Anger, Fear and Secondary Emotions
The other day I was driving, and as I slowed down to take a corner, the driver of the car behind me aggressively laid into his horn. I became instantly angry. There was no time to identify the trigger and choose a response; I just went from zero to furious in the blink of an eye and executed a near simultaneous rude hand gesture without making any conscious choice. Instantly regretting it, I wondered, What just happened?
As I reviewed the incident in my mind I saw a fleeting moment of fear that happened after I heard the honk. It makes sense; a horn indicates someone’s idea of danger and danger elicits fear and I was focused on turning the corner, not what was going on behind me. But where did the anger come from?
We are all conditioned in how we respond to anger. Anger is often called a “secondary emotion” because, much of the time, anger is covering over another emotion that, for some reason, isn’t acceptable to some part of us. A lot of families had some sort of unspoken rule about anger like, “anger is the main way we communicate” or “no one is allowed to be angry” or “daddy can be angry but no one else can” or “we’re not angry, we’re nice.” These rules from our childhood can affect us into our adulthood.
On top of this there is a cultural norm in the US that anger is a “strong” emotion and therefore, it’s OK to express as opposed to all those “weak” emotions like sadness, fear, shame, and guilt. While this applies generally to everyone in this culture, it’s especially true for males. I had, in a completely automatic and conditioned reaction, covered my fear with anger and attacked the other driver rather than simply feeling the fear.
The main technique in de-conditioning ourselves is to recognize what’s going on. In our recognition distance from the conditioned response is created and we have access to more options in how we respond. After all, it’s my fear and my anger and my response. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the other person; the other person is just there coincidentally, a handy screen to project my conditioning on.
I hope you find this helpful…
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Scott Nighbor, MA, LMHC
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