What's beneath the anger?

Anger.  We all experience it.  Few of us enjoy it.  Fewer still understand it.  Why does it happen, and what is the point?  Anger, like any emotion, is the product of body and mind in response to a stimulus.  It happens so quickly that we don't really get a choice in the matter.  But, thanks to a highly developed neocortex, we do get a choice in what we do with it.  It may not feel that way sometimes, but it's true.  But in order to do something constructive with our anger, we need to better understand it - we have to dig a little deeper.  Emotions show up to tell us something - they arrive to deliver a message.  We can accept and hear that message, or we can ignore it.  But, it's coming either way.  Anger is no different.

If you have ever spent much time with a therapist, you have probably heard the question, "What is beneath your anger?"  For many, this is a frustrating question, eliciting a response like, "What do you mean beneath my anger...I'm angry, that's it!"  But many in the field of psychology call anger a 'secondary emotion', as in it comes second to a primary emotion...the thing you feel first.  So to better understand anger, we have to allow space for that first feeling that leads to the anger.  Most often, our primary emotion is more vulnerable - it's fear, or hurt, or helplessness.  But, being the human animals that we are, we don’t like vulnerability.  The body and brain don’t distinguish between physical vulnerability and emotional vulnerability.  Fear of loneliness and fear of a saber-toothed tiger are interpreted as the same in the mind and body – they are simply fear.  The body’s natural response to vulnerability is to protect itself.  Fight, flight.  Anger.  We wrap ourselves in an armor of anger.  And it works, sort of.  We defend, we feel strong, we are independent and self-sufficient – we are not weak!  No! 

But, here’s the kicker.  When you wrap yourself in sturdy armor, you have trapped yourself inside…along with those vulnerable feelings.  So yes, you are strong on the outside.  But you are alone with vulnerability on the inside, separate from everyone else.  For many of us, being alone with our vulnerability means…MORE ARMOR!  Pile it on, layers and layers of anger, defensiveness, stone walls – vulnerable you on the inside, everyone else on the outside.  And this works for a while, it can “work” for a lifetime. But the real tragedy here is that whatever we repeatedly do, we become.  This is because the brain grows and develops based on repetition, based on experience.  So the more we defend against vulnerability, the more we let anger control us…the easier it becomes.  And then anger is our habit, angry is who we are.

However, there is another way.  We can ask, “what is beneath our anger?”  We can tap into our vulnerability, understand it, take care of it.  And then our emotions have delivered their message, and they can go.  This is what we miss out on if we don’t attend to our emotions.  We don’t realize they simply need to give us a message, and when we receive it the emotion subsides.  Now some emotions are stronger than others, and some never fully leave – but they do subside.  They become manageable, tolerable.  So many of us don’t know this because we have spent all our time fueled by avoiding, fueled by protecting against…trapped in our armor.

So what does it look like, in real life?  An example.  As I wrote this blog post on anger, my writing program crashed.  Twice.  Losing the majority of my writing in the process.  My initial reaction was to 1) curse, 2) slam my laptop shut, 3) stomp around the house muttering, cursing, sighing. I realized I was angry.  Like super angry.  Recognizing the irony of my anger about my post on anger, I stopped and asked myself what was underneath this anger.  Why was I so angry?  And in giving myself that moment, I realized I was disappointed – I thought what I was writing was good; I thought I was almost finished.  Knowing I need and want to write a blog post creates this small nagging anxiety in the back of my mind, until I get it out.  So I was disappointed, I had almost cleared myself of that anxiety for a while. I realized I was also afraid.  What if I can’t remember what I was writing?  What if I can’t make the second…third version nearly as good as the first?  I’m a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writer (I think that’s just something I made up, but go with it).  Thoughts pour out of me.  Then when I am finished, I go back and read, edit, add, re-write.  But it is really difficult for me to stop midway through a first draft and then try to pick up where I left off later.  (I’m realizing this is why I wrote most of my school papers in one sitting, rather than doling out the work over several days/weeks).  So, there is that vulnerable feeling.  I am so disappointed, and I am scared that I don’t have it in me a second…third time.  Digging deeper still, I recognize my fear also looks like doubt.  I’m thinking, “Why am I even spending all this time on a blog post – I don’t have anything to say!  I’m not a writer!”

But, if I don’t write about this, I will have that nagging feeling.  I’m disappointed because I really enjoy the act of writing and am sad I lost my first…and second thoughts.  I’m afraid because I’m putting myself out there, I could be rejected. I also remember that my blog doesn’t exist because I am important and others should listen.  It exists because I have thoughts I want to put into words, and that if these thoughts are even remotely helpful to someone else – even one person, it was worth it.  It is why I studied psychology; it is why I am a therapist – to help myself and others live a life of our choosing.  But I recognize I cannot write coherently about anger and vulnerability while in an angry, vulnerable place.  Which means it is time for a break to get re-centered.  Get my stream of consciousness back.  Twenty minutes on my yoga mat, and now I feel like I can face this page again.  Could I have come back to this after only 20 minutes had I not faced what was beneath my anger?  I don’t think so, maybe you could have, but I couldn’t.  I’d still be stomping around in the house, maybe have turned on the TV in disgust, thinking “Screw it, nobody is going to read this anyway.”  That’s where my anger would have gotten me.  It’s not very appealing, is it?

We all experience anger, it is not shameful or low, it just is.  But, as conscious beings, we also get a choice in what we do with our anger.  Do we let anger run amuck?  Or do we search beneath the anger, listen to its message, and then let it pass?  Do we allow ourselves space to decide? To acknowledge our vulnerability, learn from it, use it – so we can get back to nourishing our souls with writing, connecting, listening, loving? 

The power and the pain of it is that it is entirely, utterly, your choice.


**Working with children on the concept of anger?  I LOVE this visual from The Gottman Institute: The Anger Iceberg!