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Understanding Emotions and the Anger Funnel

Everyone experiences anger from time to time. It is always ‘okay’ to feel anger (or any emotion, for that matter). Emotions are signals from the body. What we need to consider is what we do with that emotion.

In this short article, we will discuss why we have emotions, what role each emotion serves, and why sometimes anger can become ‘stuck’ beyond its purpose and cause us difficulty.

The Relationship between Needs and Emotions

Emotions are the body’s signal that ‘needs’ are met or unmet. Abraham Maslow (1954) first suggested that we have a hierarchy of needs; that lower needs must be met before moving on to attend to higher needs. The first four levels are:

  1. Physiological: meeting of basic needs of the body, including food, shelter, and rest.
  2. Safety/security: to be safe from danger, both physically and emotionally.
  3. Love and Belonging: to be accepted by, affiliated with, and loved by others.
  4. Self-Esteem: to feel competent, to achieve, gain approval and recognition.
  5. Self-Actualization: morality, creativity and spirituality

Only when all these needs are met is a person truly able to give to others and seek emotional or intellectual growth.

Emotions, then, are our body’s signal to us about the ‘state of our needs’ at any moment. Positive emotions occur when we believe that our need is being met and negative emotions ‘alert ‘ us to an unmet need. They tell us to proceed, to do that again (or not) if the chance comes, to stop, to get help, to let go. To see how this works more clearly, you can ask, “When did or will the need occur; in the past, the future, or the present?”

FEELINGS in relation to needs in the…
…past …present …future
positive feelings satisfied/content happy/joy excited/hopeful
(= needs met)

negative feelings sad/down frustrated/angry worried/anxious
(= needs unmet)

In each case the emotion signals what is needed. It is our natural internal feedback system. Positive feelings (satisfied, happy, excited) signal that our needs were, are, or likely will be met. How does that influence us? Because the feeling is pleasurable, it makes us more likely to do that again (if the opportunity presents itself), continue what we are doing, or keep moving toward that end, respectively. Negative feelings (sad, angry, worried) signal that our needs were not, are not, or may not be met and thus, being unpleasant, we are more likely to let go, take space, or get help.

The ‘Anger Funnel’

Yet sometimes we can act out of anger even if the outcome has already passed and we cannot change what happened (replaying an event over and over again in our mind) or the event has yet to even occur (mind-reading and anticipating negative treatment at the hand of another person). This is called a secondary emotion, or an emotion about an emotion (Banmen, 1991). It does not serve a purpose other than to avoid the underlying feeling – sadness or fear – but will usually cause us even greater difficulty. How and why do we learn to do clutch anger in this fashion?

At some point we may have learned to avoid ‘vulnerable’ emotions like sadness or fear that acknowledge that we need help. Consider, for example, the negative impact upon young boys who are teased if they express any sadness or are discouraged from expressing fear by their peers or even parents and coaches. It is in this way that we can learn, despite being born with a wide range of emotions, to funnel our negative emotional response into the only emotion remaining; anger. Consequently, we begin to act as though anything negative is a here-and-now problem that somehow we must act to solve and respond with aggression and anger.

Imagine getting cut-off in traffic. If you fume about it long after the moment has passed you are holding on to your anger. Alternatively, you may stew about an upcoming meeting, anticipating negative outcomes that have not happened yet. These are examples of the ‘anger funnel’.

Sadness and fear invite support. It is natural and healthy to seek support when faced with a problem too great to deal with alone. In contrast, the purpose of anger is to create space and push others away. Pushing away can be beneficial when someone is literally standing on your foot. It is ineffective when what you fear is yourself and your own, very human limitations.

That is why holding onto anger we can create the very reaction we fear from others; afraid to show our vulnerability, we use anger instead and push others away.

Help is available. By working with your psychotherapist to identify the more vulnerable feelings that underlie your anger, you can learn to express yourself in a way that will not push others away and will help invite them to support you instead. This exploration of emotional attunement and interpersonal skills can benefit your intimate relationships and friendships, parenting and work life.

You may discover a new ability to solve problems without blame or anger.

Maslow, Dr. A. H., Motivation and Personality. Brandeis University, 1954.
Banmen, Dr. J., The Satir Model. Science & Behavior Books, 1991.

Note: Stephen Douglas is an Associate in Dalton Associates

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