Woman in glasses frustrated and angry

What’s Your Anger Telling You?

Anger is one of the first emotions we learn as a child. It is easy to express, and therefore usually the first emotion we show when we are upset about something. The problem is that anger is a secondary emotion or an emotion that only shows what is happening on the surface. 

As a therapist, I discuss emotional intelligence and often use the “iceberg analogy” with my clients to talk about anger as a secondary emotion. When you think of an iceberg, you might immediately visualize a large piece of ice floating on the surface of the water, however, what we often forget is that there is a massive chunk of ice underneath the surface as well. Maybe you’ve heard of the expression, “that’s just the tip of the iceberg”? The same is true with anger!

Anger is what is happening on the surface, and if we keep exploring underneath, we might begin to see the larger picture of our emotional experience. Underneath we find our “primary emotions,” the ones that explain where our anger comes from (e.g. shame, fear, disappointment, hurt, and loneliness). If we are able to access these primary emotions, then we can communicate them to others, and let go of anger. Doing so also helps us resolve those emotions quicker than simply responding with the secondary emotion, anger. 

Where Does Anger Come From?

Anger is not bad. Yep, I said it! Anger is actually a very useful tool that we’ve picked up as humans to protect ourselves. You see, in moments of anger, our brain sees a threat and is trying to protect us from it. In fact, our brain is triggered into its “survival mode” where we find our fight, flight, freeze response, which in most cases is demonstrated with anger.

Long ago, our ancestors were faced with real-life threats, such as bears and snakes, and they needed their brain to kick into survival mode instantaneously in order to live. While we don’t necessarily have the same predators lurking around our neighborhood today, our brains still operate in the same way, only this time the threat might be your partner yelling, your child throwing a temper tantrum, or someone cutting you off on your way to work. 

Your brain kicks into survival mode, your heart rate and blood pressure increases, your pupils dilate, and you might get flushed or hot. The blood rushes from the front of your brain where logical problem solving occurs and settles in the back of your brain where your flight, fight, freeze response occurs. Your body is preparing for an attack and is using anger as a defense mechanism to protect you. While this was helpful for our ancestors, it’s not as helpful for us (unless you’re hiking and encounter a mountain lion!). 

Vulnerability and It’s Connection to Your Anger

Vulnerability makes us susceptible to pain, the opposite of what our brain wants when it feels threatened. Even the word vulnerability is defined as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” in the dictionary.

Since we know that our brain is usually operating in survival mode when we feel angry, it is very hard to convince our brain that being vulnerable with our emotions is a good idea! Our brain is looking right back at us saying, “Yeah, yeah, nice try chump.”  But what if the threat our brain is perceiving isn’t really a threat at all? What if we’re expending so much “survival energy” just to push away people who actually care about us and want to help us survive?

It makes me think… maybe we should redefine vulnerability? 

Maybe being more vulnerable can actually help us find a deeper connection with others. There are some cases when vulnerability is not a good idea, such as when emotional or physical abuse is happening. In those situations, your brain is doing its job very well. However, most of the time, what we are experiencing is not a threat to our existence. In fact, sometimes it’s the very opposite! It’s a moment when a loved one might want to extend empathy and connect with you in an intimate way. However, we often miss out on these moments when we react in anger. 

How to be Vulnerable

Little by little, teach your brain that it is safe. This requires consistently taking a risk. Putting yourself out there, sharing your primary emotions, having difficult conversations, and trusting that the other person will be kind. I know, I know, this is scary stuff! Especially if you’ve lived your whole life avoiding vulnerability. But isn’t it worth it to experience an intimate connection with someone you know you can trust and love? 

As hard as this may be, the good news is that our brains are incredibly flexible. We can shape it and teach it our whole lives if we try! The more you practice vulnerability the easier it becomes, because your brain is learning that there’s no actual threat to your survival.

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3 Steps to Better Communication When Angry

Step 1: Practice Helpful Breathing Techniques

Help your brain! The blood needs to move back to the front of your noggin where logical thinking occurs. The best way to do this is by giving your brain more oxygen to move the blood back where it belongs. Try taking deep breaths, leave the room momentarily to take a break from the “threat,” or simply find a mantra that reminds your brain it is safe! I tell my brain, “You’re okay, just breathe.”  

Step 2: Find the Primary Emotion Underneath the Anger

Think about the iceberg. Ask yourself, what’s really going on underneath the surface here? Do feelings like shame, fear, or hurt explain what I’m experiencing better than anger? Try using an I feel statement to describe what you’re feeling at that moment (I feel _____ ). But instead of filling in the blank with “angry”, reach for a word that tells the fuller story. 

Step 3: Bring Awareness to the Moment

Remind yourself that you survived! Your brain saw a threat, you helped it realize you are safe, and you practiced vulnerability by communicating how you’re really feeling underneath the surface. If you did it once, you can do it again. And the more we practice the easier it is for our brains to realize there’s no need to “survive” next time.

As a couple’s, family, and individual therapist, I’ve had the privilege of watching countless people take control of their brains and risk vulnerability which ultimately leads to peace, love, and empathy with their partner, friends, family, and many other people in their lives. Regulating anger can be a difficult and scary task, but it is possible. So in the words of the great Gloria Gaynor, tell your brain, “I Will Survive!” 



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