Anger as a symptom

Anger is a reaction to a perceived or an actual injustice. Sometimes we react with behaviours that look like anger but are actually a symptom of an underlying emotion like guilt or shame.

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Why this matters

Anger is a normal, healthy and useful emotion. Anger can motivate us to take effective action to address an injustice. Anger is only problematic when we allow it to dictate our behaviours rather than using its wisdom to choose our own behaviours.  Those behaviours exist on a continuum and vary in severity. The intensity of behaviour can range from motivation or inspiration to fury or rage.

Sometimes, when we aren’t under any type of actual or perceived threat, anger doesn’t serve a useful function. In these situations, anger is often a secondary emotion.

This means anger may be a symptom of an underlying primary emotion, like fear or hurt, that may be more difficult to deal with or express.

We may feel that an expression of anger shows strength, whereas expressions of fear or anxiety, insecurity or hurt are a sign of weakness. This, of course, is not true, but may be a result of our upbringing or experiences. Part of emotional intelligence is the ability to express all emotions effectively. Knowing the underlying emotion means that we’re more likely to be able to deal with the issue that caused it more effectively.

Explore and reflect

Think about a situation in which you or someone else reacted with anger. Try to recall a time when, with the benefit of hindsight, you recognized the anger as a symptom of another emotion. Below are examples that might help you explore these concepts.

Fear, insecurity or anxiety

You tease someone about slacking off at work and they respond with unusual anger. They might be fearful of losing their job because they’ve already been disciplined for performance. They may interpret your teasing as a threat or attack, even though you didn’t intend it that way. For some people, it’s easier to react with anger than to admit to insecurity or fear.

When you know this, you can look beyond the reaction to become curious about what the individual may be dealing with. You’ll be less likely to take their anger personally and better able to communicate with people who are dealing with fear, insecurity or anxiety.

Emotional overwhelm

You may be surprised to find yourself reacting angrily when invited to a special event. Upon further reflection, you might realize you’re angry because you feel overcommitted. Your anger is telling you to reconsider your work-life balance, at least temporarily. Adding just one more event may initially feel like an injustice, but you may recognize the injustice comes from the unreasonable demands you place on yourself.

This will allow your response to the invitation to be much more gracious than it might otherwise have been. It’ll also allow you to take the wisdom of this emotion to make healthy changes to your work-life balance.

Sadness or hurt

Sometimes, people feel angry when they’ve experienced a great loss. You might feel this after a relationship breakup or the death of a loved one.

It’s important to let go of your anger, whether at yourself or others, and acknowledge your sadness. The danger of hanging onto anger is that it prevents you from taking positive steps to move forward in life.

Guilt or shame

Someone casually asks you where you’ve been, and you react with anger. You tell them they’re always checking up on you and invading your privacy. It could be that you were somewhere you know they would’ve wanted to go as well or with someone you know they would not approve of. Your sense of guilt or shame may make you defensive and angry.

When you can question your own angry responses, you have a chance to be objective rather than emotional. Guilt and shame, even when hidden under anger, have significant negative effects on your own mental and physical health.1

Take action

The next time you or someone else reacts with anger, take a moment to consider if there are underlying emotions at play. This simple reflection can change the way you respond and lead to a more effective outcome.

Additional resources

Avoid blaming and shaming. Most people react negatively to being blamed or shamed. Learn how to choose language that avoids triggering a negative response. 

Challenge angry thoughts. By challenging angry thoughts, you can cut through the emotion to get to whatever needs to be addressed. 

Express anger constructively. Learn to respond more effectively when you’re angry.

Someone you care about is struggling with anger. Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is struggling with anger.

Understand anger. Learn to understand the emotion, so you’re better positioned to deal with anger in yourself and others.

Understand guilt. Learn to understand the emotion, so you’re better positioned to deal with guilt in yourself and others.

Understand shame. Learn to understand the emotion, so you’re better positioned to deal with shame in yourself and others.

Understand fear. Learn to understand the emotion, so you’re better positioned to deal with fear in yourself and others.

Understand sadness. Learn to understand the emotion, so you’re better positioned to deal with sadness in yourself and others. 


1. Davis, D. E., Ho, M. Y., Griffin, B. J., Bell, C., Hook, J. N., Van Tongeren, D. R., DeBlaere, C., Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Westbrook, C. J. (2015). Forgiving the self and physical and mental health correlates: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(2), 329–335.


Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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