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The Most Misunderstood Emotion

A valid feeling is seen as a character flaw instead of a signal of unmet needs.

Key points

  • Anger is often overly associated with aggressive or destructive behavior.
  • The way anger is expressed and managed determines whether it has become a problem.
  • Understanding anger involves individual differences, cultural contexts, and societal perception of emotion.

A 1989 book entitled Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion remains on my office bookshelf. It was a gift from my parents with a note inside about it being the first book for my professional library.

Nearly 35 years later, anger remains the most misunderstood emotion due to a variety of factors related to its expression and interpretation, and societal attitudes toward it. Let's take a look at some of the main reasons why anger is so tragically misperceived.

Anger is often overly associated with aggressive or destructive behavior. People tend to assume they understand the reasons behind someone else's anger without having an open and empathetic conversation. Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and strained relationships.

However, anger in itself is a normal and healthy emotion. It's the way it is expressed and managed that determines whether it becomes a problem. Peaceful protests are an example of a constructive way to express anger.

Why Anger Is Misunderstood

Stigmatization and Negative Perception. Society tends to view anger as a negative or destructive emotion. People may be hesitant to openly express anger or may suppress it due to fear of being judged or labeled as aggressive, or of facing repercussions. Let's not forget, though, that constructively expressed anger has led to breakthroughs in civil rights, critical safety protocols, and needed oversight in cases of neglect of the law.

Cultural Differences and Gender Stereotypes. Different cultures have varying norms and beliefs about how emotions should be expressed. What might be considered an appropriate expression of anger in one culture may be seen as unacceptable in another. This can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Societal expectations regarding how men and women should express emotions can contribute to misunderstandings. Even though we are far into the year 2023, men tend to be expected to display anger more overtly, while women are still encouraged to suppress or express it in more subdued ways.

Diverse Expression Styles. Individuals express anger in different ways: Some may display it openly and assertively, while others may internalize it or express it indirectly. These diverse expressions can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of the underlying emotion.

Complexity of Triggers. Anger can be triggered by a wide range of factors, including stress, frustration, perceived injustice, hurt, or fear. Understanding the complex interplay of these triggers can be challenging for both the person experiencing anger and those trying to understand it.

Lack of Emotional Education. Some individuals may struggle with identifying and labeling their emotions, including anger. This lack of self-awareness can make it challenging to articulate their feelings and needs to others, leading to further misunderstanding. Many people are not taught how to recognize, manage, and communicate their emotions effectively. This lack of emotional education can result in individuals struggling to understand their anger and its root causes, making it difficult for others to comprehend as well.

In over 30 years as a counseling psychologist, the most common emotion I have repeatedly seen lurking under anger is anxiety. A few examples of how anxiety manifests as anger are: the jealous spouse afraid of being dumped; the employee who fears they will never be properly recognized; the mixed martial arts fighter who is still afraid his father does not respect him as being tough; or the child rebelling because they fear they don't measure up to their siblings.

To help answer the call for more anger-educational awareness resources, my professional work with anger includes having developed a child and adolescent anger-management certification course for mental health professionals. I have also authored The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens, and the Letting Go of Anger Card Deck. These resources provide self-help anger management strategies in addition to those I share below.

10 Ways To Control Your Anger

  1. Take Deep Breaths. When you feel anger rising, take slow, deep breaths. Inhale deeply through your nose, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this several times.
  2. Count to 10. Before reacting impulsively, count to 10 slowly. This gives you a moment to pause and regain control of your emotions before responding.
  3. Walk Away. Remove yourself from the situation that's causing anger. Take a short walk, go to another room, or step outside to give yourself space and time to cool down.
  4. Use Positive Self-Talk. Replace negative or angry thoughts with positive affirmations or calming statements. Remind yourself to stay calm and that getting angry won't solve the problem.
  5. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation. Engage in mindfulness exercises or meditation to help you stay present and focused. Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, allowing you to respond to them in a more controlled manner.
  6. Exercise Regularly. Physical activity can be a great way to release built-up tension and reduce stress, which can help in managing anger.
  7. Express Yourself Calmly. As I write in 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, it is crucial to communicate your feelings assertively but calmly. Use "I" statements to express how you feel without placing blame on others. For example, say, "I feel upset when..." instead of "You always..." Think of this as the more you constructively name it (anger) the more you tame it.
  8. Use Relaxation Techniques. Practice relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, or aromatherapy to help calm your mind and body.
  9. Write It Down. Keep a journal and write down your feelings and thoughts when you're angry. This can help you process your emotions and gain perspective on a situation. There is a magic that occurs when you stop the thoughts swarming in your mind by putting them on paper (or on your phone's Notes app).
  10. Visualize a Happy Place. Close your eyes and imagine a peaceful and calming place. Picture yourself there, surrounded by tranquility and positivity. This visualization can help shift your focus and reduce anger.

Understanding anger requires a nuanced approach that considers individual differences, cultural contexts, and the broader societal understanding of emotions. Encouraging open communication, emotional literacy, and empathy can help bridge the gap in understanding and managing this complex emotion.

Remember: It's essential to find what works best for you and to be patient with yourself as you develop healthy anger-management habits. If anger becomes a persistent issue, consider talking to a mental health professional who can provide strategies and techniques to manage anger effectively.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Abbruzzese, A. (2019). Age and Gender Differences in Emotion Recognition (2019). Front. Psychol., 23 October
Sec. Emotion Science Volume 10 - 2019 |

Alan J. Lambert, Fade R. Eadeh, Emily J. Hanson, (2019), Chapter Three - Anger and its consequences for judgment and behavior: Recent developments in social and political psychology, Editor(s): James M. Olson, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Academic Press,
Volume 59, Pages 103-173, ISSN 0065-2601, ISBN 9780128171677, (

Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 3rd Ed. Hachette Go Books, New York, NY

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting Go Of Anger Card Deck, Pesi Publications, Eu Claire, WI.

Bernstein J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Pesi Publications, Eu Claire, WI.

Koole, S. L., Veenstra, L., Domachowska, I., Dillon, K. P., & Schneider, I. K. (2022). Embodied anger management: Approach-oriented postures moderate whether trait anger becomes translated into state anger and aggression. Motivation Science, 8(2), 174–190.

Tavris, C. (1989) Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, Touchstone / Simon & Schuster; Revised edition, New York, NY

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