Thoughts on Feelings (Part 5): When the ANGER we see, is actually Anxiety

What?! Really? What do you mean?

We are complex beings, and our feelings are often very much that way.  Sometimes we say what we mean, whilst other times we don't mean what we say!  

We are often told that our feelings betray us, or to listen to what we feel - but for many, it may not be that easy to express that which is so incoherent or fuzzy.  Often what we may only experience is a massive sense of discomfort, culminating in "acting out" behaviours often distasteful to others.

Anxiety may often be experienced as too shameful or be uncomfortable to be on display if there is a perceived possibility of being rejected or dismissed.  So what's on the surface, may be a touchiness and grouchiness that's hard to quell - especially if you didn't get that they were hurt or anxious about something in the first place.  It follows that we may apply the wrong or inaccurate action to meet the needs we perceive.  This is called a miscue.

Anger as a Self-Defence

Sometimes, anger as a feeling may be applied as an emotional response when things get out of hand or when we've perceived threat.  We may retaliate at someone who had caused us insult or hurt us deeply - so at the end of the day, we (and others) may lose the sense of what had initially occurred.  This is compounded by others' involvement in bringing out the anger in us.

Early theoretical descriptions of how anger and aggression are part and parcel of our internal psyche, and how it is an essential part of the way we interact with the world might serve a useful way to understand these anger/anxiety issues.  In Freud's view, the conscious mind is that part of the mind we are aware of.  It can be compared to the part of an iceberg that is above the water.  It contains the thoughts we are currently thinking at any given moment.  We might not have aggressive thoughts in our conscious mind at all but still be driven by aggressive urges that we're not aware of.

The pre-conscious mind is the part of the mind we are occasionally aware of. It can be compared to the part of the iceberg that is below the waterline but still visible. Aggression in dreams can be a clue to unconscious aggressive urges - but remember, dreams are always symbolic and not to be taken literally.

The unconscious mind is the rest of the psyche that we are unaware of.  It can be compared to the bulk of the iceberg that is out of sight under the water.  This contains powerful aggressive urges that would frighten and shock us if we ever became consciously aware of them. Fortunately for us, they only appear in disguised form in dreams and "Freudian slips".


Most aggression comes from the UNCONSCIOUS.

We're not aware of it or in control of it.


In my view, when our anger and aggression is brought forth to a pre-conscious or conscious level, we have some sense that we are pissed off about something, and have some idea that we're disturbed by something (e.g., an obvious trigger like a hurtful comment about our how incompetent we are), that's when it gets interesting.  We may start showing our displeasure towards others in a plea for assistance or help, but also be feeling angry enough to let slip some of that aggression.  

Whether we're a therapist, a parent or a teacher, and are in the business of observing behaviours in adults or children, this may be a reminder about how easily we judge based on how we initially interpret one's outlook.

Some Universal Tips:

Look for these indications of physiological stress:

  • Physical responses such as crying, protesting, increased heart-rate, wide-open eyes, trying to escape, hitting, or otherwise striking out

  • Signs of disengagement, including flat, still or frozen facial features; lack of interest or reaching out to others; monotone or flat vocal tone; lack of exploration; or slow or decreased body movement

If you observe someone exhibiting stress responses, make these your priorities:

  • Before anything else, give the person cues that he or she is physically and emotionally safe.

  • Understand the behaviour as a stress response: what we are asking of the person may exceed his or her ability to carry out the task.

  • Be flexible about changing plans and immediate treatment goals to prioritise warmth, engagement and understanding when an individual exhibits stress responses.

In short, paying attention to what a person is showing us in his or her body — rather than how well they comply with requests or how they respond initially — is the best way to determine what that person is actually feeling.  Most of the time, when anger recedes, you might find that there is, at its core, the anxious distress or hurt that could not be expressed.  With this approach, the chances of miscuing someone would be much slimmer.

When we prioritise someone's emotional life, behaviours will improve organically over time as the one experiences safety in mind and body.  All of us who work in the mental-health and developmental disabilities fields should understand the central importance of this solid foundation for children and adults.  Our relationships and emotional stability are the best markers for treatment goals and serve as the best foundation for future growth.

Further reading: 

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

The Problem of Anxiety

By Sigmund Freud , and Henry Alden Bunker

2013 Reprint of 1936 Edition. Exact facsimile of the original edition, not reproduced with Optical Recognition Software. This book is an American translation of Freud's "Hemmung, Symptom und Angst." Many regard this book as the most valuable clinical one written by Freud up to that date. "The Problem of Anxiety" by focuses on Freud's theory of anxiety-neurosis. This is a comparatively small book, but the large number of topics brought together and the serious attempt to deal with them in a fundamental way stamps it as one of the author's major works. One notes throughout this book a scientific modesty and an attitude of non-finality which was not always apparent in Freud's earlier writings.