To Manage Your Anger, Give It a Name

Why you should name your anger.

Posted Feb 01, 2019

Big Stock Images
Source: Big Stock Images

Giving your partner the silent treatment, breaking a water glass in the middle of a fight, responding to criticism with the meanest thing you can think to say. Once you’ve done it, you regret it, but it’s too late to take it back. You can only hope the next time you’re angry, you respond in a better way.

To gain control over your reactions to your emotions, you have to know why you’re feeling the emotion in the first place. A helpful tool for doing this is noticing and naming your feelings. Recognizing the subtle differences between different types of anger will give you a greater sense of your experience and more profound knowledge of yourself. And, as you come to understand your inner world better, you’ll gain the tools to understand others’ experiences better, helping you become more empathetic and in turn a better partner and friend.

To get started, here is a list of words that describe different types of anger. See if you can recall having felt any of them. Try to remember a specific experience that brought up that type of anger.

•Agitated  •Aggravated  •Annoyed  •Belligerent  •Bitter  •Boiling  •Brooding  •Contemptuous  •Cross  •Disgusted  •Displeased  •Enraged  •Frustrated  •Fuming  •Furious  •Grumpy  •Hateful  •Heated  •Ill-tempered  •Incensed  •Indignant  •Inflamed  •Infuriated  •Irascible  •Irate  •Irritated  •Livid  •Mad  •Mean  •Miffed  •Offended  •Pissed off  •Resentful  •Riled  •Upset  •Vengeful  •Wrathful

As you can see, there isn’t just one type of anger. Anger, like all emotions, isn’t one-size-fits-all. What makes you angry, and the kind of anger you feel, can be traced from your present situation back to your childhood experiences and then back to the culture at large. If your caregivers were anger withholders, feeling resentful, bitter, or brooding may be common responses to things that make you angry. If your caregivers were anger dumpers, enraged, wrathful, and boiling might describe your feelings better.

On NPR’s Morning Edition recently, reporter Michaeleen Doucleff spoke about her difficulty managing anger (“Got Anger? Try Naming It to Tame It”). She spoke with Northeastern University psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett about how the plethora of words for anger from around the world can teach us about the richness of the emotion. One example is backpfeifengesicht, a German word that translates roughly as “a slap in the face.” Feldman Barrett explains that it means, “you're so furious with someone that you look at their face, and it's as if their face is urging you to punch them.”

Linguist Yao Yao at Hong Kong Polytechnic University introduced Doucleff to the Mandarin Chinese word huǐhèn, which means "You regret something you did so much, that you're angry at yourself.” Abhijeet Paul, a South Asian literature professor at Middlebury College, describes the abundance of words for different types of anger in India, including one that describes “a loving anger,” anger you feel toward someone you can’t help but love. "It's a mixed bag of love, grief, sorrow, and anger,” Paul says.

Studies show that more precisely identifying your emotions can help you better control your responses to those emotions. According to a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2015, “Unpacking Emotion Differentiation: Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity”: “Being able to carefully perceive and distinguish the rich complexity in emotional experiences is a key component of psychological interventions.” This strategy is called emotional granularity.

“Being granular with your anger helps you figure out what's the best way to handle the situation—or whether you should do anything at all,” Doucleff explains. “For instance, if you are feeling a quick burst of anger, which you know will fade rapidly, then maybe doing nothing is the best strategy.”

Yale University psychologist Maria Gendron suggests coming up with new names for types of anger and then using those words with your family and friends. There’s already a new one popularized on the internet, hangry, to describe irritability caused by hunger. Some other ideas:

Incompetency anger: The anger you feel when forced to deal with someone who is terrible at their job. When you’re in a store and the person helping you triggers incompetency anger, you can find another employee to help you rather than storm out in a rage, not buying what you came for.

Dawn anger: The general feeling you get when you have to wake up early, and everything irritates you. You know this anger will pass within a few hours, so if you tell your family you’re feeling dawn anger, they’ll know to give you some space until later in the day.

Interruption anger: The feeling you get when someone interrupts you in the middle of something important. If your spouse knows your interruption anger is easily triggered, you can find solutions to it. If you’re in the middle of a stressful day at work, and your spouse wants to make dinner plans, instead of calling you, which may trigger interruption anger and a big fight, they can text you an apple emoji. Then when you’ve got a free moment, you can call them to discuss dinner.

Doucleff uses an interesting (and delicious) analogy, comparing types of anger to types of wine. She says, “There are these major varieties—such as chardonnay and pinot noir—but each vintage has its own unique combination of aromas, flavors, and potency. The more practice you have at detecting—and naming—these nuances, the better you understand wine.”

Become a connoisseur of emotions and learn to identify, and appreciate, the uniqueness of each of yours.