Emotions are a normal part of being human
That isn’t a phrase you hear too often is it? “How in the world is anger a gift??” you might find yourself asking…
When one stubs their toe, they aren’t likely to curse their nervous system for sending signals to their brain letting them know that their toe is hurting. On the contrary, we immediately adapt our behavior to avoid further pain. I might touch tenderly around the toe to find out where it hurts most, see if it’s serious or possibly broken. I might gingerly try standing on it, walking, possibly running to see just how badly it was hurt. All of this is a natural response to a part of our body that alerts us to something that needs our attention.
Likewise, our emotions are something that are not wrong or right, they just are. They serve a purpose not unlike our nervous system, alerting us to something that needs our attention. Anger is a secondary emotion, reactive in nature. We don’t cross the street, see a car about to hit us and think “Hmm, what in the world am I going to do about this unfortunate incident I find myself in?!” Without thinking, we leap out of the way. If my child is about to run into the street, I leap into action and stop him. It’s our fight or flight response innate in every human being. And it was meant to be this way. We don’t have time to think when we are threatened. A woman being cornered in a dark alley by a strange man will find herself fight and/or flee from that situation with a ferocity and intensity she probably didn’t know she had.
Unfortunately, anger has received a bad rap over the years, guilty by association to heinous acts of crime, aggression and abuse. This article is not meant to excuse or minimize those incidents. This article is not meant to condone bad and evil behavior. Rather, it is meant to bring understanding to the human psyche and better realize why we do and say the things we say and do.
Look at the picture of this iceberg. It’s similar to our emotions. The small part of the iceberg we see above the surface represents our secondary emotions; reactive emotions like anger and it’s many variations (rage, annoyance, frustration, etc). These are the visible parts of our emotions and are protective in nature, making us feel temporarily stronger and bolder, almost as an armor against potential danger. As mentioned, these serve a purpose. They’re alerting us to something unfair or hurtful, something that you’re unable to possibly do anything about. Your emotional self is simply trying to protect you.
How do we deal with our anger in a healthy way?
The second part of the emotional iceberg is the part that isn’t immediately visible, the portion below the surface that is much larger and more significant. This represents our primary emotions. Primary emotions are more vulnerable in nature, softer and tender: sadness, loneliness, fear, longing, etc.. These are the types of things that we might not share with just anyone; only a trusted confidant that we know won’t judge or dismiss me for what I’ve said.
To access these deeper parts of ourselves, it requires some spelunking on our part. I sometimes tell my clients to don their “Indiana Jones” hat and do some exploring. Marcia Cannon wrote a book called “The Gift of Anger” and I would encourage anyone looking for more in depth information regarding this subject to check her book out. Here are some of the steps she recommends to help with the exploration process.
- Recognize your anger. This consists of normalizing the fact that you’re feeling anger. This is a hard first step for most of us since most of us have been conditioned to think of anger in a negative way. We might blame others and want revenge for some wrong done or we might feel shame for even feeling anger, believing that if I were more spiritual or enlightened that I might not even feel it at all. No matter how one feels about anger, if we don’t think of it as normal, and therefore potentially useful, then we can’t explore it and understand it better. That means validating what you are feeling and that it’s understandable why you are feeling the way you are. This isn’t about who’s wrong or right though; but rather that given your current perspective and view on the situation, it’s understandable that you’re feeling the way you are. Part of recognizing you’re feeling anger is learning your physical symptoms the exhibit themselves when angry (such as red face, clenched fists/teeth, tight chest, etc).
- The harder part then follows…what lies beneath? In other words, dig deeper. What’s below the surface of the (emotional) water? What painful feelings lie there? Do I feel hurt, ignored, blamed, ashamed, abandoned, disrespected, invisible, rejected? Sometimes it helps to write these things down on a piece of paper or in a journal with a pen or pencil. The process of writing slows down our thoughts and causes us to be more intentional about what we are feeling. This is also causing us to reflect inwards rather than outwards when in the midst of our anger. Focusing inwards helps us identify what is actually happening here.
- Finally, what is/are my unmet need(s)? An easy way to identify these is to list the hurtful, primary emotions we’re feeling and ask what the cure might be. It is often the opposite of what the feeling is. Here are some examples of unmet needs: acceptance, appreciation, belonging, love, recognition, to be heard/seen, to feel valued. Sometimes, the simple identification of these needs can be relieving and healing. Often though it is a big first step in getting to a healthier place emotionally.
Going through this process will help prevent what Cannon calls an “anger loop” from occurring. An anger loop is when we stuff or vent our anger, which does nothing but delay the inevitable since the next time something triggers our anger, it will bring up all the past again, making us feel stuck in a loop. The process briefly described above will help us work through the anger in a healthy way, getting us to the bottom of things. This will ultimately benefit ourselves as well as those we come into contact with, particularly loved ones.
If you need help with anger and unmet needs in your relationship, give us a call! We’re here to help. Call today: 720-468-0101