Primary Emotions Series: Anger


In this next series of blogs, I am going to write about our six primary emotions and how they present themselves in therapy. This research comes from Paul Ekman who identified six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) all humans have. These may sound familiar because there is a wonderful movie, Inside Out, in which the viewer follows the story of a girl navigating a cross country move to San Francisco with her family.

It is important to note that all humans have these emotions. Think of them as the software you already have installed on your laptop when you power it on for the first time. However, our life experiences with parents, siblings, friends, dating partners, classmates, co-workers and other important attachment figures in our life shape how we view and experience the world. Now, some of these emotions may be easier to access than others, for example, fear or happiness. Somewhere throughout our lives we get told that we should not show some of these emotions or they simply get buried, perhaps even lost, within ourselves. These emotions lay dormant for various reasons. Perhaps it is not safe to express anger or disgust in the home or it may be easier to access anger or sadness when we feel a loss. Regardless, these emotions are not “good” or “bad” they just are. Emotions tell us there is something we need to pay attention to.

Too often in therapy, people have a difficult time accessing these emotions and internal experiences due to the defense mechanisms they use. They come in for an intake focused around substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, but instead of simply treating the disorder, what if someone was able to grant access to their internal life? Often feeling anxious, stressed out, and depressed can be the result of not wanting to feel these six primary emotions. Perhaps if I show you an example this will start to feel a little more tangible. All I ask of you is to listen to this story with an open mind and perhaps this may start to make a little more sense.

Anger is our protector. It can shield us from danger, vulnerability, sadness, anxiety and internal experiences we wish not to feel. Often anger is the quickest way to distance oneself from other people. As much as people and our society label anger as a bad thing (something that should not be used or felt) it is a necessary emotion in the human experience. One might even be surprised how much this emotion comes up in therapy.

Daniel* was referred to me because he would often verbally lash out at people at work. This also bled over to his personal life where he would throw objects in the house or project his anger onto his wife or dog. Daniel was temperamental to say the least. Daniel was also resistant to beginning therapy, which makes sense, especially if coming to therapy means you have to open up, share your feelings, and talk about current stressors. He endorsed a lot more traditionally masculine traits (emotional suppression and dominance over others) and said to me in the first session, camping was one of his favorite activities. The way he put it, it allowed him to disconnect from all the “bullshit” that is going on. He said the best part of being outdoors was sitting by the campfire where he could stare for hours into the flames.

 For Daniel, anger got deployed whenever we broach topics one would normally discuss in therapy. For example, he would raise his voice or give me sarcastic or defiant answers when I asked him to tap into his emotions or talk about his family. At first, this caught me off guard and also made me agitated and annoyed (feelings/emotions that are deviations and associated with anger).

Anger, like fire, can spread very easily from one person to another. Fire can also keep us warm and cook our food, but if not properly taken care of or monitored, can scorch everything it touches. Daniel was like a fire that was not contained; hence him being angry at anyone he came in contact with, particularly loved ones or the ones closest to him. After a couple months of treatment and the increased rapport between the two of us, I inquired what purpose his anger served. He looked at me puzzlingly and said, “I don’t know. It’s something I cannot control. It almost seems to just happen and before I know it, I have made a mistake.” During this part of the session, I asked him where he learned such behavior and if he could think of any other primary emotions that might be associated with it. Like how oxygen needs to be present in order for a fire to grow and become more dangerous. He sat back in his chair and deeply reflected on the question I just asked him. “Well”, he said, “I get angry whenever someone makes fun of me or doesn’t give me credit at work.” I mirrored his body language and leaned back in my chair and said, “It sounds like to me that there is some sadness and fear mixed in there too.” He looked at me as if I was speaking a different language and said, “I don’t get it.” I elaborated and said, “perhaps it makes you sad and/or fearful that if your work is not up to par it might reflect badly on you.” He looked at me and said, “If people would only understand how inadequate I really am, then they would see that I am not good at much of anything.” “So” I paused then said, “You become big, like a campfire that’s not controlled and everyone runs away because they are afraid that they might get hurt.” He looked at me as if he was staring not at me, but through me and his eyes began to water.

Working with Daniel taught me something about being a therapist. It taught me that we will do what we think is best to protect ourselves from feeling certain emotions, even if they have negative external consequence. Part of what makes therapy so valuable is that it gives us insight into why we do the things we do or why he feel the way we feel. It is not inherently bad to feel anger, but it is not healthy when we spread that anger to others. A fire is not dangerous when we take care of it and have a plan to put out. For Daniel, it was getting his own blaze to a manageable campfire with the appropriate kindling that entailed empathy, compassion, and understanding.

*Pseudo-name to protect confidentiality.

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