I observed an argument between two people last week and with little effort, I remained calm and objective. This week I was the one in a disagreement and it wasn’t so easy to stay calm and neutral. I found myself getting angry that the other person was angry.
When someone uses feeling words to describe judgments and assumptions, it may sound like they are talking about their feelings, but they are actually talking about their negative, and often exaggerated thoughts. As a result, we feel judged and often misunderstood. We get angry that they’re angry.
When Anger is Expected
There are times when someone is angry at us and we know the anger is justified. We made a mistake and we know we would be angry too if it was us.
If someone steals, cheats, violates, or deceives us, anger is the normal and expected response. Under these circumstances, anger is a primary emotion. The anger is immediate and instinctual, and anyone would feel angry under the circumstances.
When someone expresses anger towards us and it’s their primary emotion, we tend to respond by apologizing. We understand that he or she has a right to be angry at us, and we often express remorse and try to make things right. Depending on the seriousness of the violation, we may not expect to be forgiven, at least, not until we prove our remorse and make things right.
When Anger is Not Expected
When we are caught off guard by someone’s anger, it is most certainly because the anger is not the person’s primary emotion. The anger is a secondary emotion, the result of their beliefs, judgments, and assumptions.
The person is covering up their true emotions and not allowing us to know what he or she is really feeling and experiencing. We often respond negatively when this happens.
For example, suppose you are at a party and you spend a few moments in conversation with someone of the opposite sex. On the drive home your partner is angry at you, accusing you of flirting and behaving inappropriately.
Your partner’s anger in this situation is a secondary emotion. The primary emotion is fear of loss, or fear of not being good enough. Because fear makes us feel vulnerable, we often jump to the safer emotion of anger instead. We justify our anger with judgmental thoughts and negative assumptions.
When we are on the receiving end of someone’s secondary anger, we are often hurt and confused. We in turn make judgements about their anger. We are angry that they are angry.
Identify and Stay with Your Primary Emotions
It often feels safer to express our secondary emotions instead of our primary emotions. There is power in judgements and we prefer to feel right than vulnerable.
However, when we express our judgements and assumptions and not our true emotions, we decrease the chance of getting the validation we want and increase the chance of provoking reciprocal anger.
Step Back from the Anger
If you are the one who is angry, step back and decide if your anger is a primary or secondary emotion. If it’s caused by your thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions, it is a secondary emotion. If it builds over time and doesn’t go away, it is also a secondary emotion. Primary emotions are immediate, happen before you have time to think, and generally settle down over time.
If someone is angry at you and expressing judgements and assumptions, try to stay with your primary emotion of hurt and confusion and avoid jumping to anger. Ask questions and try to clarify what he or she is thinking or feeling. Look for the underlying, primary emotions behind the anger.
Take Responsibility for Your Emotions
It is helpful to share our primary emotions with those we want to have a good relationship with. Our primary emotions explain our deepest wants, needs, likes, and dislikes. In other words, our primary emotions reflect our authentic, true self.
Sharing our true emotions with the intention of better understanding ourselves and others deepens our relationships and gives us meaningful connection to others.
However, if we share our primary emotions in a way that sends the message that we believe the other person is responsible for our emotions or for fixing them, it can harm the relationship and push others away.
When we suspect someone is sharing his or her feelings with us to make us responsible for them, we tend to resent it.
If we accept and understand our own reactions, we can share with others with no expectation that they fix things for us or take responsibility for how we feel. Instead, our emotions create greater understanding and deepen our connection with those we care about.
“In the march towards Truth, anger, selfishness, hatred, etc., naturally give way, for otherwise Truth would be impossible to obtain. A man who is swayed by passions may have good enough intentions, may be truthful in word, but he will never find the Truth.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
To learn more, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,
Author: Jenny DeReis
Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.
Jenny has intensive and advanced training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.