Where Does Anger Come From?

Lesson 3

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Where Does Anger Come From?

Lesson 3

The ways in which we express anger are learned responses. We learn from ourselves and others. We learn from the ways our family and friends express anger. We also learn from the media, cultural and gender stereotypes, role models and many other outside influences. You may have heard someone claim that they inherited their tendency to yell from their father, or their passive-aggressiveness from their mother. However, anger is not something inherited from birth, like eye color. How we deal with anger is something we picked up through our experiences in childhood and onward. Think back to your childhood. How was anger expressed?

At times as children we are given the message that our emotions are wrong, not acceptable, or that they need to be hidden. Were you told not to cry growing up, not to feel angry, or that anger was bad? Perhaps you witnessed your older brother engaging in physical conflict with another child instead of dealing with the loss of your family dog. Maybe you saw someone seemingly gain power over another by using aggression. Maybe you saw anger as uncontrollable, scary, and something to avoid. You may have learned some unhealthy habits of dealing with anger while growing up.

Regardless of where or how you learned your behavior, it is important to realize that it can be changed and that this change is up to you. Self-awareness will play a huge part in managing anger. The goal is not only to hold yourself accountable for your own actions, but to see to your own needs.

Seeing to and Meeting Your Needs

When anger becomes intense, unhealthy, or destructive, chances are it is because some need inside you has not been met. This could be a basic need such as food, money, a roof over your head, stability, or sleep. Or it could be something more complex. Think about a toddler. It’s easy to recognize that a toddler will become cranky if he or she is hungry, sleepy, or the environment is unstable.

Needs do not go away as we grow. In fact, they multiply.

Humans have a need for:

  • Acceptance
  • Cooperation
  • Respect
  • Joy
  • Comfort
  • Ease
  • Challenge
  • Exuberance
  • Independence
  • Safety
  • Love
  • Support
  • Connection with others

This list could go on and seems infinite, because we are all different, and needs include not just the things we require to survive, but also what we desire to create a meaningful and peaceful life.

When needs aren’t being met, we can react in an unhealthy or destructive manner instead of responding in a healthy way. This is especially true if you are in need of food or sleep, as these needs not only can trigger a survival response, but also impact our production of what our brains require to feel good.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be helpful in thinking about what we need and how to become more aware, day to day, of who we are:


Consider the following:

Imagine you are driving a car and another car runs the intersection you have just entered. Your mind reacts instinctively, making your hands steer to avoid the other car and your foot to stomp on the brake. Time may slow down or speed up, your heart races, your body is pumped full of adrenaline. Your need for safety is immediate. You are in survival mode. All rational thought has flown out the window at this point.

Now imagine yourself during a busy day at work. You were running late to get there this morning, so you didn’t bother with breakfast. Now you are so busy that you have forgotten to eat lunch. The copier jams for the sixth time this month and your first urge is to kick it and  yell. You may even decide to give up entirely on the copier and avoid your duties. You are reacting, driven by instinct, and reverting back to learned behaviors, perhaps from your childhood.

How are avoiding a car crash and the copy-machine situations similar?

In both, your body is in a kind of survival mode. You react instinctively without responding thoughtfully. While this may prove effective for avoiding a car accident, it is not as effective with social interaction inside the workplace.

Not all needs drive us into survival mode, but most unmet needs are surprisingly taxing and can create a chain reaction leading to a moment where we snap. Kicking a copy machine could be a reaction to a need for ease or effectiveness in the moment, which was made dire by an underlying need for food or rest.


Take a moment with your journal to think about and answer some of the following questions. How did others express anger during your childhood? What are some of your beliefs about anger? Can you find characteristic behaviors you may have learned from your family growing up? How did women express anger when you were growing up? How did men? How did your role models or your close friends?  Think about possible needs these people were attempting to fulfill while expressing anger.

Try to recognize some needs that were not being met that may have contributed to the conflicts you have written or thought about so far in this course. Be as objective as possible with this.

Meanwhile, continue to track conflicts in your life. Along with these conflicts, write down unmet needs of both you and others. For your own needs, think in both the broad scheme of things and in individual circumstance. Think about reaching broader needs as a goal. Maybe you want consistency in your life or maybe you want closeness with others. See to your deeper needs. Imagine what you would like your life to look like. Write it down.

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