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  • Michele Mulcahy

Boundaries Part Three- What is the role of anger in boundaries?

Often, we hear people talk about anger management and we can get this idea that anger is bad. Many of us associate anger with someone being out of control, hurtful, aggressive and even violent.  But anger is not a bad emotion. 


Primarily, anger has an important role in enforcing healthy boundaries and is a healthy response to a violation of boundaries or in the face of injustice.  It is the energy that helps us overcome our fears of what others might think, fear of rejection, etc., and tells us we need to stand our ground or take action. 


But what does this look like when done in a healthy way versus a destructive way?  Anger is meant to ground us, increase our focus, communicate clearly and firmly, and fuel assertiveness without being insulting, passive aggressive, mean, or aggressive.  It is not meant to spin us out of control yelling, intimidating, bullying, and/or being violent, but rather protecting ourselves at a minimum and de-escalating at best. 


Usually, we identify anger as what drives our reactions, but it is important to understand the difference between primary anger and secondary anger.  Reactive anger is typically the secondary emotion.  The primary emotion driving secondary anger is often emotional fear – such as fear of being taken advantage of, being walked over, disregarded, abandoned, rejected, feeling helpless, feeling powerless, hurt, not good enough etc.  Unfortunately, anger can happen so fast we are not even aware of the primary emotions and the needs driving it. 

Sometimes I get clients who tell me they rarely if ever get mad.  They might say, “I am just not

an angry person”.  This is someone who does not understand anger and/or is not in touch with their anger.  Just because someone is not outwardly expressive of their anger or has learned to dismiss it quickly because they associate it with angry outbursts does not mean it isn’t there.  Usually, I find them to be in denial or are taking responsibility for other people’s bad behavior.  Never feeling angry can be just as big of a concern as someone who has too much anger.  It can be a sign they have completely disconnected from their feelings to accommodate others or to avoid uncomfortable feelings often leaving them feeling helpless and/or confused.



Some people need to learn how to access their anger more to help them stand up in the face of manipulation, misplaced guilt, enabling irresponsible behaviors, bad behavior, hurtful behavior, etc.  Just like primary fear tells us to run or freeze in the face of danger, primary anger tells us to lean into or move forward to take appropriate action to stop a hurtful behavior. 


I work with people on both ends of the spectrum (and everything in between) – some who need to manage their anger with the goal of being intentional vs. reactive, and others to get more in touch with their anger and express it in a firm and direct way.


In summary, increasing self-awareness, coping skills and being more mindful and intentional with our words and actions help us identify, implement, and reinforce healthy boundaries.  From this perspective anger management is first honoring that it has a place and like our other emotions is trying to tell us something.  The goal is to be curious about what that is and how to move forward.  If you feel you have too much anger or struggle standing up for yourself, work with your therapist on exploring where you might need to work on understanding this emotion in your life, what drives it or blocks it, and practice using grounding exercises to channel your anger into intentional communication and appropriate actions.








Michele Mulcahy, MMFT, LMFT-S

Owner, Clear Counseling

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