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The Anger Management Myth: Is It Really Anger?

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I cannot tell you how many people have come into my office, sat down, and begun to tell me about their “anger problem”. Inevitably, I find out that these varied individuals have many things in common. In no particular order, they: recognize when they’re angry, are usually quite adept at expressing their anger, and feel distressed regarding their angry outbursts.

After fully engaging and listening to their history with anger, I then tend to say point-blank, “Great, so you don’t have an anger problem at all. Tell me about your relationship to sadness.” Depending on their particular situation, I might ask them about their relationship with anxiety, guilt, or some other emotion.

I often get a blank stare in response. Everyone is so gung-ho about holding onto their diagnosis of “anger problem” that they feel quite taken aback when asked about other emotions. The Anger Management Myth highlights our tendency to eschew discovering the deeper issues at hand for more topical remedies.

Anger managed is anger misunderstood. We must collectively work to go beyond the management stage and plumb the depths of the emotional pain and discomfort that lie beneath our angry exteriors.

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In order to get a better idea of what I’m getting at, sit back for a moment and imagine the last time a loved one said something you considered rude or harsh. Bring great detail to that memory and allow yourself to feel the original emotions that arose in that moment.

Very often what you’ll find is that you felt (and feel) angry—an understandable response. We can begin to recognize anger as a reaction to being blocked from a goal. What might the goal have been in that particular situation? I can imagine you wanted connection, intimacy, or support from the loved one, rather than meanness.

As you sit with this memory, pay special attention to your heart. With kind attention, you’ll be able to recognize a different sensation there, a different emotion other than anger. Do you feel that sadness?

The vast majority of the anger I hear about in session is of the type described above. When we disconnect ourselves from our true experience, the original emotion—in this case, sadness—gets trapped and then transformed into anger. I very often describe anger as a pie. On top, we have the crunchy obviousness of anger, but underneath lies the gooey, vulnerable center. This gooey center will be made up of whatever emotion or emotions you have decided are too painful, awkward, or uncomfortable for you to feel.

When we don’t access our true emotions and learn to honor them by acknowledging and then releasing them, they transmute into anger—pretty much every time.

The truth behind effective anger management is learning to acknowledge and feel our lesser-known emotional experiences. Can you identify the emotion that you struggle to effectively express? Sadness, guilt, and anxiety usually earn top marks.

When we begin to acknowledge and feel these core emotions, what we’ll find is that our “anger problem” begins to abate. The energy needed to create the anger simply isn’t there. When I work with people seeking anger management solutions, I inevitably find other emotions that often don’t even get to see the light of day. These buried emotions, and their unburying, become the core of our work together.

Don’t get me wrong; I recognize this process can be quite scary and uncomfortable.

Accessing these more troubling emotions can be a daunting task. With patience and kindness, we teach ourselves to honor all of the various emotion parts of ourselves.

The only real problem I’ve found most people possess regarding emotions, and not just anger, is espousing the belief that they shouldn’t exist. In future articles, I will be exploring this topic in greater detail. Other useful perspectives on anger will be explored, as well as specific techniques and strategies used to better understand and express locked emotion.

© Copyright 2014 by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, therapist in Austin, TX. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Jessica April 1st, 2014 at 3:57 PM #1

    I am not really sure that I understand this-
    are you saying that there are more people who think that it is mroe acceptable to be angry than it is to be sad so that’s where they think that their troubles lie, or that they would rather have an anger problem versus a sadness problem?

  • Stan April 2nd, 2014 at 7:24 AM #2

    I do think, though, that when you carry this sadness around with you for a long time there is a tendency for this to turn into anger because you don’t know what to do with all of this emotion. The key now is to work with someone who can help you determine how to get all of those meotions all smoothed out.

  • Joshua Nash April 2nd, 2014 at 11:01 AM #3

    Great question!

    From my experience, most people are unaware that their anger comes from unexpressed sadness. However, I’ve counseled many folks who have grown up with the judgment that sadness is a sign of weakness and should therefore be avoided.

    By calling this a “sadness problem” I mean to change the language up a bit. If we start looking at our “anger problem” as a failure to fully express ALL of our emotions, we’ve got a truer path to follow.

  • thomas April 2nd, 2014 at 11:11 AM #4

    Basically, for me it all comes down to feeling able to show my emotions and not having to feel like I have to keep them bottled up inside. I had a father like that who would never show anything and then when he did he would explode with rage. I really don’t think that he was mad all the time but when you walk around and never feel like you can share anything with anyone I guess that the tendency is going to be to explode when something sets you off. I have always tried to be a little better about controlling those emotions and not allowing them to get the best of me because quite frankly I didn’t want my kids to go around afraid of me the way we were with him all the time.

  • Joshua Nash April 2nd, 2014 at 4:20 PM #5

    Great stuff Thomas! Getting away from bottling emotions is exactly what I’m getting at.

    I do emphasize caution with discussing emotional “control.” If we aren’t careful, control turns into rigid manipulation or suppression.

    The trick is to learn how to express our emotions, rather than impulsively react with them.

  • Therese April 3rd, 2014 at 3:34 AM #6

    It is hard when you are hoping to make a connection with someone and you are rebuffed. Yes you feel hurt but the more likely response to have is one of feeling angry even though there could be a great deal of hurt beneath that anger. Those are the feelings that we forget about, that we don’t deem as important as the anger even though actually that hurt and sadness are actually the root causes of the problem.

  • laurel April 4th, 2014 at 3:47 AM #7

    Yeah if you recognize the cues and being angry causes you some pain, then I don’t think that this is the problem.

  • Howard April 4th, 2014 at 4:47 PM #8

    Thank you for a wonderfully articulate description of the problem with the label of ‘anger management’. Management often looks at triggers and control responses, management tools if you like. Yet the underlying, sometimes unseen reactions, are the core work of psychological wisdom. In my work alongside men, I sometime use the iceberg metaphor, with anger being the10% above the surface, whilst 90% below lie the murky feelings of fear, sadness, powerlessness, helplessness, grief etc.. A compassionate response or acceptance of these feelings tends to defuse the power of anger in the long term.

  • Karen Filippi April 4th, 2014 at 8:36 PM #9

    Anger is a normal emotion, and there is nothing wrong with feeling angry. Aggression, as a result if a person’s anger, is not acceptable. I like the analogy of the iceberg where anger is seen/displayed as the tip of the iceberg emerged from the ocean. Underneath the water, so to speak, is the larger part of the iceberg where the reasons for the anger can be found. We should not tell our children not to be angry; we should teach & encourage our children to use words instead of aggression. That requires a parent’s full attention and presence with the child. Encourage the child to try explaining where the anger is coming from, and listen closely as the child is communicating. Validate feelings and come up with more acceptable ways to convey what he/she is feeling. Teaching a child to say; “I’m feeling angry and I need to go for a walk” or whatever…is much better than a child feeling angry who says nothing, but starts beating up another child. Respect, validate, and encourage kids (especially), but also adults, to try putting into words what they are feeling, and reiterate to them that acts of aggression are not acceptable. Don’t just “brush it off” or laugh when a child, or an adult, shows aggression…take the time to teach and listen.

  • Libby April 5th, 2014 at 1:41 PM #10

    I can appreciate this on so many different levels.

    I have never been one who finds it easy to express my true feelings and then when I do I am so often ashamed at what I feel or how I express them I become mad, not at the person but at myself because I feel like I don’t know how to fully communicate everything that I am feeling inside.

    I have this rush of anger that I guess is really more baout being sad that I don’t really know how to process it all and yet it comes across as being mad and upset, and I know that I am but only because no one has ever taught me how I am supposed to work through all of this.

  • Jason April 7th, 2014 at 6:08 AM #11

    My biggest underlining emotion behind anger is feeling trapped by someone or something? I think this feeling is part of my “anger” and “sadness”. I get worried that I am letting to many people down and I feel trapped by all of the responsibilities of my life and struggle with how to organize myself daily to handle the day to day stress. I know I have to much on my plate but I have to in order to support my family.

  • Joshua Nash April 7th, 2014 at 9:23 AM #12


    Stay tuned to further installments where I will go into greater detail about how to work with anxiety/overwhelm.


  • Milton April 7th, 2014 at 4:39 PM #13

    and what is wrong if it is just simply being mad and not knowing what to do with that anger? is that so wrong to have to admit? i know that it can be bad what people do with that anger but i don’t want to have to say it’s something else when really, i’m just mad

  • Desmond Sherlock June 15th, 2014 at 7:05 AM #14

    I have come to the point where I consider anger to be understandable but not acceptable. Being understandable I think anger stems from resentment from unfilled expectations. I don’t accept any of my expectations of others or of myself to be valid.
    I have been replacing my expectations with hopes and desires.

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