Anger is a more complex emotion then meets the eye. On the surface anger usually seems understandable and justified. Often, however, anger serves as a less painful, more tolerable feeling then true core emotions. Hurt and fear are the two most common emotions I see underlying anger in my psychotherapy practice.
To be sure, sometimes anger is the primary and appropriate reaction to a situation. If you arrive at a vacation destination to which you prepaid and learn that they have no record of you and no room available, anger is justified. However, think about how you would feel if your close friend has taken your new girl or boyfriend out for a date. Angry? Probably. But under that anger would likely be deep hurt at the betrayal and potential loss. These two are relatively straightforward examples. Most situations that stir anger but cover deeper core feelings are not so clear.
When a hurtful incident feels unbearable, anger may take over and serve as a more tolerable cover. This is unconscious. The mind has ways to protect us from significant pain. A classic example would be a man who is fired from his job and lashes out verbally and expresses his outrage to family and friends. Being fired is a form of rejection which is deeply hurtful. Sometimes aligned with hurt is an even more excruciating emotion, shame. Being fired from a job can stir much shame. Shame is a particularly vicious feeling and often unbearable. Anger takes over because it is more bearable.
An even more basic human feeling is fear. Fear can be so unsteadying and shaking that the unconscious mind hides it away and, instead, often turns to anger. Anger can create a sense of power when fear is doing the opposite. Shame can again sneak in if a person is embarrassed by feeling fearful. Once again, the shame may be especially intolerable and gets pushed down into the unconscious.
So what is wrong with experiencing anger rather than more painful emotions? Sometimes nothing. Much of the time, however, anger covering for other emotions causes significant problems. First and foremost, it is a form of denial of one’s true experience. An honest acknowledgment and expression of the deeper emotions are surprisingly freeing and healing. What we consciously know about ourselves is far less frightening and has far less power over us. In addition, anger often pushes people away. Covering deeper emotions with anger, unconsciously, can become a chronic type of go to. This style can be off putting at best and deeply distressing at worse to others. Perhaps most importantly, when we reach inside and allow ourselves to know and feel our true emotions, our best, authentic self can emerge.