ANGER: Response to Pain & Fear


Dr. Mitchell Roth

Anger is a response to pain and fear. It is, what we call in psychology, a secondary emotion, meaning it is a response to a primary emotion. Anger is the emotional response that energizes our actions taken in response to pain and fear. Among our earliest experiences of emotional pain are events or treatment that are perceived as unfair.

 IT’S NOT FAIR! . . . The most common experiences that cause people pain and result in anger, whether expressed or repressed, are those that ultimately lead to the refrain, “It’s not fair!” It’s not fair when we are neglected or abused in childhood. It’s not fair when our siblings or peers are treated better than we are by our parents or teachers.

Since societal anger is escalating, we can infer that the pain of living in society has been escalating. This pain is the source of political unrest, which is escalating in our country and in the world due to treatment or conditions that are perceived as unfair. This pain fuels the anger that energizes political protest and sometimes political violence. When people have outsized angry reactions, that reaction can be best understood as a present moment triggering through the brain’s synaptic connections what I like to call emotional echoes from the past. The fact is that our brain stores the emotional memories of events both remembered, forgotten, and that were forged before we had the capacity for language and narrative creation. Remembered memory is called extrinsic memory, and the well-spring of other emotional memories is called intrinsic memory.

Most of us can recall painful moments from childhood, either from interactions with our parents, siblings, teachers, other kids or adults when we hurt because we suffered something which we felt was unfair. Most of these times the pain suffered then was not processed with the assistance of a nurturing adult. As a result, the pain of the moment got stored in our limbic brain together with the pains of other similar experiences. This builds up over the years into an emotional memory reservoir. When we experience unfairness in our adult lives, the connectivity of our brains recalls into the present moment painful feelings from that reservoir. Hence our anger response appears inexplicitly much bigger than the circumstances would appear to warrant. When people relate some big angry reaction, they will often say, “It seems so silly now.”

This individual human experience is very important to understand in our current time of political unrest. The relationship between political unrest and emotion is well-known but rarely discussed even in academic circles. There is much discussion of and advocacy for economic or social justice. Much of the discussion, though, seems to miss the point of the nexus to human emotion. What is important is not equality of wealth or other measurable criteria, but rather the perception of fairness.

When any portion of our population experiences that something about the social, political, or economic systems in our country, or for that matter, the world, is unfair to them, it triggers the reservoir of psychic pain carried in the recesses of their minds.

This reservoir of pain and fear of more pain can be understood as the “it’s not fair” wound. As already pointed out, the human response to pain and fear is anger. This perspective explains all political upheavals from the Boston Tea Party to the Vietnam antiwar movement; from the Black Lives Matter Movement to the January 6, 2021, attack on Capitol Hill.

The violence, injustice, and myopia of so many in power in the world, leaves my heart in despair. As Machiavelli in his classic work “The Prince” made clear, it is in the interest of the prince to avoid fomenting rebellion among the governed. Just as individuals overreact to perceived unfairness in our personal lives, as a society we will likely overreact to perceived unfairness in our systems of government and social organization. Putting on my social psychologist hat for a moment, I suggest that the best place to start correcting our social and political unease is by reforming our tax system to one that is fair.

Since taxes are the primary way that the costs of government and its programs and services are financed, my soon to be published book looks primarily at the unfairness of our systems of taxation, and through that lens, the unfairness in our society. And I propose a solution, that I believe we can all get behind because it is rooted in fairness as that is understood and has been reflected in all of the great religious traditions of the world.

The book reveals how we in the great middle-class can lower our total tax burden and pay off the national debt at the same time by more fairly distributing the necessary burden of paying for the type of society we would choose to have. What type of society do we wish to have? That is the legitimate question for the political process to answer. How to pay for our government and its programs must meet the test of fairness. Everyone would like to eliminate homelessness, for instance, but how, at what cost, and who is going to pay?

My book, “A TAXING PROBLEM” proposes that the only fair approach to paying the cost of government and government sponsored programs is to distribute the cost to those who benefit from our social and political organization in direct portion to the benefit enjoyed measured in economic terms. My hope is that people of good will take themselves through my chapters, bringing honesty and openness to the ideas presented. And if you see the light that I see, the promise of a better present and a better future for all, I ask one thing more. I ask that you find the willingness to play an active role in transmitting these ideas to others and transmuting them into reality in our lives.


Mitch is in his second career and entering his third.  He has been a practicing lawyer and law professor, he left the law to become a psychotherapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology, and with his book, A Taxing Problem, he has become a published author with more books in the works.  Mitch is married, lives and works in Boynton Beach, attends synagogue in Wellington, and has two adult children and two grandchildren.  As he is writing the final chapters of his life he is motivated by his deep concerns about the future for the younger generations.