Why Anger Is A Secondary Feeling Masking Much More Complicated Emotions

When people shift into anger, they stop feeling the sensations of vulnerability.

disappointed woman wearing a large hat getty

There's more to anger than what it seems on the surface.

Picture this scenario: James watched as his son, a talented goalie, let in a goal that lost the game. Exasperated, he let out a cry of disgust.

After the game, James berated his son for not trying hard enough. His discouraged son tried to convince his father that he had tried as hard as he could. Both felt bad.

There's another feeling under the anger — sensations of vulnerability — that act like an engine fueling the anger and driving the behavior.


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Any vulnerable feeling can fuel anger.

Some people get angry when they feel out of control, hurt, threatened, pressured, or even hungry or tired.

There are many sensations of vulnerability, including feelings of abandonment, belittlement, shame, embarrassment, disappointment, hopelessness, rejection, and more.


In James’s case, there was disappointment underneath his anger.

When his son did well, he felt proud and important. When his son did not do well, he felt like a failure.

James hated the sensations of failure. So, he shifted into anger and got on his son’s case.

Vulnerable feelings can range from slight to extreme.

No one likes to feel the sensations of vulnerability, so most people avoid or deflect from the sensations by talking about something else, focusing on a task, or worrying about aches or pains they have.

Or they may get angry. Why?

When people shift into anger, they stop feeling the sensations of vulnerability. The sensations of vulnerability do not go away — they go into the background.


Feeling angry is better than feeling the sensations of humiliation, rejection, or any other vulnerable feeling. When people feel angry, they feel sensations of power, not vulnerability.

With anger, it may be possible to change what's going on, for better or worse. Anger has a purpose.

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When people get angry, they are looking for a specific outcome.

James needed his son to do well so that he could feel good about himself. He got angry at his son, pressuring him into trying harder.

Most children feel uncomfortable when their parents are angry, so they try to do whatever it is that will stop the anger, whether it's good for them or not.


They become more focused on what their parents are feeling than on the activity, making it harder for them to do well.

What could James do to achieve his goals, then?

First, James needs to be aware that he feels disappointed. He probably shifts into anger so quickly that he doesn't realize it. Secondly, he needs to realize that his disappointment is about himself, not his son.

Once James is aware, he can do a couple of things.

He can do things in his own life to achieve a sense of accomplishment and importance.

And, he can give his son positive feedback about what he is doing well so that his son stays focused on the sport. This way, his son is more likely to enjoy the activity and perform at his best.


What is the result? They both feel good. His son feels good about his performance, and James feels good about his parenting.

When parents figure out the engine — the vulnerable feeling — driving their anger, they have more choices.

They may continue to handle situations in the same way or find more effective ways — without getting angry — that are positive for everyone concerned.


Explore the feelings underlying your anger. What did you feel before you got angry? What is the purpose of your anger? Is there a better way to go about it than getting angry?

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Bea Mackay is a psychologist and has been helping people reclaim their lives through individual, couples, and family therapy for over 30 years. For more information, visit her website.

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