Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

An Urgent Plea for Justice and Action

Anger is a strong emotion designed to send the clear message “something has got to change”. It is an urgent plea for justice and action. If we exercise enough self control to overcome our immediate impulse to lash out and do harm, we can calm down, reflect, and analyze the causes of our anger. Careful analysis can identify what change is needed and can lead us toward constructive and lasting change that fulfills our needs. When cooler heads prevail anger's energy is channeled in a positive direction, and the anger motivates constructive changes. When we act on our impulses in the heat of passion, the results are too often destructive and tragic. There are many myths and misconceptions about anger and how to cope with it. The most destructive misconception is that it is healthy or effective to display anger violently and “vent”. Contrary to this popular misunderstanding, the most healthy way to deal with anger is to stay in control, analyze the message it is sending, and harness the energy it provides for positive change. Another misconception is that revenge can lead to positive change. Unfortunately revenge usually leads only to a cycle of destructive escalation. Expressing anger with violence breeds more anger. I hope the information presented here helps channel anger into positive change.

Forms of Anger

Many words in our vocabulary describe forms of anger. They often differ in the intensity of the anger they express, but the basic archetype is the same. Here is a partial list, in approximate order from the most mild to the most intense: annoyance, irritation, aggravation, agitation, frustration, peeved, annoyed, miffed, sulking, offended, bitter, indignation, exasperation, incensed, pissed, outrage, hostile, spite, vengefulness, resentment, wrath, rage, fury, ferocity, and livid. Bitterness describes a long-lasting result of unresolved anger. Hate is a form of anger because you blame the other for your difficulties when you decide to hate them.

In addition to varying over a wide range of intensity, anger has a variety of forms. These include:

  • Indignation: Self-righteous anger,
  • Sulking: Passive anger,
  • Exasperation: anger at having your patience unduly tried, and
  • Revenge: A deliberate response to an offense, delayed until after a period of reflection

Definitions and Analysis

Many definitions of anger have been proposed. These include:

  1. An unjust insult, an unfair slight, or
  2. A conspecific threat, or
  3. Response to thwarted goals, or
  4. An agent causes loss of a goal, or
  5. Loss attributed to an agent, or
  6. An urgent signal to prepare for change, or
  7. A plea for justice, or
  8. A biological core related to combativeness, or
  9. Judging another person as being wrong or deserving to be punished, or
  10. Blaming another person for our own unmet needs, or
  11. Displeased by the appraisal of an event while disapproving of another’s action, or
  12. an aroused, often heated state in combining a compellingly felt sense of being wronged or frustrated, or
  13. Response to trespass

However, the definition that seems to be most precise, and provides the most insight is:

  • Anger is an emotion,
  • resulting from a perceived loss,
  • attributed to a willful agent, and
  • judged as unfair.

Let's examine this definition closely. Because anger is an emotion, it evokes a physiological response. In the case of anger, this is usually a strong arousal. Often the arousal is so strong it can lead immediately to an ugly, destructive, and unnecessary “anger display” of shouting, threatening, and even violence if it is unchecked. A wide variety of perceived losses can trigger anger. This may include having your possessions stolen, abused, or destroyed. It can also involve loss of stature or ego, such as when you lose a competition, suffer an insult, or are humiliated. The idea of “trespass” is important here, because the person trespassed against often considered it as a form of loss. Sadness, as well as grief and depression, are other emotions arising from a loss. The distinction between anger and sadness is the role of the “willful agent”. An agent is someone who acted deliberately. For example, if you lose your pet because it dies of natural causes, you are sad, but not angry. If your pet is killed by a malicious or even a careless person, you are angry at that person. You are angry because you believe that person acted with the deliberate intent to cause you harm. Now it has become a deliberate act and a personal affront. Often the willful agent is yourself. Extending the previous example, you may blame yourself for the loss of your pet if you believe you did not take sufficient care of the pet, or if you believe you could have done more to protect the pet and prevented the loss. Finally, to result in anger, you have to judge the willful agent as acting unfairly. If you lose a tennis match, you may be sad. If you believe the opponent cheated, or the referee made a mistake, this is unfair, and you become angry.

This is a lot of complexity to incorporate into the split second assessments that so often lead us to anger. Perhaps the useful folk wisdom to “count to ten” recognizes these assessments can often be wrong. Fortunately we can analyze our anger rationally and learn a lot about ourselves.

Analyzing our anger can provide valuable insights into knowing yourself. To analyze the anger, begin by examining the perceived loss. Ask yourself:

  • What have I lost? Is the loss real?
  • What is its value to me?
  • Why do I perceive this as important?
  • Was this my loss or was it someone else's? What are their views regarding this loss? How do you know? Why do you care?
  • Do I feel insulted? Why? Has my ego been attacked? Have I lost some dignity? Was I ridiculed or humiliated? Has my reputation been damaged? Do I feel less competent? Was I denied fair recognition or reward? Is the insult groundless or is it an accurate interpretation of my behavior? What is the asymmetry that bothers me so much?
  • Do I feel powerless? Have I lost autonomy? Do I feel cheated? Was I taken for a sucker? Was a trust betrayed? Was privacy breached?
  • Was I coerced into submission or obedience?
  • Have I been threatened, injured, struck, abused, attacked, or intimidated?
  • Has anyone trespassed on my territory?
  • Have my goals been thwarted? Have my freedoms been abridged? Is my safety or security reduced? Is my legacy diminished?
  • Have I lost power? Have I lost stature? Have I lost strength? Have I lost influence? Have I lost access? Has a relationship been damaged?
  • From a rational point of view, how big is this loss? What impact will it have? How can I recover? Can I just ignore the issue?

Your answers to these questions will provide valuable insights into your values, beliefs, goals, and needs. Based on what you learn, complete the following sentence: I am angry because I have lost . . . This loss is important to me because I [value, believe, want to achieve, or need] . . . Then evaluate how strongly you still assess the loss.

Now identify the willful agent who is the target of your anger and examine their intent. Ask yourself:

  • To what agent do I attribute this action? Who do I hold responsible?
  • Did they act deliberately? How do you know? How can you check your assumption of intention?
  • Do they consider themselves responsible for the action?

An agent is someone who acted deliberately. If you are angry because you stubbed your toe on the door your choice of agents is limited to: 1) the door, 2) the floor, 3) yourself, 4) someone who pushed you, or 5) Some innocent person who was not even in the room at the time. Note that the first two agents on the list cannot act willfully, and the last did not even act! The Fundamental Attribution Error—incorrectly attributing an action or intent to an agent—is a common mistake. If you find yourself blaming an un-willful agent (e.g. the door or the floor) for your anger, perhaps the change that is needed is that you need to take more responsibility for your own actions.

Finally, work to understand if the willful agent acted unfairly. Ask yourself:

  • Why do you believe the action was unfair?
  • What would you consider fair?
  • What was the agent's point of view?
  • How do they justify their actions? How do you know?
  • If the willful agent had a strong sense of empathy, what would they have done? How do you know?
  • What would a good friend have done in this situation? How do you know?
  • What would you have done in this situation? How do you know? What did you do the last time you were in a similar situation?
  • What is the basis for your sense of justice? What standard do you use to establish “fair and just”? Is it a well-founded standard? Is it a widely accepted standard? Is it a standard the willful agent would accept?
  • How can you check your assumptions? What is the evidence?

Fairness and justice and are remarkably difficult concepts to define. While we all have some inherent sense of right and wrong, attempts to write a comprehensive code of ethics, a set of rules, or a code of laws have eluded the best scholars, lawyers, theologians, ethicists, philosophers, and even parents over the millennia. I recommend using the standard of empathy—a deep appreciation for another's situation and point of view—as the basis for fair judgment, but you probably have your own standard for judging fairness. Certainly the principle of symmetry—apparent balance—is an important basis for fairness and justice.

Origins, Archetypes, and the Plot of Anger

Anger encourages us to act on our sense of justice. Anger may be interpreted in many of the following ways:

  • A demeaning offense against me or mine.
  • Interference with what we are intent on doing. Thwarted goals. Frustration,
  • Intentional physical harm toward us; actual, threatened, or reasonably perceived,
  • Intentional psychological harm toward us, including insult, humiliation, denigration, intimidation, or rejection,
  • Disappointment in the performance of others we care about; we get most angry at the people we love the most,
  • Witnessing the anger of another, especially when it is directed at you.

The message to others is “get out of my way” or “I want to hurt you”

Benefits and Dangers of Anger

The anger mechanism would not have survived millions of years of evolution if it did not provide important survival benefits. Here are some of those benefits:

  • Anger tells us that something needs to change.
  • Anger can provide the motivation to constructively change whatever it was that caused the anger. It can energize the fight for legitimate rights. It contributed to eliminating slavery and apartheid, and lead to women's suffrage and civil rights. Anger can motivate us to overcome oppression and topple a tyrant
  • Anger can provide the motivation to constructively correct an injustice. It urges us to act on our sense of justice.
  • Anger can provide the motivation to constructively teach offenders what they did to make you angry, and to learn to act differently.
  • Anger can help to reduce or overcome fear and provide the energy needed to mobilize needed change.
  • Anger sends a powerful signal that informs others of trouble. It notifies the offender that you have perceived an offense.
  • Anger helps us to preserve our ego and think good of ourselves.
  • Anger is a normal response to an external stimulus that needs to be addressed.

One of the most dangerous features of anger is that expressing anger increases the anger of others. This can lead to a rapid and dangerous escalation. We may try to harm the target of our anger. We often wish them harm. The impulse to harm is probably a central part of the anger response for most people. While anger can be dangerous and must be constrained, it cannot and should not be eliminated.

Anger as an Imperative for Change

Considering anger as an urgent imperative for change provides a useful point of view for analyzing our options, actions, and effectiveness. This viewpoint raises these questions:

  1. Why am I receiving this signal for change? What does it tell me about my own beliefs, values, goals, judgments, sense of justice, and needs?
  2. What has to change?
  3. What steps are needed to carry out the change?
  4. Who needs to act to make the change?
  5. When does the change need to take place?
  6. Will the change be effective?
  7. Will the change be lasting?
  8. Will the result be constructive?

Let's look at each of these questions and examine how thoughtful discipline and impulse control can overcome the strong impulse to lash out now.

Why am I receiving this signal for change? What does it tell me about my own beliefs, values, judgments, sense of justice and needs? Think this one through very carefully. At the deepest level of my consciousness, beliefs, values, and needs, what is it about my self that has caused this event to make me angry? Are my beliefs, values, goals, and judgments well founded and helpful? What is the basis for my sense of justice? What is it I need that I am not getting? Is the need valid? How can I form a request to best obtain what I need? What are the actions that are most likely to get what I most need? (Hint, revenge is not a need).

What has to change? and Who needs to act to make the change? Our viewpoint is intrinsically our own, and our impulse is to insist that you have to change now to accommodate my needs. But a constructive response to anger requires overcoming this self-centered impulse to allow a broader and deeper analysis of the information and options. Begin by focusing on the constructive steps you can take to move forward. If your actions in responding to anger, for example indulging in a dramatic anger display, will not cause the needed change then that action is not a good choice.

What steps are needed to carry out the change? Our attention is fundamentally limited. As a result, we are selective in what we can observe, and we always make judgments based on our past experiences, beliefs, and needs when we interpret observations. Also, our memory is limited, and our recall is based on simplifications used to interpret the original observation in the context of our present set of beliefs. Because our experiences and point of view are self-centered and unique, our judgments will reflect this intrinsic bias. As a result of this inherent bias, the options for change we first see are limited and often require others to change to accommodate our preferences. Again, a constructive response to anger requires overcoming this impulse and allow a broader and deeper analysis of the information and options. Test the effectiveness of your planned changes by examining why you believe they will result in the needed change.

When does the change need to take place? Anger can be an immensely strong emotion with an almost overwhelming urge to act immediately. Although nearly every part of your being is screaming for you to act now, it is essential for you to find the strength to resist this powerful urge. Be patient. Calm down. Control you temper. Take three deep breathes. Count to ten, slowly. Allow the refractory period to end, and allow reason to prevail. Take your time to accurately assess the situation. Be skeptical and take the time to verify your assumptions using thoughtful inquiry and rigorous evidence obtained from several reliable sources. Consider a variety of points of view, including an empathy based point of view of the person who provoked your anger. What would you have done? How do you know?

Will the change be effective? Will the change be lasting? Will the result be constructive? Keep in mind that acting in anger inevitably creates more anger. Understand what you can change and what you cannot. Create options for mutual gain. Invent more options for mutual gain. What are the best options for getting your needs met? What can you do?

Anger as Hurt, Hate, or Fear

A general feeling of anger may result from more specific feelings of hurt (due to loss, sadness, shame, or humiliation), hate, or fear. It can be helpful to examine your anger to see if has these more specific origins or meanings.

Related Moods and Traits

Irritability is the mood associated with anger. If you are in an irritable mood, you require less provocation to become angry. You may also be described as having a bad temper. This may also be described as grouchy, grumpy, or being in a bad mood.

Hostility is the personality trait associated with anger. Hostile people are more likely to become angry.

A hot head or someone with a bad temper, is anyone who has poor impulse control and moves quickly from anger toward rage, dramatic anger displays, and even overt violence. These people may also have hostile personalities. They often have a fragile self-esteem and are hypersensitive to criticism or disrespect. Privately they see themselves as weak, vulnerable, and not particularly strong, capable, or worthy. They fear humiliation. To bolster their own opinion of themselves they believe others should show them respect and acknowledge their high stature. If others fail to demonstrate respect they are dismissed as unfriendly, critical, and hostile.

Physiological Responses

You actually feel anger, partially as a result of these involuntary changes in your body:

  • Increased heart rate,
  • increased blood pressure,
  • reddened face,
  • tensed muscles,
  • a tendency to move forward, toward the target of the anger.

Much of this is caused by activating the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system as a primal survival strategy.

Myths and Misconceptions

The Hydraulic Model of Anger—describing the need to vent dramatically and “let off steam”—is unfounded. “Getting your anger out” almost always makes matters worse. There is no evidence that suppressed anger is harmful if we feel in control of the situation, and if we interpret the anger as a grievance to be corrected constructively. Unless the source of your anger can be corrected by expressing anger, don't. Although anger itself does not accumulate, the urge for revenge can. It can be harmful to accumulate and intensify the urge for revenge without reconciling your feelings of injustice. Choose a constructive path to resolve your quest for revenge. Expressing anger is necessary; but do it by standing up for your rights clearly and assertively, not violently. Suppressing legitimate anger is unhealthy. Continually venting anger is also unhealthy.

The excuse “You made me do this, I had no choice” is always false. Self control is the difference between acting destructively in anger, and responding calmly, constructively, and rationally. You are always responsible for your actions.

It is false to believe: If I don't act out the anger, I have given in, lost face, wimped out, become a coward, and disgraced myself. Actually the opposite is true. It takes greater strength, self restraint, introspection, and analysis to constructively resolve anger.

Expressions of Anger

  • Shouting, raised voice, threatened or actual violence.
  • Passive withdrawal, stonewalling, lack of cooperation, sabotage, revenge.
  • Throwing a tantrum—a violent and objectionable demonstration of rage or frustration that is often considered quite childish.

Anger is distinct from aggression. Anger is an emotion and is most evident in how you feel, while aggression—an offensive action or attack—is how you choose to act.

The Paradox of Anger

If anger is so destructive, why is it so common? The enduring benefit of anger is that it urges us to act on our sense of justice. Unfortunately the powerful urge it provides is primitive and is too often dangerously misused. Carefully choose a constructive path for your anger, as described in this next section.

Paths of Anger

Events that can trigger our anger are common and frequent occurrences. How we respond to those provocations and the choices we make critically affect our peace of mind, well being, and our lives. The following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either inflame or resolve our anger. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to get there, and 4) go down the chosen path. If you can arrange a constructive meeting with your adversary, use this map to discuss where each of you are now and choose a path leading to resolution of your conflict. Keep in mind: as you walk you make your path.

You may wish to print out this one-page version of the Paths of Anger map.

This diagram is an example of a type of chart known by systems analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or interaction at any particular time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK” bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.

OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to two people who may be meeting for the first time, or who don't have a history of animosity between them. It also represents people who may have been angry with each other at some time in the past, but who have now resolved their differences. The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth potential.

Insult: We were OK until something happened to provoked our anger. We know the feeling; our heart beats faster, our eyebrows pull down together, we are somewhere between frustrated, annoyed, and enraged, and we have this almost uncontrollable urge to lash out and act now. Although the cause could be any number of things, perhaps we were humiliated, we will use the term “insult” to describe any of these provocations. After reflection and reappraisal, the offender who made the original insult may decide it was unjustified and could later feel shame or guilt for his attack.

Angry: Now we are angry, and we have to decide what to do about it. The importance of the choice we make here cannot be overemphasized. We can retaliate and take a path leading quickly to escalation and violence, we can remain resentful for days, months, or years, we challenge an advisory and ensure a destructive outcome, or we can carefully resolve the problem. If the message of anger is that “something has got to change” then it is essential to accurately determine what it is that has to change and what actions you can take to effect that change. If your actions, for example an anger display, will not cause the needed change, then that action is not a good choice. Do not take other action until you have a chance to cool off, calm down, and reflect. The yellow color indicates the need for caution in choosing the next path.

Retaliation: The most common, and most destructive, response to anger is some form of retaliation. This is too often in the form of the familiar “anger display” where raised voices, yelling, threatening, insulting, and even physical actions such as clenched or raised fists are used in some attempt to assert dominance and intimidate or coerce someone. The retaliation may be delayed and often escalated into some form of revenge, spite, or “getting even”. More subtle, but equally damaging forms include sarcasm, wise guy responses, mocking, tit-for-tat, and other verbal or psychological insults. The inevitable result is increased anger, shown here as the path leading from anger to enraged, from enraged to overtly violent, and from resentful to angry. Attempts to justify retaliation are often based on a mistaken belief that it is necessary to “let off steam”, “teach a lesson”, “get even”, or “save face”. We recommend you look at the map, decide where you want to go, and choose another path to get there. Although an “anger display” is not helpful, it is often important to describe to your advisory why you are feeling an urgent need for change. Describe your needs constructively, referring to factual evidence and recommending an effective course of action.

Enraged: Tempers are flaring. You are obsessed with anger. Yon are not thinking clearly and revenge, retaliation, getting, even, teaching a lesson, and other form of retaliation, revenge, and escalation are the only alternatives you can think of. You better calm down and think this through again. De-escalate the hostilities now and avoid further destruction. The orange color represents moderate to high danger levels.

De-escalation: Walk away, calm down, count to 10, or 100, or 1,000, take deep breaths, ask for help, hold your arms and hands down at your side, pray, apologize, fawn, or ignore the provocation. Do not continue an anger display, make threats, communicate insults, mock, retaliate, vent, use sarcasm, snipe, get in the last word, or provoke violence. Tips for dealing with angry people that can help de-escalate a situation are provided by Marrek Solutions, Inc., and by Paul Mitchell and Rachel Green. When experiencing anger in another, acknowledge it and calmly help the person analyze and express it. These phrases may help:

  • “I see you may be angry. I regret that. Please tell me if there is anything else I can do that would be helpful to you.”
  • “I would be happy to talk to you now or at later time about how you feel about this.”

Overtly Violent: Ranging in intensity from a tantrum, to disrespectful or obscene gestures, verbal abuse, grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting, biting, punching, destroying property, bar room brawls, road rage, terrorism, lynching, and thermonuclear war, this unfortunate violent condition is where too many anger paths lead. De-escalate now. The red color represents high to extreme danger levels.

Non-resolution: When you hear “Oh, its nothing, really it isn't” for the 100th time, it seems it must be something, really it is. Whether through inaction, avoidance, submission, or rumination, you have not taken action but you certainly have not forgotten the insult. You are holding tightly to a grudge and doing nothing to resolve it. You dream of revenge. Stop paying the price every day and learn from St. Augustine when he said: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Take effective steps now to reconcile the grievance.

Resentful: Unresolved anger leads to resentment and often revenge. You are not over it, there is no denying it, you remain bitter and still harbor negative thoughts, bad feelings, plans for revenge, and ill-will continues to fester. You are holding a grudge and are “hooked on anger”;. The anger has become a destructive recurring pattern. It may even be affecting your health. Resignation is not a solution, so end your suffering with a reconciliation. St. Augustine said: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Take effective steps now to reconcile the grievance. The orange color represents moderate to high danger levels.

Resignation: You are resigned to resentment when you tell yourself: “Well I guess I'll just have to ignore it or live with it”. But if you are still bothered by unresolved anger, you are resentful and not OK. Take steps toward a reconciliation.

Challenge: The slight could have been ignored or easily resolved, but instead it was used as an opportunity to create a show down, the classic “dominance contest” where someone has to lose. If I can prevail, I may be OK, although you are not. But if you prevail and I capitulate, then I become resentful, and the problem is not resolved. “It is often better not to see an insult than to avenge it”.

Declined: When a challenge is offered you can often decline; just don't take the bait. If the gauntlet is thrown down, either ignore it or reach over, pick it up and simply say “you seem to have dropped your glove”. Be careful not to smile, gloat, show sarcasm, or otherwise humiliate or insult your adversary here, or you will quickly escalate the situation.

Dominance Contest: This is also know as the “show down” or “stand off”. A dominance contest either establishes or challenges the present dominance hierarchy. It is a public test, generally of fighting ability or some other form of power, to determine the relative ranking of the two contestants. It is often a form of rebellion. Rams butt horns, wolves may fight to the death, countries go to war, Coke and Pepsi spend millions on advertising. Don't play this costly game unless you know you can win, and if that is the case why even bother? The orange color represents moderate to high danger levels.

You Prevail: and I capitulate. You win and I have lost the dominance contest and run away with my tail between my legs. I am now resentful and my first thoughts are of revenge and retaliation.

I Prevail: and you capitulate. I win and you lose, but the problem is not resolved. Take time to empathize and understand how this feels to the loser. His first thoughts will be to retaliate. The only way to win is not to play this game.

Resolution: This is the difficult path to the only satisfactory solution. Anger is urging you to act on your sense of justice. Take the time to calm down, cool off, reappraise and revalidate the justice principle, gather evidence and share your viewpoint thoughtfully with your adversary, and plan a constructive path to change. The beginning of this web page describes the analysis steps that can lead to a satisfactory resolution and constructive change. It is likely that a resolution will require you to change.

Passive-aggression: Wanting to look good while doing bad is a popular response to anger. But this passive-aggressive behavior leads to a covertly violent state that can be as destructive over time as an overtly violent state.

Covertly-Violent: Who me? I didn't do a thing. Inaction can be as hostile as overt violence when it is done as a covert form of retaliation. Passive-aggressive behavior has been refined to a fine art form by some very angry and insincere people who work hard at appearing polite, kind hearted, and civilized. Stonewalling is an especially destructive form. Passive aggressive-behavior is particularly volatile when it is used in a relationship with an overtly violent person. The red color represents high to extreme danger levels.

Venting: You'll gladly tell anyone who will listen about your grievances, so why won't you take steps toward an effective resolution? Talking about your adversary is not helpful, unless you are developing a plan for a constructive resolution. Talking to your adversary can be very helpful.

Reconciliation: Remove your burden of unresolved anger. Ideally you will have the opportunity to accept a sincere, complete, and timely apology from the person you are angry with. Unfortunately a true apology may never happen, or may not happen soon. Short of an apology, perhaps you can recognize that the person you are angry with is truly remorseful even if they do not apologize. You may reappraise the situation and recognize that the insult was unintended, unfounded, trivial, meant in jest, or sincere and useful feedback. You can always take steps yourself to reconcile your anger. Why not forgive the grievance and let go of your anger; this is about you, not them. Let go and get on with your life. Don't require that: 1) you teach them a lesson, or 2) they make the first move, or 3) they show true remorse, or 4) they change. Take responsibility for how you feel and how you live your life, forgive them and move on. St. Augustine said: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Take effective steps now to reconcile the grievance.

Shunning: Many years ago when people struggled to survive in small groups or tribes being shunned or cast out of the group was a very severe punishment that often resulted in death. Human nature and social customs seem to have held on to various forms of ostracizing as punishment. Severing communications, choosing a scapegoat, and withdrawal are common forms of shunning. Today it is counterproductive and dysfunctional approach to resolving differences. Problems are solved by increasing communication, not through isolation, transferring blame, severed communication, or withdrawal. The most important conversations may be the ones that are the most difficult.

Isolated: While communications are severed there is little or no chance of solving problems and reconciling differences. Open up the communications lines, perhaps through some peace offering. Don't make the mistake of replacing resentment with alienation. The blue color represents the coldness of isolation.

Peace Offering: Make the first move. Offer some small gift (e.g. olive branch) or courtesy (e.g. a sincere smile) to your adversary. Open up the communications channel and begin to reconcile the grievance.

Sniping: Poking and jabbing your adversary at every opportunity, including a barb or insult in every conversation, and constantly finding opportunities to renew the resentments will not resolve any problems. If you have an issue to resolve, or something to say, address the person directly and explicitly.

Display Rules

Display rules guide us in making the distinction between what you are feeling and what you are sharing. Most of us learn not to express anger visibly to those who hold power over us. Anger is also generally not displayed in polite company.

Facial Expression

An angry expression sends the clear signal: back off, I am prepared to attack.

The facial expression of anger has these distinctive features:

  • Eyebrows pulled down together,
  • Wide open, glairing eyes,
  • Upper eyelids raised in a stare,
  • Lips wide open to form a rectangle, or
  • tightly closed with the red margins of the lips becoming more narrow, and the lips becoming thinner.

Aesthetic Representations

Sharp angles, loud sounds, discordant sounds, and the color red represent anger.

Primal Messages

A typical response to anger sends the primal messages of: retreat, dislike, unsafe, halt, displeased, dominant, strong, unfriendly, aggressive, defiant, foe, fearful, threatened, urgent, important, disapprove.

Examples and Experiences

Please send us your stories describing how you experienced anger, analyzed its origins, and responded constructively to the situation.


The paradox of anger has inspired many thoughtful quotations. Here are some favorites:

  • “An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes.” ~ Cato the Elder (234 BC–149 BC)
  • “Keep cool; anger is not an argument.” ~ Daniel Webster (1782–1852)
  • “When a man is wrong and won't admit it, he always gets angry.” ~ Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796–1865)
  • “Anger is seldom without argument but seldom with a good one.” ~ Lord Halifax (1881–1959)
  • “It is often better not to see an insult than to avenge it.” ~ Lucius Anneaus Seneca
  • “The best work of the world is done in the tension between anger and control.” ~ G. Stanley Hall
  • “He who angers you conquers you.” ~ Sister Elizabeth KennyExternal Link
  • “A lost temper usually means a lost argument.”
  • “Have you noticed that an angry man can only get so far / Until he reconciles the way he thinks things ought to be / With the way things are?” ~ Don Henley


[laz] Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions, by Richard S. Lazarus, Bernice N. Lazarus

[Ekm] Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman  

[OCC] The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, by Andrew Ortony, Gerald L. Clore, Allan Collins

[Gol] Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Arun Gandhi

Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, by Aaron T. Beck

Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, by Robert D. Enright

[Ste]Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History, by Carol Zisowitz Stearns and Peter N. Stearns

Compassionate Wrath: Transpersonal Approaches to AngerExternal Link, Robert Masters

Anger and Aversion, a Buddhist view.

Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations With Men and Women of Conscience, by Rushworth M. Kidder, Jo Spiller

Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You, An American Psychological Association on-line topic.

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