Softening the Barbs of Anger

Risa-Bos, LMHC

Anger is such an obvious problem in the world today.   Consider recent news stories covering the riots in Hong Kong, the “town hall” in South Bend, IN, after yet another incident of apparent abuse of law enforcement power, the #metoo movement and Black Lives Matter. There is obviously a lot of anger in our world, and it’s scary when considering how anger can play out when left unchecked.  Where is all this anger coming from?  Anger is an emotion that is activated by deeper feelings which are at the core of what is making people irate, defensive and aggressive.  We hear it in the honking of car horns and the heightened pitch of voices; and we notice it in anguished expressions on the faces in crowds.   Anger, at varying levels, is a part of our emotional awareness that can feel out of sync with our normal mood, and can catch us off guard if we don’t take time to understand what its origins are.

These extreme examples of anger, I believe, have their roots in frustration and fear: fear that we are being bullied or profiled by law enforcement and the justice system—fear that no one is listening and that our safety will continue to erode—fear that, regardless of how much progress we seem to make, we end up back in these deplorable situations that are unjust.

 In my psychotherapy practice, I often hear clients express frustration over sometimes feeling out of control, and responding to situations in a manner they later regret.  I have long used the iceberg analogy to explain the depth of anger, which is somewhat of a surface or “catch-all” emotion.  When we take time to tend to ourselves and recognize the deeper negative emotions that are at play when we feel angry, we automatically soften the edges around anger and are able to make emotional adjustments that contribute to better communication and self-compassion.  The Gottman Institute and its primary focus on relationships breaks down The Anger Iceberg with their typical wisdom and simplicity:

The purpose of anger

Think of anger like an iceberg, a large piece of ice found floating in the open ocean. Most of the iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water. Similarly, when we are angry, there are usually other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see a person’s anger but can be difficult to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting.

For example, Dave believed he had an anger problem. When his wife would make a request of him, he would criticize her. He didn’t like his reactions, but he felt he couldn’t help it. As he worked on mindfulness and started noticing the space between his anger and his actions, he opened up the door into a profound realization.

He didn’t really have an anger problem. Instead, he felt like his wife was placing impossible demands on him. By seeking to understand and accept his anger, rather than fix or suppress it, he began to improve his marriage by recognizing his anger as a signal that he needed to set healthy boundaries for what he would and would not do.

Dave’s story points out an important concept. As Susan David, author of Emotional Agility says, “Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.” Her point is there is something more below the surface of our anger.

Anger as a protector of raw feelings

Anger is often described as a “secondary emotion” because people tend to use it to protect their own raw, vulnerable, overwhelming feelings. Underneath Dave’s anger was pure exhaustion and feeling that he wasn’t good enough for his wife. So his anger was protecting him from deeply painful shame.

Learning to recognize anger as a protector of our raw feelings can be incredibly powerful. It can lead to healing conversations that allow couples as well as children and parents to understand each other better.

Below is what we call the Anger Iceberg because it shows the “primary emotions” lurking below the surface. Sometimes it’s embarrassment, loneliness, exhaustion, or fear.

3 tips for listening to anger

One of the most difficult things about listening to a child or lover’s anger, especially when it’s directed at us, is that we become defensive. We want to fight back as our own anger boils to the surface. If this happens, we get in a heated verbal battle which leaves both parties feeling misunderstood and hurt. Here are three powerful tips for listening to anger.

1. Don’t take it personally

Your partner or child’s anger is usually not about you. It’s about their underlying primary feelings. To not taking this personally takes a high level of emotional intelligence.

One of the ways I do this is by becoming curious of why they’re angry. It’s much easier for me to become defensive, but I’ve found thinking, “Wow, this person is angry, why is that?” leads me on a journey to seeing the raw emotions they are protecting and actually brings us closer together.

2. Don’t EVER tell your partner to “calm down”
When I work with couples and one of the partners get angry, I have witnessed the other partner say, “Calm down” or “You’re overreacting.” This tells the recipient that their feelings don’t matter and they are not acceptable.

The goal here is not to change or fix your partner’s emotions but rather to sit on their anger iceberg with them. Communicate that you understand and accept their feelings.

When you do this well, your partner’s anger will subside and the primary emotion will rise to the surface. Not to mention they will feel heard by you, which builds trust over time.

Maybe you grew up in a family where anger wasn’t allowed, so when your partner expresses it, it feels paralyzing and you freeze. Or maybe you try to solve their anger for them because their anger scares you. Open yourself up to experience you and your partner’s full spectrum of emotions.

3. Identify the obstacle
Anger is often caused by an obstacle blocking a goal. For example, if your partner’s goal is to feel special on their birthday and their family member missing their special day makes them angry, identifying the obstacle will give you insight into why they’re angry.

The bottom line is that people feel angry for a reason. It’s your job to understand and sit with them in it. By doing so, you will not only help them to understand their anger, but you will become closer to them in the process.”

The real trick is to identify your anger before it can turn into outrage, aggression and other forms of acting out in a disorganized manner.  As a therapist, I believe that we all have physical cues that warn us when we are getting worked up in anger.  Some people feel heat spreading up their neck and throughout their face, others feel tension in their shoulders, and some feel pressure in their head as the veins at their temples begin to throb.  If we can identify the swell of anger before it runs amok, we can STOP, take a moment to breathe, and ask ourselves, “what is the fear?” Turning inward with tenderness and accountability to identify what might be causing fear automatically derails the anger train, and allows us to react with more control, more thoughtfulness and, ultimately, with better outcomes. 

In the examples at the top of this blog, the first step would be to determine whether one is able to take action toward changing the injustice or victimization.  Certainly, organizing a group to address community, state or national leaders in a respectful, deliberate and measured style yields better results than hundreds of angry people, all trying to speak at once.  On a smaller, more personal scale, when you identify that you’re angry and zero in on the fear, ask yourself if this is something over which you have any control.  If so, take time to identify what you want to say to the person or persons whom you feel have slighted or disrespected you.  Often, it is the person closest to us who can make us the most angry, but responding in anger only breeds more anger, and doesn’t result in understanding or closure.  Take time to think about why you’re hurt or offended, and think about how best to communicate your discomfort to the person(s) responsible.  Take personal accountability for your role in any miscommunication.  It’s okay to be wrong!  It seems like so many people keep an argument going because they seem unable to say, “You know what, that’s on me. I’m sorry,” rather than to keep arguing, even after the argument no longer makes any sense. 

Harnessing our anger, and owning our own “stuff” is the evolved, responsible, loving thing to do, whether that’s as a group, or as individuals.  “Anger Management” is often required therapy in situations where there has been abuse and violence.  Decide to own and learn to manage your anger proactively by calling Life Skills Resource Group at (407)355-7378 to speak with one of our skilled counselors.  Don’t get caught up in the current of anger that is ongoing in this tumultuous social climate.  Take personal responsibility for your anger—change starts with you!