Is Anger really Fear?


“Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler”–(often attributed to Albert Einstein, but actually much older)


A fox and a cat met in the forest, both hunted by dogs.    “Don’t worry,” the fox said.  “I know a hundred ways to escape those dogs.”


“Really?” the cat said, impressed.   “I only know one.”


The dogs appeared and attacked. The fox was so confused trying to figure out which of his hundred techniques to use that the dogs tore him apart.   The cat ran up the tree.





I remember beginning training in Filipino Kali.  The particular system said there were “five angles of attack” that we practiced thousands of times.   Imagine a clock-face, and the “angles” swooped in from 2, and then 10, and then “up” at five, and then up at seven, and then right down the center.    There were other systems that said there were eight, or twelve, or fifteen. Others that said there were only two.    Each level of complication or simplicity revealed different options with different levels of granularity.  All were true.  But I’ve always liked “five”.   The idea was that no matter what of the infinite possibilities of attacks came at you, there were really a limited number of directions it could come from. The simpler the choices, the faster the reaction.




Violence stems from anger, anger from fear.   To understand this, grasp that words about emotions are handles on slippery things that no two people experience in the same way, and even a single person rarely experiences twice in the same way.


Men, especially, seem to have a hard time with this concept.    “I’m not afraid. I’m pissed off.” Or “What about righteous anger?”  or “What about being angry about the way someone I’ve never met is treated?”


Of course it is possible to argue with the notion that anger is just fear.  But I suggest that if untrue, it is what might be called one of the most useful lies in the world.  I have never, ever seen it fail to explain anger, and usually gives a potential solution.   Let’s try a few.


  1. Someone cuts you off on the freeway, triggering rage.    Potential fears: Of being in an accident.  off being late to appointment.  Of yet another idiot impacting your life with their bad decisions (symbolic of other problems, personified as a human being).
  2. Your kid doesn’t clean his room as promised, triggering anger.   Potential fears: of being disrespected in your own home.   Of your kid not keeping his promises, which will lead to problems later in life. Of not being a good parent.
  3. A new story about a slaughter in a distant country triggers anger.  Potential fears: empathy with the victims projects your own emotions into their situation.  Fear that  cruelty could reach out to your own family.  Feeling helpless to cope with the chaos of existence.
  4. A politician is caught lying or cheating, triggering anger.   All large groups have some kind of organizing structure trusted to represent the needs of the group.  If they do not do this honorably, we feel betrayed and cut off from the decision making. Our tax dollars are wasted or stolen, our family less safe.
  5. A writer suggests that anger is fear, triggering anger.   If fear is considered weakness, while anger is equated with strength and force, then suggesting that the emotion you feel is less than “manly” can attack the ego.
  6. A mass shooter kills.  This gets tricky, unless you have a record of their thoughts and impressions. But it is certainly easy to create a theoretical structure: they feel disempowered, have few healthy relationships.  Every human being wants to feel loved and connected, and they feel that SOMETHING cuts them off from this.  Could be the increasing power and autonomy of women. The increasing power and presence of POC.  Financial instability symbolizing a loss of The American Dream.   On and on.  Combined with a fragile self-image and an act of violence might be seen as “taking your power back” or “attacking your enemies” or “putting them back in their place” or other such notions.


What is the answer?   Well, in most human interactions, I’ve found that simply asking the question “what are they afraid of?” will yield dividends.

  1. Respect.  Be polite at all times.   You may need to hurt someone, but there is rarely  a need to be impolite.
  2. Be strong.   A frightened person looking for someone to humble is deterred by strength, especially when accompanied by politeness.
  3. Be loving.   If you genuinely love people, if accompanied by strength this often triggers an open heart, or a child-like “Mommy Daddy” response. They are looking for connection, remember.
  4. Start by giving these gifts to yourself. The first principle: Love yourself. Enough to be protective.
  5. If you are stressed, you see fewer solutions, develop conceptual inflexibility.   If you are relaxed, you will see more options. And if you are relaxed…others become more relaxed in your presence.
  6. Remember that there are people so irrational, with such a delusional architecture, that from the outside you simply cannot figure out what they might be afraid of. Be careful–not all human conflicts can be settled peacefully.
  7. We cannot remove all the possible reasons for fear or a perception of injustice. But we can be kind, and do what we can to remove the obvious problems.  No matter what you do, however, someone will believe it is not enough.
  8. Remember that some people feel entitled and superior. Even a “fair” situation will then feel unfair to them, because they believe they deserve more than others…because they are better. Beware of these, because they will rarely state this directly.


Yes, there are other ways to look at the issue of violence and anger.   And because language is always incomplete, no single statement can possibly be of ultimate value.   I have never found a better, simpler, more generative  way of looking at this problem.


If you have one, I’d love to hear it.





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