Emotions play an important role in our lives and are essential to survival. They communicate important information to us about our environment and help motivate us to respond in certain ways. Put simply, when we experience nice things, we generally feel good. When we experience not so nice things, we generally feel bad. Feeling the full range of emotions is part of living a rich and meaningful life.
Our initial response to an event or stimulus is called a primary emotion (e.g., you remember losing your grandmother and feel sad). Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are the reactions we have to our primary emotions (e.g., you get angry at yourself for feeling sad). We can have several secondary emotions in response to our initial reaction, which in some cases, can prolong emotional pain and suffering.
Our emotions have the following functions:
- They motivate us to behave in certain ways – that is, they prepare us for action, help us respond to the environment in ways that protect us from harm, and help us overcome barriers to our goals (e.g., feeling afraid activates our fear response and motivates us to escape or avoid the dangerous situation; anger can motivate us to fight for justice)
- They connect us and communicate information to others – that is, emotions are communicated through body language, facial expressions, and voice tone, which ultimately informs people about how we feel and influences how they act towards us. Sharing our emotions with others is the basis for human empathy, connection and compassion (e.g., when we feel sad, others might notice a solemn facial expression and withdrawn body language and therefore come to comfort us)
- They communicate information to ourselves – they tell us things about a situation, send the alarm when threats are present, and give information about our likes, interests, and dislikes. This might be in the form of ‘intuition’ or a ‘gut feeling’ (e.g., we notice a sinking feeling in our stomach when we realise that we are in an unsafe part of town, we feel pleasure when we eat our favourite food). However, it is important to remember that emotions are not facts.
Given the focus of this course is anger, let’s take a closer look at why we feel this emotion. Whilst anger can be a primary emotion, it is also a common secondary emotion. Anger is often a more accepted emotion than those like shame or anxiety. This is partly because people wrongly associate anger with dominance and power, and the other types of emotions with weakness. As such, anger often covers up these other emotions.
When we feel anger, it may be telling us one or more of the following things:
- You are facing a barrier to your goals
- You or someone else is being threatened
- You have lost something important (e.g., respect, control, material positions etc.)
- You are facing unfairness or prejudice
- You are in a situation that is unwanted or unexpected
- You feel pain of some kind (emotional or physical)
So, anger serves a purpose. To get rid of anger altogether would put us in an extremely vulnerable position. This would be like removing a smoke alarm system from a house – in
the event of a fire, our safety would be put at risk. Instead of trying to get rid of anger, we need to learn ways to understand it and regulate it. In the sections below, we cover skills that will help you do this.