Anger is an interesting emotion. It seems like we struggle to have a comfortable existence with our anger (and several other “tough” feelings–but more about that in another post). I know some people who will go to enormous lengths to avoid expressing or admitting to their anger. If that’s you, you may find the content of this post a bit foreign. I’m going to encourage you to stick around though, because I think that you may find some things here that apply to you. Because this post is about how some situations move us rapidly into anger. If you think about it, I’m guessing that you can identify at least one issue that can push your “anger button.” In fact, for some folks, anger seems like their “go-to” emotion. When I am sitting with someone who can’t seem to get past their feelings of anger, I often ask them to take a step back and look a bit deeper.
Anger is our Shield
In the last paragraph, I asked you to try to identify at least one anger trigger–a situation where you are likely to move from “calm” to “furious” as though you’re competing in an emotional drag race. Just think about that for a moment. Are there any of those in your life? Any experiences or events where you are buried in the anger, sometimes not even understanding how you got to that point?
If you are reading this and nodding your head, or even having that small, unhappy acknowledgment in your chest that I could be talking about your experience, I have some questions for you. When you step back from that event that historically provokes your anger, what else is going on? What I have learned in my life and my sessions is that our anger is often a leading emotion because it helps us feel safer. Anger is often an active emotion–just look at the language of anger. We “explode”, “lash out,” “have enough,” and “blow up.” All of those anger descriptions point to an emotion that is about doing something, taking action. Anger often plays the role of our shield.
Under the Surface
But what is anger shielding us from? That can be a complicated answer, because we each have different vulnerabilities, different places where we feel raw and open. However, in general, I see that anger shows up when we are also feeling other tough emotions. Some of those can be:
As you read that list, you may have noticed a common theme. Where anger often feels active, each of these emotions has a passive aspect. These are the emotions that we wouldn’t volunteer to feel, but that show up in our lives anyway. Perhaps “helpless” is the best descriptor of this group of feelings.
When you’re experiencing any of the emotions in this group, it makes sense that you would choose to protect yourself in any way that you can. So, it then makes sense that you may go to anger when you are also feeling lonely or misunderstood, because anger’s active experience makes it seem like a better protector.
Here’s the problem with anger as a protective tool. Unless you understand the origins of your anger, you may be at risk of anger hurting your relationships. Let me explain that a little bit more. If you know that you’ve had a tough week, that someone close to you died, that a relationship ended, that you felt hurt or misunderstood by a friend that may change your understanding of your flash of anger when you get cut off in traffic or when your partner forgets to wash the dishes. Because anger is pretty convincing. When we’re angry, we usually feel like we have good reasons to be angry. And that can lead to acting in anger. When you know that your anger is part of a complex emotional environment, you can do a better job of evaluating your anger. For example, “Am I really ready to scream over these dirty dishes, or could something else be going on with me today?”
Exploring the Depths can Lead to Treasure
When you are brave enough to take the extra few minutes (or hours, or days), to look at your anger with a curious eye, you may find all kinds of interesting information. Sometimes, you might need extra support to explore the vulnerable feelings that your anger is covering up. You might need to talk to a close friend or a therapist, because anger can be pretty convincing. Having an objective listener can help you find the places where vulnerable feelings may be hiding.
Once you know those answers for yourself, you can use them to have deeper, richer conversations with the important people in your life. It’s not unusual for people close to you to be hurting you without intending to. When you can explain that their behavior caused you to feel hurt or lonely or misunderstood, instead of just mad, you are opening up a more powerful conversation. Because, it turns out, your anger may not be protecting you as well as it promised. It may be contributing to more isolation and loneliness.
So, whether you do it on your own or with help, I hope that you are able to do some deep exploration of your own the next time your anger rises up. If you’ve got a favorite anger-exploration technique, I’d love to hear it!