Psychology Tools: What is Anger? A Secondary Emotion
February 3, 2014
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This post explains how anger is a secondary emotion. By understanding the roots of anger – that is, the primary emotions fueling it – people can more effectively address its underlying causes.  This is an important first step in addressing anger management problems.

What is Anger?

Everybody feels anger at different times, to varying degrees. It’s simply part of the human experience. Feelings of anger can arise in many different contexts. Experiencing unjust treatment; hearing a criticism; or simply not getting what you want are but a few of the potential triggers.  The experience of anger can range from mild irritation, to frustration, all the way up to seething rage.  As a matter of fact, even boredom is a mild version of anger in the form of dissatisfaction with what is happening.

While feeling anger is a natural part of being human, it’s helpful to think about skillful ways to work with it that result in healthy living, rather than feelings of regret about what you said or did.

Why is anger good sometimes? Without feelings of anger, we wouldn’t take a stand against unfairness or injustice. Anger is an internal alarm that tells us something is not quite right. Unfortunately, however, far too often, the anger humans feel is being triggered by far less consequential factors than serious wrongdoing.

Anger is a Secondary Emotion

What many people don’t realize is that anger is a secondary emotion. What does this mean?  Typically, one of the primary emotions, like fear or sadness, can be found underneath the anger.  Fear includes things like anxiety and worry, and sadness comes from the experience of loss, disappointment or discouragement.

Feeling fear and sadness is quite uncomfortable for most people; it makes you feel vulnerable and oftentimes not in control.  Because of this, people tend to avoid these feelings in any way they can.  One way to do this is by subconsciously shifting into anger mode.  In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make you feel more in charge, rather than feeling vulnerable or helpless.  Essentially, anger can be a means of creating a sense of control and power in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty.

Let’s look at a few examples.  When anger arises between couples sometimes there’s a fear of abandonment underneath.  In these instances, it’s a combination of fear and anticipatory loss that can fuel the anger.  Uncertainty – when you lack ample information and things feel amorphous  – can also trigger anger.  Why?  Because uncertainty touches upon the “unknown,” which tends to be scary for most people.  Even boredom can generate anger or irritation because there can be a subtle sense of loss or fear associated with the experience of not engaging in something stimulating or productive.

While having some “sense of control” is correlated with greater emotional wellbeing, excessive desire for control only leads to suffering, as it’s impossible to always be in control, especially of other people’s behavior.

How to Work with Anger

So, next time you’re feeling anger – whether mild or strong – pause for a moment to check in with yourself and see if you can identify the primary emotion driving the anger.  If it’s hard to notice anything but the anger, start by exploring your thoughts, as those are what fuel all emotions.  Keep in mind that the shift from a primary emotion like fear or sadness into anger mode is typically quite fast and unconscious.  Feeling anger may be an ingrained habit for you, which means that it can take more time to identify the deeper thoughts and feelings that lie underneath.

By working with the fear, sadness, or both, you will develop more skillful ways of relating to your anger. For example, you may find that you have some unresolved grief.  Or, you may notice that you feel scared about a certain outcome.  That’s good data for you to work with, as it involves addressing a deeper need than the anger.

By identifying the primary emotion, you can more easily determine the best course of action to resolve your problem.  For example, you can figure out whether another’s actions are truly unjust or simply a blow to your ego.   Standing up for injustice, like protecting yourself or another from being taken advantage of or harmed, is rational.  But, choosing to argue with somebody over something trivial is more about ego.  Putting attention on the latter is a waste of energy that could be spent more wisely.

In summary, working with the underlying primary emotions is a way of decreasing habitual anger, cultivating more inner peace, and facilitating thoughtful action.


  1. I like what you wrote and agree with what you are explaining regarding anger as a secondary emotion. I am finding it hard to find authors of books or articles who have also written on this exact topic. I wondered if you are able to suggested any books or articles that also talk about what you’ve outlined, that anger is a secondary emotion to other primary more vulnerable emotions like hurt and fear.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I honestly can’t trace the roots of when I personally first learned of this perspective that made intuitive sense to me. It’s certainly tied to stress response theory (fight, flight or freeze when threatened, whereby “fight” is the anger response that can come after the initial fear/threat).

    With that said, Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy), http://www.drsuejohnson.com, has written about this academically. For example, see this reference to her work http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2801569/ (Skill 6; working with primary emotions). She probably wasn’t the first clinician/academic to acknowledge this perspective, but she may be one of the more well-known sources that has written about it explicitly.

    I hope this helps!

  3. I think that this site was very helpful and that if you have the chance do one on sadness.

  4. Anger that comes from watching injustice to others… what would the primary emotion be?

    Curious…

    • Thank you for your question. Re: anger in response to social injustice. I would say that the primary emotion could be FEAR (due to sense of threat); GRIEF (the sadness/pain that’s a normal human response to seeing others suffering)…and related to this grief is LOVE.

      There’s a great article from Tricycle Magazine (link below) that describes how the ‘wrathful compassion’ (i.e., a form of love) that propels someone to address injustice can look like anger. The difference being that the former (wrathful compassion) is an expression that serves to heal all parties (oppressor and oppressed) vs. the more typical ‘anger’ that can serve to blame and separate, creating more ‘us vs. them’ divisions. While the term ‘wrath’ connotes intense anger, this ‘wrathful anger’ is not an act of aggression, but describes the intensity of the compassion/love response.

      https://tricycle.org/magazine/arent-we-right-be-angry/

      This is a quote from the piece:

      “How do you tell the difference between anger and wrathful compassion? Wise compassion for others and the courage to confront them in their harmful thoughts and actions may look like anger from the outside but is quite different. If someone becomes receptive to the deep nature of her mind with its latent capacities of goodness, she starts to sense others similarly in their very being as intrinsically worthy and good. Then her vision of others cannot be reduced to the caricatures of self-protective anger. Her vision of persons becomes more like how a loving mother sees her child, even when he misbehaves, as intrinsically worthy, someone she would never abandon. To forcefully challenge someone for their own sake takes a much stronger, more authentic love than going along with others no matter what they do.”

      Thoughts about this?

  5. I’d like to add a note to all readers on this topic – that there are many theories about what constitute ‘primary’ vs. ‘secondary’ emotions. My perspective shared here is but one to consider.

    This page provides an interesting overview w/tables outlining many of the different theories regarding ‘basic’ and ‘primary’ emotions:
    http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/basic%20emotions.htm

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