4 Things About Anger Everyone Should Know

Most people who struggle with anger don’t understand how it works.

For example:

  • Many people with anger issues have a strong belief that anger is bad and that they shouldn’t feel so angry. But this just leads to a vicious cycle of self-judgment followed by more intense anger.
  • A lot of people think that anger needs to be “expressed” and “let out” otherwise it will “boil over” and become “toxic.” But this holdover view from 19th century psychology tends to encourage venting and rumination which only make anger more intense long-term.

If you want to develop a healthier and more effective relationship with anger, it’s important to think more clearly about it.

In the rest of this article, we’re going to look at four surprising facts about anger and how they can help you deal with your anger better by changing the way you think about and respond to it.

1. Anger Is Not a Negative Emotion (It’s a Pleasurable One)

When you give people a list of emotions and ask them to sort them into “Positive Emotions” and “Negative Emotions,” anger always ends up in the negative emotion pile—along with guilt, anxiety, shame, sadness, regret, and all the rest.

Of course, in reality, no emotion is either positive or negative in the sense of being good or bad. As I wrote about in a previous essay, there’s no such thing as a negative emotion.

But even if you’re more careful with your language and use the terms negative emotions and positive emotions to describe how emotions feel—sadness feels negative so we’ll call it a negative emotion, while joy feels positive so we’ll call it a positive emotion—it’s still not the case that anger would be a negative emotion. The reason is deceptively simple:

Anger feels good.

Most people think of anger as a negative or aversive feeling because they associate it with other related aversive things:

  • The behaviors that follow anger are often aggressive, mean, or destructive.
  • The self-judgments we heap on ourselves for feeling angry are definitely negative and uncomfortable.
  • And of course, other people’s reactions to our anger are frequently very negative and unpleasant.

But none of those things are anger. If you pay attention to how you feel when you’re just experiencing anger, what you’ll find is that it’s much closer to pleasure than pain.

Here’s why…

We feel angry when we perceive and understand something to be unjust. When an injustice is our fault, we feel guilt. But when an injustice is someone else’s fault—especially if we’re on the receiving end of that fault—we feel angry. But here’s the critical part: When we think someone else is in the wrong, we’re simultaneously thinking that we’re in the right—or at least that we see the right side—and that makes us feel… good!

Now, I don’t expect you to buy this wholesale right off the bat. But I would challenge you to consider this idea for yourself and reflect carefully on your own experience:

When you get angry, does the initial anger itself feel bad and aversive or does it feel good and enjoyable?

I think you’ll find it’s the latter.

Now, more than just a curious observation, the idea that anger is a pleasurable rather than an aversive emotion is actually critical for dealing with anger better. And the reason is simple if counterintuitive:

We often do things that maintain our anger because the feeling of anger is rewarding and pleasurable.

A very common example of this is the anger-as-antidepressant dynamic:

  • Many people with low self-esteem get in the habit of being hypercritical of others because criticism and judgment of other people leads to a feeling of self-righteous anger.
  • After all, when you criticize someone else for being dumb, you’re really implying that you’re smart; or when you judge someone else for being bad, you’re really implying that you’re good.
  • In other words, the anger generated by criticism acts as an antidepressant and self-esteem booster.

Another example is people who use anger to alleviate helplessness:

  • You see this commonly with people who are news junkies…
  • They care a lot about politics and social issues, but for whatever reason don’t actually get involved in politics or making social change.
  • Instead, they consume a lot of news, which leads to a lot of anger at “all those idiots out there,” which numbs out the feelings of helplessness (and even guilt) that comes from caring about issues but not actually doing anything about them.

In short, it’s important to acknowledge that anger is a pleasurable emotion because it helps explain why we get into habits that trigger and perpetuate our own anger.

If you struggle with chronic anger, it’s worth asking yourself:

Why might I want to get angry? What job is anger doing for me? What psychological need does anger fill?

Learn More

If you resonated with the concept of anger-as-antidepressant, this article of mine of self-esteem might be interesting.

2. Anger Is Different Than Aggression

If you struggle with anger, this is perhaps the most important distinction to be aware of: Anger is an emotion, aggression is a behavior.

A few examples to illustrate:

  • After a particularly hard foul during your weekly pickup basketball game, you feel a surge of anger (emotion), then impulsively shove the guy who fouled you in the chest, sending him falling backwards (aggressive physical behavior).
  • A coworker makes a sarcastic comment about your idea during a meeting, you feel angry (emotion) and quickly reply with your own sarcastic comment about them (aggressive verbal behavior).
  • Having walked into the kitchen and noticed that your spouse left their dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the sink (again!), you immediately feel mad (emotion), then proceed to start ruminating about what an insensitive and unresponsive neanderthal he is (aggressive mental behavior).

NOTE: Before we move on, notice how behaviors show up in a variety of forms: Physical behaviors, which are the most obvious, but also verbal behaviors (speech) and mental behaviors (thoughts).

Now, the reason this distinction between emotion and behavior is so important has to do with control…

You can’t directly control any emotion, including anger: There’s no way to just turn up your happiness dial or lower your sadness lever. Emotions don’t work that way. And because you can’t control your emotions directly, you can’t be morally responsible for them. This distinction is embedded in our legal system: You don’t get sent to prison for feeling really angry; you get sent to prison for acting aggressively—usually violently. Because unlike your lack of control over your emotions, you can control how you act, your behaviors.

Now, in the context of someone who struggles with chronic anger issues, this issue of control and distinguishing the emotion of anger from the act of aggression is critical because most people get it backward: They waste all their time and energy trying to control their anger (which is impossible), and as a result, have little energy left over to control their aggression.

The trick is to flip your strategy: Briefly acknowledge and validate your anger, then spend most of your energy and effort controlling your aggressive impulses.

And a little secret while we’re on the topic: Aggressive behaviors are much easier to control when you’ve taken the time to genuinely acknowledge and validate the emotions behind them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that becoming skilled at acknowledging and validating your anger is the single best way to control your aggression—whether it’s physical, verbal, or mental.

So remember:

Validate the anger. Control the aggression.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about validation and how to get good at it, this guide to validation I wrote is a good place to start. And if you really want to go deeper, I teach a course on emotion management skills called Mood Mastery.

3. Excess Anger Comes From Excess Thinking

Everybody gets angry. It’s perfectly normal and healthy.

But some people get really angry, are almost constantly angry, or sometimes both. And when the frequency and or intensity of your anger seems out of proportion to your circumstances (or you’re getting this feedback from reliable sources) that suggests that your relationship with anger has become problematic.

Note that I didn’t say your anger has become problematic… No emotion, including anger, is a problem…

  • How you behave when you feel angry might be a problem.
  • Your distorted beliefs about anger might be a problem.
  • But your anger itself isn’t a problem.

Still, while excess anger isn’t a problem itself, it might be contributing to other problems…

  • Maybe you’re frequently angry and irritable at work, which makes it hard for others to work with and trust you.
  • Maybe your infrequent but intense angry outburst are causing problems in your romantic relationship.
  • Or maybe you just think that being constantly angry is not a very helpful way to go through life.

Regardless, it’s important not to shoot the messenger: Excess anger is a messenger telling you that something else has gone wrong. It’s a symptom, not a pathology. So while it’s important to pay attention to your anger and understand it, don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s the problem itself.

In almost all cases, the real problem—the thing that needs to be addressed when people have “anger issues”—isn’t their emotions so much as their thinking.

The direct cause of all emotions, including anger, is thoughts…

  • When someone cuts you off driving on the freeway, the other person and their car didn’t make you angry. It’s the story you told yourself in your head about them being a “sh!thead” that caused you to feel angry.
  • When your partner is overly critical of something you do, their words don’t make you angry; it’s your interpretation of what those words mean that causes you to feel anger.
  • When one of your team members at work shows up late, their tardiness doesn’t cause you to experience anger; it’s all the ruminating you do about how inconsiderate people are that causes you to be upset.

Things don’t cause emotions. It’s our thoughts about things that generate emotions.

This point is crucial to accept if you want to address your anger issues because it means that the real thing that needs addressing isn’t your anger so much as the mental habits and thought patterns that give rise to it.


  • I’ve never met an “angry person” who wasn’t a chronic ruminator.
  • I’ve never met a chronically frustrated person who didn’t have extraordinarily unrealistic expectations.
  • And I’ve never met someone with road rage who wasn’t in the habit of criticizing other drivers.

If you want to feel less angry, you need to address the mental habits generating that anger. You need to treat the cause, not the symptom.

And when it comes to mental habits that generate anger, the two biggest culprits are:

  1. Rumination. The tendency to dwell on other people’s faults or bad behavior.
  2. Unrealistic expectations. Unhelpful stories you tell yourself about how people “should” be (yourself included).

To sum up, remember: Don’t shoot the messenger. Anger is never the real problem; it’s the thoughts behind the anger that you need to address.

Learn More

If you struggle with a lot of rumination and dwelling on the faults or failings of others—including how they may have hurt you—this guide on rumination is a good place to start. Also this article on 5 Ways to Stop Ruminating will be helpful.

If you struggle with a lot of unrealistic expectations—and the resentment-flavored version of anger it tends to produce—this article of mine will be helpful: To Let Go of Unhealthy Expectations, Ask Yourself These 3 Questions

4. Venting Makes You More Angry, Not Less

The idea that we need to express, release, or vent our anger or else it will become toxic and destructive has been around since the days of Freud, which is certainly long enough to seep its way into popular culture and imagination.

Trouble is, it’s not true.

Research consistently shows that the cathartic theory of anger—venting or ruminating on your anger in order to “release” it—does nothing to lessen its intensity. And in fact, it actually makes it stronger!

Now, you might be wondering to yourself: But you just said earlier that it’s good to acknowledge and validate your anger?

True. And while superficially similar, there’s a world of difference between validation and venting.

Venting is mainly different than validation in its motivations…

  • The motivation behind venting is to feel better. This is why it almost always devolves into complaining about other people—the obnoxious coworker, the insensitive husband, the parent who didn’t express enough affection, etc. By criticizing other people, we superficially boost our own self-esteem. And because this brief self-esteem boost feels so good, we get addicted to the high and continue to dwell on the emotion, often to the point of obsession, which only increases its intensity and salience in our mind.
  • The motivation behind validation is to do better. When we validate an emotion like anger, we simply acknowledge that it’s okay and normal to feel that way, so that we can move past it in a healthy way and get on with our lives. Validation is the healthy middle ground between avoidance and obsession. And while it often does result in us feeling better, that’s a nice side effect not the primary function.

So, when you find yourself dwelling on your anger, the question to ask yourself is:

Is thinking more about my anger helping me move forward or keeping me stuck?

Another reason venting is counterproductive is that it’s a form of procrastination; that is, by obsessing over how angry you feel (and all those idiots who make you so angry) you avoid doing the hard work of actually addressing the problems in your life that are contributing to your anger.

For example:

  • Venting to your coworker about how your boss’ lack of focus slows down your team’s progress is a great way to avoid having an honest conversation with your boss.
  • Venting to your best friend about how emotionally unavailable your partner has become is a great way to avoid having to be assertive about your emotional needs in your relationship.
  • Venting to your spouse about how emotionally immature your parents are is a great way to avoid having to make some tough decisions about setting boundaries.

Just like you don’t want to use obsessing over your anger as a way to avoid thinking about the mental habits contributing to it, you also don’t want to use it as a way to avoid taking action on the real problems in your life.

No amount of emotional “processing” can make up for a lack of assertiveness.

If you’re angry about a real problem in the world, take a moment to acknowledge and validate your anger, then move on and start taking positive, constructive action. This is scary, and often takes more than a little courage, but it’s far more productive—and much healthier, emotionally—than venting.

Learn More

Next to ruminating less, the single best thing you can do to be less angry is to build the skill of assertiveness.

All You Need to Know

If you struggle with anger issues, the first step is to get clear on how anger really works. And these four key ideas are a good place to start:

  1. Anger Is Not a Negative Emotion. It’s a pleasurable one, which is why we often get stuck in habits like complaining or criticizing which perpetuate it.
  2. Anger Is Different Than Aggression. Validate the anger, control the aggression—physical, verbal, and mental.
  3. Excess Anger Comes From Excess Thinking. Don’t shoot the messenger. If you’re feeling “too” angry, focus on ruminating less.
  4. Venting Makes You More Angry, Not Less. Don’t let “processing” anger become a way of procrastinating on assertively addressing the real problems in your life.

Work With Me

If you’re interested in working with me directly, twice a year I run a small cohort of students through a 5-week emotional resilience training program called Mood Mastery.

Learn more about Mood Mastery →