What Are You SO Angry About? 3 Steps to Identifying the Roots of Anger

By Matt W Sandford

Do you ever have trouble figuring out why you’re angry or where it came from? You thought you were doing fine just minutes ago and then something provokes you and you maybe lash out, attack back, get snide or sarcastic, lecture somebody, insult them, grumble and gossip, plot revenge, or even fume or pout quietly. Anger has many looks and shades to it. How are you at even identifying when you are angry?  It is quite difficult to sort out the causes and meanings of our anger if we aren’t able to be aware of when we are experiencing it.

Step one: Identifying Anger

Maybe you have trouble identifying anger because you don’t want to believe you are getting angry, or you really don’t want to see how often you do. Maybe you believe that anger is bad or wrong? Some people do. Maybe you deny your anger because you are afraid of it or what you may do, or what people will think of you? This is also common. Maybe you see it as embarrassing or losing self control? Maybe you had experienced being on the receiving end of anger and told yourself that you would never be angry like that? So what do you do when you find yourself doing the exact same thing? You either justify it or re-label it. In other words, you either focus on the external cause and blame your poor reaction on that, or you find a way to make it something else; something more acceptable. You may convert your anger into passive aggression, grudge holding and revenge, or with women in particular, maybe convert anger into tears. Another way to convert anger is to somaticize the emotions, which means converting them into physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, digestive problems, high blood pressure, or fatigue.

Re-labeling or converting anger into something else - hereby avoiding it- only exacerbates the problem and doesn’t help to learn about the source of the anger, how to address it and manage emotions in healthy ways. Identifying anger simply means sifting through all methods of avoidance and being willing to say – “I am angry.” Becoming a less angry person sometimes actually involves a process in which you first appear to get angrier. You’re not really getting angrier, but it will seem that way as you become more aware of the anger you already have. The idea is to be able to do this without recriminations. You may feel guilty about how you reacted, especially if you unfairly threw someone under the bus. In that case, the guilt would be appropriate. However, the reality of feeling anger and owning it is the goal here.

Step Two: Getting Underneath The Anger

Anger is considered a secondary emotion. What that means is that anger usually is representative of another emotion behind or underneath it. Now that you have identified that you are angry, rather than squash this unwanted emotion, play detective and follow the trail back to the source or the root. Remind yourself that the anger is telling you something about what is going on inside of you emotionally. To the degree that you don’t understand the root or meaning of your anger is the degree to which you will be unhappy and disgruntled throughout your life.

This can be hard work, but it really will be worth it in the end.

How does one get underneath the anger?

1.       Ask yourself good questions about the meaning of your anger. What is it about what that person said or did? Seek descriptive words or metaphors to parse out your feelings.

2.       Think back through your thoughts or perceptions concerning the event. How did you interpret the situation? Did you perceive an attack, or a slight? Did you feel rejected or misunderstood? Did you begin to go through worst case scenarios in your mind?

3.       Try to recall times when you felt similarly to help you identify the meaning.

4.       If you get stuck or come up blank, seek out a safe, trusted friend to help you talk it out and ask you probing questions.

Two common links to anger are hurt and disappointment. But since these are perceived as vulnerable or weak feelings, we are conditioned in our society to hide such feelings. One way in which we hide them is to convert them into anger.

Step Three: Live Authentically

In Brene Brown’s Book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she refers to courage and she explains that the word originally meant to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” 1 The author goes on to describe elements that are so important to becoming more authentic and emotionally healthy, and this notion of courageously being vulnerable leads the way. The thought process goes something like this:

Now that I have delved in and found out that there is something underneath my anger, something that’s often more vulnerable – like disappointment, loss or hurt – I don’t like that much. Now, I’m rather mad at that guy who wrote that article about anger! However, now I understand why I gravitate to anger.

Anger feels safer and less painful than feeling one’s vulnerability. But the cat is now officially out of the bag. You can either move forward and address the “underneath stuff”, or you could go back and keep utilizing anger to cover up those things. One way leads to reduced anger and irritability and resentment and a better you. You already know which one is which.

Strangely enough, just acknowledging your “underneath stuff” actually helps. Being honest with yourself about your hurts is the first step to healing them. Honesty matters. It means you are evaluating your heart. Next, dare to evaluate your heart with input from others. Yes, it is risky. Not everyone will respect your vulnerability but there are indeed some people who will. Be wise in identifying the latter. Living authentically with those who respect us brings healing to our hurts and losses.

The Wrap Up

None of the steps above are easy. If they were, we wouldn’t be such an angry, disgruntled culture. We are constantly challenged to swim upstream against the tide of our culture. Many people don’t like being vulnerable because of the misconception that vulnerable people are weak and looked down upon and are at risk of being trampled by the strong. In reality, vulnerability is strength and those who lack it are intimidated by it because it exposes them and shows who they truly are. So it is mocked and regarded as weakness. This is like a dictator fearing that the people will figure out that if they rise up, they will have more power than him. Personal maturity, emotion health and spiritual maturity are not celebrated by the world in general. God tells us not to be surprised by this in the Biblical book of I Peter. Jesus himself was not respected by the masses. But those who choose to get to know you will appreciate you better and you will be freer, more patient and more at peace. In the end you may discover that becoming less angry may make you less popular with some people, yet happier and more content with yourself.


1. Brown, Brene’, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN. Hazelden, 2010), 12.



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