Underlying feelings often need to be addressed before anger can be resolved.


  • Anger is off-putting, whereas hurt and disappointment engage the listener.
  • Personality variables and moral values account for differences in propensity to anger.
  • Anger often hides strong inferiority feelings and masculine insecurity.

In a nation where mass killings are on the rise and angry polarization tarnishes our national politics, it is important to ask: Why are we so angry? What is behind all the destructive behavior imperiling our lives and diminishing our country?

Consider the following scenarios: After just losing a tennis match, a tennis pro becomes so furious that he breaks every one of the replacement tennis rackets sitting on the sidelines. Or your best friend’s boyfriend has just forgotten her birthday. As a result, she gets so enraged that she destroys all the mementos from their relationship. While anger appears to be the primary motivator in both cases, what is probably lurking below the surface is narcissistic entitlement and competitiveness in the first case, whereas hurt, disappointment, and a sense of betrayal dominate the second.

While counting to ten before acting might have been helpful in both cases, the underlying issues wouldn’t have been dealt with. Counting to ten or taking deep, slow breaths are useful strategies in anger management classes, but these interventions put a band-aid on the problem rather than change the dynamics fueling the outbursts.

The enraged tennis star most likely feels entitled to victory; losing for him is a narcissistic blow to his self-image as a super star. While punishing him for his assault on tennis rackets may change his future behavior, it won’t do much for his feelings. He will still be narcissistically enraged when he loses tennis matches, but he may act out his anger in a less visible manner in the future.

The angry friend who was forgotten by her boyfriend on her birthday has different underlying issues. Probably, she was hurt and deeply disappointed by her boyfriend’s negligence on her birthday and felt betrayed by him–someone she cared about and trusted. His forgetting may have been interpreted to mean that he didn’t care enough nor understand how important birthdays are to her. His lack of consideration may have felt like betrayal because she trusted him and believed that he trusted and loved her, too.

Anger Often Hides Hurt Feelings

Hurt feelings, which usually begin as disappointment or sadness, occur when a good friend, relative, or romantic partner profoundly disappoints or betrays us in some way. Being excluded, being talked about in a disparaging manner, or being ignored at a social gathering may precipitate hurt feelings. More serious sources of painful hurt occur with outright rejection and betrayal.

How then does hurt get transformed into anger? When it becomes fused with pride, self-respect, assertiveness, narcissism, a history of abuse by the person in question, or a psychiatric disorder. The quiet, puzzled question addressed to oneself: “How could she do this to me?” becomes “What kind of a jerk could be so rude, cruel, or downright malicious?” uttered with angry intensity. The anger covers over the hurt feelings and steels an individual against forgiveness, essentially because forgiving and letting it go feel weak and spineless.

Sometimes, hurt feelings are indicative of strong affection and attachment. One woman in therapy was able to move beyond her anger at a former boyfriend when a night dream provided a new direction. In her dream, she experienced an overwhelming desire to see him once again after she dropped the weapon she was carrying. When she did contact him, they began a dialogue about what went wrong in their relationship in hope of beginning anew.

Personality variables and values account for why one person remains hurt, while another individual quickly shifts into anger. Introverts tend to be in the first group while extraverts are typically in the second. As for values, religious individuals for whom forgiveness may be an important virtue often remain quietly hurt, sometimes to their detriment, as when a victim of domestic violence repeatedly forgives her abuser.

Anger Often Transforms Helplessness and Sadness

Anger has the power to transform helplessness and sadness into positive energy and motivation. As one catatonic patient said dramatically upon his recovery, “Madness is better than sadness!” He was referring to anger, not insanity. When he was asked “Why?”, he responded, “When you’re mad, you can do something, but when you’re sad, you can’t do anything at all.”

People are often immobilized by loss or conflict. The death of a relative or close friend, for example, engenders not only sadness, but a kind of paralysis. Mourners don’t know what to do because of the confusing feelings they experience, and they feel helpless because they can’t change the devastating outcome.

When anger eventually ensues, they feel energized, and their life once again is filled with purpose and meaning. Following a death, relatives typically become busy with the details and rituals of mourning. Afterwards, there ensues a long, often yearlong, period of sadness or an angry period filled with blame. Some of this blaming may be justified (as when the death was caused by an egregious act), while at other times, the anger seems aimless, as if it’s looking for a place or person to call home.

Righteous anger following a death or abuse, however, can facilitate recovery. When coupled with moral outrage, anger may spur positive social movements, such as the “Me, Too” movement or “Black Lives Matter.” Many of the parents who lost their children in the Sandy Hook mass killings became anti-assault weapon activists and devoted their lives to this worthwhile cause. Dealing with grief by becoming passionately involved in a noble pursuit is highly adaptive.

Anger Can Mask Inferiority Feelings and Identity Issues

Anger can hide inferiority feelings, social awkwardness, narcissism, and masculine insecurity. The men who get very angry after a few drinks at the slightest “injury” are most likely insecure–as are the many individuals who over-react to minor irritations.

Writing about more extreme situations, Tom Nichols described the “lost boys” who commit mass murders as “insecure man-boys who decide to prove their worth—or just to prove that they exist—by committing extraordinary acts” of violence. He also wrote that these lost, immature young men are often extremely narcissistic and convinced that they have a special mission in the world.

Besides these qualities, mass murderers are often paranoid, believing that the world is out to persecute them.

In Summary

Anger can hide a variety of feelings and personality states. Besides those already mentioned, anxiety and envy/jealousy are common precipitants. For significant change to take place, the expectations and feelings underlying anger need to be identified. We should ask: how realistic are the expectations that fuel anger? Are we expecting too much of others? Are we interpreting another’s motives accurately? And what underlying feelings need to be addressed before emotional change can occur? While anger feels powerful, it can be abrasive and repellant to others; disappointment and hurt in contrast are softer and more inviting to continued interaction.

Until we diagnose anger correctly, we won’t be able to deal effectively with others, especially the many depressed and angry young people who are struggling to find their way in this confusing world.



Nichols, T. (2023). “The Narcissism of the Angry Young Men: What to do about the deadly misfits among Us? First, recognize the problem!” in THE ATLANTIC, Jan. 29, 2023.

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