What is anger?


Anger is one of the seven universal emotions which arises when we are blocked from pursuing a goal and/or treated unfairly. At its most extreme, anger can be one of the most dangerous emotions because of its potential connection to violence and, therefore, is a common emotion to seek help in dealing with.


Feeling anger


The primary message of anger is, “Get out of my way!” and communicates anything from mere dissatisfaction to threats.


Source: Atlas of Emotions


When we’re angry, it’s possible to experience other feelings such as fear (of inflicting harm to ourselves or others) or disgust (for the person or thing blocking you from your goal). If you were taught that feeling anger is “bad”, you might even feel embarrassed or shameful for having felt the emotion at all. Furthermore, if you were angry and it lead you to do something you considered to be inappropriate, you may feel regretful.


What makes us angry


We all get angry about some of the same things, but each of us have our own hottest triggers.


Common Anger Triggers:

  • Interference: if the interference is deliberate, the anger can be stronger and can be felt toward oneself for being unable to remove the obstacle
  • Injustice
  • Someone trying to hurt us or a loved one physically or psychologically
  • Another person’s anger: one of the big problems with anger is that it is difficult not to reciprocate
  • Betrayal, abandonment, rejection
  • Observing someone breaking the law or a cultural rule like cutting in line

Learn from your triggers

Because emotional triggers serve a useful function in our lives, rather than turning them off  completely it is helpful to be able to choose how we respond to them.


Recognizing anger


Facial expression of anger

In anger the eyebrows come down and together, the eyes glare, and there is a narrowing of the lip corners. During conscious suppression or unconscious repression of anger, the expression may be less obvious, though the person may show signs of their anger in a split-second micro expression.


Vocal expression of anger

For most, anger is vocalized as one of two ways: if not controlled, anger can even generate a roar or yell; when controlled it may have sharp edge to it.


Sensation of anger

Typical sensations include: feeling hot, (hence the term “seeing red”), sweating, muscle tension, and clenching one’s jaw and/or fists.


Posture of anger

Most people find themselves leaning forward with their head/chin jutting forward and puffing their chest/body to appear larger.


The Key to Constructive Anger


Anger easily causes harm to ourselves and others. Psychologists are unclear about whether the wish to harm is built into the core of anger or if it is something we learn, but we know it often is a part of the anger process that gets us into trouble.


In both psychological and contemplative traditions, it is acknowledged that anger can be useful when it’s motivated by compassion and expressed with discernment. However, because anger can easily initiate a cycle of violence, one has to be very honest and clear in one’s assessment to determine whether or not it’s constructive anger.


When we are angry we are most likely to say or do things that hurt another person. Simply the fact that we got angry is hurtful for some people. The remedy? Focus on the action, not the actor: on what the other person did that made you angry, not on the other person him or herself.


For example:

Imagine your friend arrived 30 minutes late at the restaurant where the two of you were supposed to meet for dinner.


What not to do: Retaliate against the actor by accusing or attacking their character:

“You were inconsiderate to keep me waiting.”

“Are you always so unreliable?”


What to do instead: Address the person’s actions with "I" statements:

“I feel worried when you aren't here on time.”

“I appreciate it when you set time aside for me but feel hurt when you're late.”


Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions in his best-seller, Emotions Revealed


Introduce the world of emotions to children in a fun way with Dr. Ekman's official guide to Disney•Pixar's Inside Out.