Avoiding Feelings with Anger

In a previous article, I discuss how the many ways in which we avoid our feelings hurt us. Because often people have difficulty dealing with anger, I have chosen to highlight how we use our anger to avoid our feelings in a separate article.

In order to understand how we use our anger to avoid feelings, it is important to know the distinction between primary and secondary anger. Primary anger is the biologically adaptive anger we feel when we are being violated or taken advantage of in some way. Primary anger helps us to assert ourselves, to thrust forward and to stand up for ourselves. Secondary anger is a defensive reaction, a way of avoiding underlying intrusive feelings either because they are distressing to us or because we do not want to reveal these feelings to others. For example, often people become angry in order to avoid intrusive feeling of weakness, hurt, fear, and shame, or to avoid revealing these feelings to others.

If some of our anger is primary and some is secondary (i.e., a way of avoiding feelings), how do we deal with this? I propose the following three-step process:

Step I: Feeling our anger

It is best to feel all our anger and to acknowledge to ourselves that we are angry. Acceptance of our anger enables us then to reflect on it.

Step II: Reflecting on whether the anger is primary or secondary

We reflect on our anger by asking ourselves if the anger is in response to our being violated or taken advantage of in some way. If so, we use our primary anger as fuel to stand up for ourselves in the situation or change something we don’t like (or eventually accept it if we can’t change it). If we conclude that the anger is secondary, it is best to reflect on what intrusive feelings we may be avoiding and to bring our presence to these feelings.

Step III: Feeling intrusive feelings under the secondary anger from a wise perspective

Because often it is not obvious what we are feeling under our secondary anger, it is best to focus our attention inside and to listen for what else we may be feeling. By listening inside, we are able to identify and symbolize in words intrusive feelings – such as fear (or aspects of fear such as weakness and helplessness), shame (or aspects of shame such as humiliation and inadequacy), and emotional pain (or aspects of pain such as loneliness, rejection, and loss).

It is best to relate to these intrusive feelings from a wise perspective. This means to bring our compassionate presence to the intrusive feelings realizing they are echoes of early trauma feelings which are being triggered in the present but which belong to the past. Bringing our presence to the intrusive feelings in this way gradually desensitizes and heals them. For a more complete discussion of relating to intrusive feelings from a wise, compassionate perspective, see the article, Listening to Feelings from a Wise Perspective.

Stan, a single, middle aged, accountant, experienced intense rage when he did not receive the promotion he believed he deserved. In counselling, he realized that his anger was a way of avoiding painful, intrusive feelings of shame, which I encouraged him to feel from a wise, compassionate perspective. For a full description of Stan’s story, see the clinical case, Individual Experiencing Anxiety and Depression.