Angry Like an Iceberg
Raise your hand if you can honestly say you have never been angry. Ok, this is for the rest of you who have, at some point in your life, been angry. Webster’s online dictionary defines “anger” as:
Most people think of anger as a feeling. This is true. We do feel angry when angered. However, in most cases, “anger” is not all we are experiencing. In other words, there is a lot more to anger than just being angry.
As a couples therapist, I’ve witnessed a lot of arguments. After they occur, I try to offer a way out of what can become a very frustrating and, in rare occasions, destructive cycle. I’ve come to think about anger and getting angry as an iceberg.
You see, we know a little about icebergs. They are generally large and foreboding. They can be threatening. After all, they have sunk big ships. We’ve seen the movie. And we also know that up to 90% of the total mass of an iceberg resides unseen below the surface.
Like icebergs, we too know a little about anger. Often anger is large and foreboding; at least that is how it is often experienced. Anger therefore is threatening. And although we know that someone else’s anger may not have sunk a ship, we have seen the movie before. We all have had numerous experiences with someone else’s anger. These experiences often date back to when we were very young. Rarely are these experiences recalled fondly.
What people often don’t know or, more accurately perhaps, fail to remember is that anger shares one other important quality with icebergs: There is always a great deal of other uncomfortable emotions and experiences that reside below the surface. Emotions like, sadness, hurt, fear or worry. Experiences like prior events in which our own or someone else’s anger was triggered. Or, experiences like being misunderstood, disappointed, even lonely or isolated.
When we face a situation, especially with someone with whom we a have a close connection, we can become very iceberg-like. We show the other person our anger. Anger frequently sends the message: “Don’t get too close or you will get hurt.” This kind of anger, at essence, is self-protective. We have been wounded in some way like mentioned above and like an iceberg, the other person is to steer clear of us.
The ironic part is that what lays beneath the surface of our anger rarely gets acknowledged or repaired due to how effective our anger is at keeping others at arms length. Put another way, at the very moments we need to have our feelings heard and our experience understood, we are betrayed by our own, very effective, means of self protection. No wonder when asked what is happening at these moments that people say they are frustrated.
So here are three ideas to consider before the next time you feel yourself becoming angry:
1) Accept that getting angry and occasionally having strong, sometimes, negative feelings is a normal human response. Everyone from time to time is hurt, sad and angry. Having strong feelings means there is quite possibly something for us to learn about ourselves and others.
2) When you notice yourself getting angry, take a moment to delay reacting. Take a deep breath or breaths. Delaying a reaction can save you from doing or saying something that in a few more minutes you may regret.
3) Learn from what it is that triggered your anger. Give yourself a chance to "de-brief" after you have calmed down. What else were you feeling? What experience or experiences were also present? Learning from times you have been angry can help you to negotiate similar circumstances in the future more effectively.