A good question. We tend to think about anger as if it were one thing.
Often it comes off as a noun..
“What do I feel? I feel anger.”
“You make me so angry.”
Other times it’s a verb..
“He angered me so much.” – usually said in another form, “He pissed me off.”
There are several terms that are often framed with anger, and end up—in our minds at least—as meaning the same thing. Here is a way to look at the ones I hear most often.
Anger is basic. It’s popular to say anger is a secondary emotion, that we only use it to cover up other feelings. That does happen. It’s much more energizing to feel angry than it is to feel afraid. Most of my clients are men. They have been taught since they were kids not to let anyone know they are afraid, especially when they are.
There are times when you may just be angry. It’s normal. We all experience it. And, rather than something we have to get rid of or avoid, a better solution is to find ways to change our relationship with not just anger, but with all feelings. We will all be living with them for, hopefully, a very long time.
Another way to think about anger is that it is a description of an array of events. Some of these events are physical and sensory while others are mental experiences. The mental events are thoughts and images that our brain throws up on our mental screen. Let me introduce you to your mind, sometimes known as that thing your brain does. Sensations like heart beat, changes in breathing, and skin temperature, even grinding of teeth are physical sensations and sensory experiences.
The main thing to remember here is that anger is a static experience that sometimes feels uncomfortable, but doesn’t include any behavior.
Hostility is best described as an angry attitude. It’s an angry way of interpreting what happens in the world. Buying into a cynical world view supports a hostile perspective. We all have thoughts. Sometimes they may even be right on the money. It’s when we believe everything we think that we get into trouble with anger.
Cynicism and hostility bring to mind a line that Shirley MacLaine once had in a movie called “Steel Magnolias.” She played a character named Ouiser Boudreaux and she said,
Hostility is more pervasive than occasional anger. perhaps a little less global than chronic anger (which will come up a little further along). People with hostile attitudes often find it easier to justify hostile behavior.
Anger and aggression aren’t like parent and child. Even though they often happen together, aggression isn’t caused by anger and doesn’t grow out of it. If anything, they are like distant cousins.
Here is how you can tell the difference. Aggression doesn’t sit still. It’s a behavior, something that is done. Anger doesn’t need to move. It is just there.
Aggressive behavior can include physical violence, name calling, telling people off, and many other “intrusive” actions. It’s always a choice even though there are times when it doesn’t seem so.
It sometimes doesn’t seem like a choice because it’s based on a decision a person has made a long time past and has become universal.
Anger can become habitual, a “chronic” way of responding to life. If hostility being cranky (even though it is sometimes beyond that), then chronic anger is sullen and bitter. It has no end in sight.
It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a pattern of mental and physical tension and it sneaks up on us over time
With chronic anger, the anger feeling is often disproportionate with the corresponding event. It might be an event that would rate a 2 in the average person’s lexicon of personal safety and comfort. The chronically angry person may have an anger reaction at a level of 8.
At times there may be no explanation for the angry feelings showing up. It appears to be a state of mind and body that is just “carried around” like a suit of armor. It may feel safe in that place inside the armor, but over time, it gets heavier and heavier.
This chronic feeling is one that can literally be a threat to the sufferer’s health. It has been linked to heart disease, lung disorders in older men. It affects the immune system. Chronic anger is something that might not hurt us today, but it’s like taking a little bit of poison everyday.
Being chronically angry doesn’t necessarily have any outward signs. Some sufferers act out; others never do. There is a myth that says that if you don’t “get your anger out” that at some point you will explode. Myths are interesting in that they usually contain a grain of truth as this one does. Sometimes people do decide they have simply had enough. Others go an entire life time denying anger, hiding it, or crying in their beer. Still others act out at the first signal that anger gives them. They are the ones that learned that learned throughout their lives that they should “never take any crap from anyone” and that if they were angry, well, they just better let the whole world know about it.
I’m not a proponent of “taking crap,” and I’m also not a proponent of blasting aggression all over the universe. There is a middle ground. That is usually the best place to be.
Rage is different, qualitatively and quantitatively. It is also rare. I hesitate to even write about it here because I don’t entirely buy the concept of rage.
Let me tell you why.
Rage shows up as being out of control. Some citing rage say they have been out of control, didn’t know what they were doing. It’s what people are talking about when they might say something like, “I just snapped,” or, “I saw red.”
It can also be a way of explaining away behavior that has cause problems, whether they are legal, social, physical, or emotional.
Does rage happen? Sure. But it doesn’t happen much.
Aggression also happens. It’s just not out of our control – even when it seems to be. There is always another choice.
If you feel angry, you don’t need an excuse or to be excused.
When you act out on anger in a damaging way, there is no excuse.