A couple of years ago while at a restaurant in Mexico, I quickly searched “the check, please” on my phone. The result came back as “comprueba, por favor”—which, I found out, does not mean “could you bring me the check?” Like the search result from my faulty app, anger is usually the outcome of an emotional translation error. When we identify the real emotion, we are far more likely to avoid trouble, communicate clearly, and get what we really want.

To identify the real emotion, go deeper

We often talk about anger like it’s a basic human emotion, alongside others like happiness and sadness. But the truth is, anger is often more like a mask for other negative emotions. When we experience hurt, sadness, fear, or frustration, what we think we’re feeling—and what tends to come out of us—is anger.

It’s as if my app took the following phrases:

  • “I feel hurt that you didn’t do that thing I asked.”
  • “I’m sad that you’re spending the weekend with your friends instead of me.”
  • “If you take that job, I’m scared you’ll leave.”
  • “I’m frustrated that you make friends more easily than me.”

and translated them all into the same sentence – “I’m angry with you.”

Why do we subconsciously mask these emotions with anger? Our brain finds it easier and less painful to lash out in self-defense than admit that we feel hurt, sad, or afraid. Instead of being vulnerable about our true feelings, anger lets us shift the focus onto someone or something else.

Indignation toward another, our mind determines, feels safer than if we were to identify the real emotion. Most of us are unaware that our brains are making this emotional translation error. Something happens, we feel angry, and never question the inner-workings of our psyche that generated that false signal.

Why it helps to identify the real emotion

The problem with avoiding our real emotions and turning our focus outward is that the pain relief is temporary. And, it often has worse side effects as we act out in anger. It damages our relationships and is detrimental to our own health.

Since anger is externally focused, it means we must change external circumstances, including other people, to feel better. The harsh reality is we have very limited control over other people or circumstances. Trying to do so only sets us up for disappointment, or worse, leads us down the road to controlling behavior that is abusive.

Also, expressing anger is more likely to provoke a defensive or counter-offensive reaction in our partner. The message we really want to share—how we’re actually feeling—gets lost in translation. This only moves us further away from what we really want: a harmonious, respectful, loving relationship.

Unlike anger, feelings like hurt, sadness, fear, and even frustration are internally focused. They might sting more in the moment, but they are ours to handle. Turns out that it’s quite empowering when we realize this truth about who owns our emotions.

Once we identify the real emotion, we can act to make ourselves feel better. We can focus our energy on self-soothing rather than trying to control others. Why would we want to hand someone else the power—and responsibility—to make us feel good?

What’s more, expressing our true, underlying emotions has a better chance of create a caring, empathetic response from our partner. They are more likely to listen and respond compassionately when we express hurt, sadness, fear, or frustration rather than anger. Usually, this is all we really want: to feel heard and loved.

How to identify the real emotion—and then handle it yourself

When our inner translation app is malfunctioning, it may take some time to get to our true feelings. Take a time-out if necessary to let your anger dissipate. Once we cool off, it will be easier to identify the real emotion beneath the anger.

The next step is to self-soothe. Pay attention to your self-talk at this stage. What would you say to a friend or loved one who was experiencing that same emotion? “It’s okay.” “You’re not alone.” “You’ll get through this.” These are powerful messages you should tell yourself.

It’s okay to feel these negative emotions—they are part of being human. Rather than fighting them or trying to suppress them, allow yourself to experience them. Maintain perspective—the feelings you have are temporary. You won’t feel like this forever.

Taking action

Finally, decide what your best response will be. Perhaps self-soothing is all you needed to do and you’re soon back on your feet.

If you still feel the need to discuss something with your partner, plan how you can communicate your wishes clearly and kindly. Stay mindful of your goals for the conversation. Creating understanding and closeness in your talk eclipses making your partner feel bad or “winning” an argument.

Keep the focus on your feelings. Use “I” statements to share how you feel rather than “you” statements that center on what your partner did. Determine what you’re asking your partner to do and make it easy for them to be successful.

Recognize that, even if you ask nicely, your partner may be unwilling or unable to fulfill your request. Accept their decision as their choice and find a way for you to be okay regardless of how they respond. Any disappointment, hurt, or sadness from their decision is, once again, our emotion to handle. We take back our power when we own that responsibility.