From Sad to Mad: How Suppressing Your Sadness Invites Anger

businessman breaking a pencil out of nervousness at the officeIn my introductory article on anger management, I introduced you to the notion that anger management per se often misses the mark. Spending all our time and energy handling our anger in more productive, pro-social ways can get tiring if we constantly have anger bubbling up that needs to be managed. Wouldn’t it be nice, for once, to be able to sit back and enjoy yourself rather than constantly spin inside your managerial role? It’s not too good to be true, but you must know going in that getting to this place will take considerable effort at first. Perseverance, patience, and kindness will serve you well in this endeavor.

To begin, we must understand the nature of anger. When not experienced as a secondary emotion (more on this shortly), anger occurs as a result of being a part of or witnessing a wrong. If we or a loved one are in harm’s way, the energy we call anger wells up, leading to two things: (1) an often laser-like focus on the wrong occurring and (2) increased energy to do something about it. We can view anger in this sense as organically pro-social. It occurs in relation to harm that we think must be prevented or averted. Barring any illegal, immoral, or self-harming act, expression of this type of anger can generally be viewed favorably. Sometimes called “righteous anger,” imagine Jesus routing out the bankers from the temple to get an image of what I’m referring to here.

As you may have already guessed, the vast majority of the anger we experience on a regular basis does not fit into the first category described above. Rather, the anger we generally need to “manage” falls into the category described as a secondary emotion. In brief, a secondary emotion is one that emanates from a judgment about a primary emotion. They generally occur due to our unwillingness to fully accept and feel the primary emotion. The primary emotion is usually one that feels physically uncomfortable and might also have a social stigma attached that reinforces the tendency to keep it held in. Sadness, guilt, anxiety, and fear are most often the primary emotions that get transformed into anger. As a result of judging and therefore suppressing their full expression, their energy “becomes” anger.

In my next article, I will cover in greater detail how to work with fear and anxiety. In this article, I wish to focus on sadness. Sadness occurs when we have lost something significant. Losing a job or the death of a loved one are obvious causes of sadness, but all too often we do not catch the more subtle triggers. At its core, we experience sadness when we’ve lost something that supports our self-identity. The reason sadness hurts is because we’re experiencing the absence of a psychological part of ourselves, not unlike losing a limb.

Feeling our sadness is important because it sanctifies the thing lost. Sadness fully expressed allows us to honor the missing aspect in our lives. This process reinforces the importance of reengaging in life so that we may begin cultivating the missing value. Not feeling our sadness prevents us from accessing the importance of the thing lost. Once we inquire into our sadness with kind curiosity, we will find that some value or quality is missing.

So how do you put all of this information into practical use? We’re all fond of steps, and I’m not here to disappoint:

  1. When you get angry, sit down and begin to feel the energy in your body. Rather than ranting and raving, start taking stock of your bodily tension. (Yes, this is very difficult at first. With practice you’ll get better, I promise.) Once some of the energy has subsided, ask yourself what you’re sad about. Usually something specific—and quite often completely unrelated to the thing that caused you to be angry in the first place—pops in.
  2. Once you’ve accessed the trigger of your sadness, it’s time to feel sad. I can already hear you grumbling. I know, feeling sadness isn’t pleasant, and that’s why so many of us avoid the sensation. A little trick I learned, and teach, is to say “yes” or nod your head when the sensation of sadness is felt. Acknowledging our emotion in this way makes it easier to access. Now, fully feel the sadness without judging or commenting. (This part is a bit difficult as well. It takes much practice to learn to feel our physical sensations without any accompanying thoughts.)
  3. Once the sadness has subsided—and it will subside—you can begin the process of inquiry. Ask yourself what was lost. If it’s not obvious, look to core values that you prize, such as kindness, fairness, support, etc. Often, we get angry when these core values aren’t experienced in ourselves or in our relationships.
  4. Patience and honesty in this process will often lead you to the missing value. Now that you’ve found it, it’s simply a matter of going out into the world and cultivating the very quality that went missing in the first place. This might look like being kind to coworkers, patience with your children, or being gentle with yourself when you make a mistake. Regardless of the quality expressed, your sense of power and accomplishment will increase.

Although the above steps are simply laid out, it will take you a few goes before you really get a handle on the entire process. We’ve come a long way from talking about anger. To bring that aspect back, recognize now that underneath much of our anger is a sense of powerlessness in the face of losing something sacred. When we re-access that missing component, we reclaim our power and, ultimately, our sense of peace.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, therapist in Austin, Texas

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Morgan

    Morgan

    April 15th, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    Who are these people who can suppress what they are feeling because as anyone who knows me would tell you, when I am feeling it you are gonna know it! lol
    I think that there are times when I do need to keep my emotionas a little more in check but it sounds like there is still a fine balance that you have to find to make this a happy medium for you. There is no one right or wrong way other than finding that little sweet spot of the perfect balance to keep it all in check.

  • Reed

    Reed

    April 15th, 2014 at 3:50 PM

    How do I then feel the sadness without actually feeling, well, you know, sad? I don’t want to feel sad any more than I want to feel angry, there has to be a better or at least another way to process all of this.

  • Joshua Nash

    Joshua Nash

    April 15th, 2014 at 5:28 PM

    Well, here’s the thing: you can avoid the actual felt-experience of sadness for as long as you want to stay stuck and feeling miserable.

    The truth is, there ISN’T a healthy way around feeling sadness or any emotion.

    Maybe this will help: know that actually feeling your sadness will dissipate the “charge” of the emotion much more quickly than if you choose to suppress it.

  • yvette

    yvette

    April 16th, 2014 at 4:23 AM

    I have never given this much thought, but now that I doh think about this I can see that repressing those feelings and emotions that you are experiencing could lead to this eventual blow up that will not be good for you. It is not better to hold inside your sadness and refuse to feel it and acknowledge it than it is to hold your anger on the inside. Of course there will be a time and a way to let them out, but I think that the key is allowing yourself to be something more than happy all the time- no one is hard wired like that and to try to be like that all of the time, for yourself or for other people, is too much for anyone to bear all of the time.

  • Tyler

    Tyler

    April 17th, 2014 at 1:42 PM

    I think that it is important to recognize that this is not always going to be something that occurs over the course of a day or two. There are some sadnesses that will take days and even weeks or more to process, and you have to realize that this is ok. Just because so and so is over it doesn’t mean that you are going to do things the same way or that you will feel things exactly like he or she did. This is going to be a learning process for you, and recognizing that this is all of the journey for you is very important to that healking and understanding. This is not about measuring yourself against others, but actually it is all about learning more about who you are.

  • Sadie

    Sadie

    April 18th, 2014 at 4:23 PM

    It is never a good idea to try to hide your feelings. I can’t think of one time that this has ever been helpful to me, and I would imagine that most people would also feel the same. I have always found that the more you try to hide them the more that they come through at the worst possible time.

  • Carolyn

    Carolyn

    November 3rd, 2017 at 7:01 PM

    Amen, Sadie.

  • Asta S

    Asta S

    March 7th, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    Thanks for the article. I am currently writing a book about repressed emotions. While analysing certain situations, I had this question about the relation between sadness and anger. Your article has helped to clarify it.

  • Mary

    Mary

    June 27th, 2015 at 7:31 PM

    I was told by my therapist that grinding my teeth was anger. I really couldn’t think of a good reason to be angry, but I can think of reasons to be sad. Thanks for the article maybe I’ll stop grinding my teeth.

  • Hank

    Hank

    March 25th, 2018 at 8:15 AM

    We are trained to believe that sadness is a sign of weakness. If we are sad, people easily approach us and say “Don’t be sad”. But if we are angry, they leave us alone. The fact is, before sadness is expressed as anger, a very simple statement will help, “This makes me so sad”. Now sadness is out of the box and anger will have a much harder time taking over. Always express sadness as sadness, not anger. Normally when sadness becomes anger it is because you are worried about what others think or say. “Damn, this makes me sad” will go a long way toward averting anger. Try it, you will find such relief. You will have something that can be dealt with, something for which you will not need to apologize for later, when your emotions subside.

  • Gina

    Gina

    May 5th, 2018 at 6:26 PM

    most People don’t realize it is sadness. Thank you! You are the only one who made sense.. or made me think. . it’s funny. I was always a sensitive person and took pride in seeing the world through rose colored glasses. Forgiving everyone. This was my strength .so I thought. I think losing my innocence has created my anger. Changing me. It’s very interesting to know I am angry because they were right. People do suck.
    I am angry at how I have changed as a person because of the people closest to me hurting me over and over. I feel as though I was naive or in denial of the evilness. I think they knew that. Cause they try to protect me from the other evil people. It’s too late. I know they exist now. I loved forgiving and seeing the beauty in everything. They took that away from me. Made me an angry unforgiving person. How do I get her back.? Thank you again.

  • Joshua

    Joshua

    May 6th, 2018 at 6:21 AM

    @Gina
    It’s important to remember that no one can take away our capacity to forgive. Even more, we can always strive towards forgiving ourselves. This forgiveness revolves around letting go of beliefs that have us resist the truth of this world. Thanks for your comment.

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