• Like all our emotional states, seeking to understand our anger can reveal a lot about ourselves

  • Anger researcher and author of Why We Get Mad, Dr Ryan Martin explores how you can look at your angry experiences differently

  • We have therapists and counsellors who work specifically with anger – find yours here 

I used to drive my kids to school most mornings on my way to work. It usually went great. We would get out the door with no problems, they would get to school on time, and I would get to work on time. Sometimes, though, I would find myself getting really frustrated by how long it would take for them to get their coats and shoes on and get into the car. I would do all of the things I was supposed to do (e.g., let them know in advance it was time to go, give them specific instructions, hold them accountable for mistakes), but it didn’t seem to matter. They would just take way longer than I thought was reasonable, and I would get angry at them, and some mornings were marred by my having snapped at them or scolded them out of frustration.

Based on what I hear from other parents, this is not an uncommon frustration. Still, though, I have come to realise my anger in these moments had a lot more to do with me than with what the kids were doing. I noticed that this was happening on days of stress. I’m a morning person, and I like to get to work early when I am most productive. When I am feeling stressed about work – like when I have a lot to do – getting to work early helps me ease that stress. So on these stressful days I was feeling a sense of urgency that my kids and wife weren’t feeling. It was important to me to get out the door at a particular time, but they weren’t feeling that way. To them, it was a normal day.

Before we get into this example any further, let me offer a crash course in why we get mad. It’s easy to think that it comes directly from the provocations – those people and situations that make us mad – but it doesn’t. It comes from an interaction between a provocation, our mood and what we’re doing at the time of the provocation, and how we interpret or think about the provocation. When my kids took more time than I wanted them to in the morning, that was the provocation. My feelings of tension and stress on particular days was the mood at the time, and my thoughts of “If they don’t hurry up, I’m going to get a late start and be behind all day” were exacerbating things.

We can map out any angering event this way. Get the wrong food at a restaurant? This provocation interacts with your feeling state at the time (hunger) and your thoughts about the provocation (“this is the worst, I was so excited and now my meal is ruined”). What is particularly interesting, though, is that by mapping out angering events like this, we can learn a lot about ourselves. 

Let’s take a relatively common example to illustrate this. A lot of people tell me that they get angry over chronic lateness from others. When you ask them to dig a little deeper, though, and tell you why this makes them angry (i.e., what kind of thoughts do they have that exacerbates this anger), they say things like “it’s rude… they are telling me my time isn’t important to them” or “because I’m busy and I shouldn’t have to waste time waiting for them.”  

Both of these make perfect sense to me, but notice that they speak to different underlying causes. It’s rude speaks to issues of esteem and ego. This is someone who feels dismissed and mistreated by the other people’s lateness. This is someone who takes it personally. Meanwhile, the person who says I’m busy is angry for a very different reason. This person is voicing concern about how it will impact their day, interfere with their goals, and slow them down. 

I think both of these are fair interpretations. The point isn’t that people shouldn’t be mad here. The point is that they are getting angry over the same situation, but for different reasons, and those different reasons speak to different underlying values and needs. 

This is how digging deeper into your anger can help you learn to better understand yourself and what you care about. To do this, I would suggest three steps. 

First, list some common provocations for you. What are recurring experiences you have that lead to anger. Second, identify some common mood states that tend to exacerbate your anger. Do you tend to get angry most when you are sleep deprived, in a rush, feeling anxious or stressed? Finally, think about your thoughts. Truly, the best way to understand yourself is to explore the thoughts you have in those angry moments. Taken together – across angering situations – they can help you identify what is most important to you.

They can also help you think not just about who you are, but who you want to be. As I thought more deeply about the frustration I felt in the morning when my kids took “too long”, I realised something upsetting about myself: I was prioritising my own feeling over their feelings. The truth is that their “slowness” was really only costing me about two or three minutes, maybe five at the absolute most. This is hardly disruptive to my day in the grand scheme of things, yet I was behaving as though it was ruining everything. Ultimately, I was prioritising my time over my relationship with my children. That isn’t the kind of person I want to be, so I decided to make a change. I apologised for getting frustrated with them and I explained why it happens some times. I told them I would work to be more patient with them. In the mornings, I replaced “hurry up” and “what’s taking so long” with “do you need any help” and “thanks for being fast today.” 

Dr Ryan Martin is an anger researcher, psychology professor and author of Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change

Further reading

The psychology of lateness

Is anger a choice?

7 steps to resolve anger in relationships

Harnessing anger as a tool for change

Why women should get angry