and anger.
What are core emotions?
I tell all my patients: Feelings just are! They are NOT in conscious control. So, it makes no sense to judge your emotions, only your actions. Core emotions are largely a bunch of physical sensations that we come to recognize and name as a particular emotion. Core emotions rapidly inform us about our environment in a knee-jerk sort of way. Am I safe or in danger? What do I need/want, and do I not need/want? Am I sad? Am I hurt? What brings me pleasure? What disgusts me? What excites me?
Core emotions are hardwired in the middle part of our brains, meaning they are not subject to conscious control. Triggered by the environment, each core emotion is pre-wired to set off a host of physiological reactions that prime us for an action that is meant to be adaptive, like fighting when attacked or running from danger. Core emotions are brilliant: If we don’t block them, their innate programming tells us important information to help us survive and thrive.
What is core anger?
Anger is one of the core survival emotions that Charles Darwin and many other emotions researchers, like Paul Eckman, Antonio Damasio, Jaak Panksepp, Bud Craig, and Diana Fosha, have studied. We evolved to have anger for protection. When we are attacked, anger is triggered in the brain, and immediately our bodies are mobilized to fight to survive. The vagus nerve, the largest nerve in the body, carries impulses from the brain to almost every organ in the body to get us physiologically ready for a fight. Blood flow goes to muscles, heart, and lungs, where we need it for fighting, and it gets diverted from digestion, where it is not needed. All these changes in the body are what we feel as impulses—like the impulse to slap someone.
Most people fear anger because they equate it with hurtful, scary, and destructive actions, as we saw at the Oscars. It’s an easy mistake to make: Anger happens so fast that the internal experience and the actions that follow appear to be one and the same.
However, with a little (or a lot of) practice, we can slow down the whole experience of being angry into the two steps it actually is. By noticing that we have been triggered to anger and slowing down just a little bit by using learnable techniques, like grounding and breathing, we gain awareness of what the anger is doing to us, giving us time and space to think before acting out. But if we don’t actively slow ourselves down, the fuel inherent in our anger will speed us up, and we will react almost immediately after the emotion is triggered, and that is what leads to escalations and violence.
Why emotions education is a moral imperative and important for public mental health:
I help people with anger. I have been teaching a tool called the Change Triangle to clients, family, and friends—basically, anyone who will listen—since 2004, when I first saw it at an academic conference on trauma, emotions, and attachment. The moment I saw the Change Triangle, I understood my mental health in a whole new way that was immediately healing. This tool is so useful because it explains the complexity of emotions and guides us on how to work with them in simple and practical ways. It teaches us how to work with emotions in the mind and body to bring forth greater well-being: less anxiety, less depression, greater self-control. It explains, among other things, how to safely experience emotions and then think through how to use the data that our emotions provide in constructive ways.
Let’s break down what happened to Will Smith’s mind and body into two parts.
Part 1: His internal experience of anger
Experiencing an emotion is a wholly internal experience. As we are in the midst of anger, we can build the capacity to simultaneously notice, name, and validate that we are angry. This alone helps calm down the nervous system. Ideally, Smith would have had the capacity to notice his anger immediately and be able to say to himself: I notice I am angry because Chris Rock insulted my wife.
If we slow down enough, we can sense the physical sensations of our anger and describe them. Smith might have sensed the anger as tension in his face or jaw or as a “jolt” in his body or as a rush of energy from his core.
In psychotherapy sessions and in the Emotion Education 101 classes I facilitate, I routinely ask, “What is happening to you physically? Notice the sensations in your body that anger generates. Where do you notice the anger in your body? What is it like? Can we struggle to put some language on it?” This practice builds our capacity to notice and feel at the same time without acting impulsively to discharge the massive amount of biological energy that anger creates inside our bodies.
Anger has wired-in impulses. The impulses of anger are mean and aggressive by nature. Anger wants to be nasty, even though other parts of us may want to be nice or calm. We can strive to notice our impulses: for example, wanting to yell at drivers, spew snide remarks to co-workers and family members, or lash out physically. By becoming aware of impulses, the chance of acting on them diminishes greatly.
Part 2: His acting out
Experiencing emotions and having angry thoughts does not hurt people—actions hurt people. But staying with the experience of anger without doing anything is a challenge that takes education, skill, and practice. Our society provides no emotions education, so we are like puppets on a string, often at the mercy of our emotional impulses without even realizing it. That’s one reason so many people discharge their anger by yelling, insulting, blaming, hitting, or abusing others. Some of us act out reflexively to get rid of the bad/painful/scary/angry feelings inside of us, and it works in the moment. But there are usually negative consequences to acting out.
The big benefit of emotions education and “working the Change Triangle” is that it helps us break down emotions into these two parts: the experience of the emotion, which is only internal, and the pull to taking action, which, when indulged, affects others and has consequences.
To review, what helps us thrive in life is to learn to fully experience our anger internally and have control over how, when, and if we choose to communicate it to others. When someone angers us, we need to slow ourselves down, tune into our physical reactions and validate to ourselves that we are indeed angry. We need to know who angered us, what we are angry about, and to listen to our impulses. The very last step is to think through a constructive course of action. A constructive course of action is an action that is in sync with our values and long-term goals for wellness and health.
We do not need to be in therapy to work on our anger. We can get to know our internal experience any time we want. Noticing our internal experience is a practice honed over a lifetime. And violence is never OK unless it is a life-and-death self-defensive action.
Fosha, D. (edited) (2021). Undoing Aloneness and the Transformation of Suffering Into Flourishing: AEDP 2.0. Washington DC: American Psychological Association
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect. New York: Basic Books.
Hendel, H. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression. Random House: New York