John Gottman, Ph.D., a respected relationship expert, suggests that the emotion of anger can be symbolically represented as an iceberg.
If you imagine an iceberg, you can easily observe the peak above the water line. But, the bulk of an iceberg remains hidden beneath the water’s surface. It can easily be bigger and wider than the visible portion of the iceberg.
There’s a lot going on down there that we can’t see.
Let’s imagine our angry feelings as the tip of the iceberg. Then imagine that within that submerged portion below the water line are many raw, underlying emotions that feed the anger. That are even masked by the anger.
As Susan David, Ph.D., author of Emotional Agility, says, “Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.”
Our anger can be symptomatic of unexpressed emotions.
Here are some emotions and feelings that may lurk within the submerged section of the anger iceberg: resentment, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment, loneliness, depression, or fear. Or, it can be a combustible combination of more than one emotion that erupts into an angry outburst.
And those underlying emotions emerge from the thoughts we choose to think.
Sometimes it’s easier to express anger rather than dig for the thoughts driving these other emotions.
Sometimes we prefer to distance ourselves from those underlying emotions because it’s too painful to face what we find.
But, only when we better understand our default thinking patterns can we gain greater understanding and willingness to allow those underlying feelings to surface.
Anger is our evolutionary response to threat.
When we get angry, our heart rate increases, blood rushes to our hands and legs so we are ready to fight or flee.
Our primitive brains are performing exactly as they were designed.
But, it’s not always the most useful emotion to act on. Sometimes it is in our best interest to allow our anger to percolate without reacting to it or acting on it.
In the rough and tumble world of stepfamily life, it’s easy to get caught in the cross hairs of someone else’s angry outburst.
Perhaps you were taken off guard by angry accusations.
Perhaps you were actually expecting a display of anger all along but have been walking on eggshells in an attempt to ward off or protect yourself and from the impending attack.
How can you respond to displays of anger from your husband or difficult stepfamily members and maintain your dignity and self-respect?
Here are some useful tips for handling angry outbursts:
* Don’t take it personally.
Their expression of anger is a behavior in generated by their own thoughts and feelings about you or any given circumstance. And we know for sure, we have zero control over their thoughts, feelings or behaviors.
As the great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius opined in the long ago days of ancient Rome,
“It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret it’s happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to.”
Marcus and I offer the same advice: decide not to let someone’s angry outburst cause harm to you.
When I think of the childhood adage: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me, ” I silently add the recognition that someone else’s words are a reflection of their state of mind, not mine.
I remind myself that I choose my thoughts about whatever is happening, so it’s up to me to choose thoughts that empower me, not defeat me.
* Become curious about what may lie beneath the tip of their anger iceberg.
While it’s much easier to become defensive, it can be more useful to think about what other feelings may lurk beneath the anger.
Ask yourself to consider, “What other feelings could be fueling this angry outburst?”
Questions can lead you to discover some underlying feelings driving the anger. This is good information to help guide your next steps.
* Telling someone to “calm down” or “take it easy” is a recipe for escalating tensions.
When you tell some to “calm down,” “take it easy” or accuse them of “overreacting,” this communicates that their feelings are unimportant or unacceptable. It further intensifies their feelings of being misunderstood, dismissed, discounted or disrespected.
Refrain from trying to challenge, dispute, change or fix the other person’s emotions. Just listen without escalating into your own angry response.
* Body language matters.
Rolling eyes, crossed arms, tapping feet, looking a your phone or your watch, sighing, looking away are disrespectful gestures that clearly communicate disinterest, negativity or opposition. If you catch yourself responding with any of this type of body language, decide to rein it in.
If possible, allow them time to experience and process their anger without responding with an equal or greater degree of anger yourself.
Caveat: If their expression of anger is threatening, harmful or destructive to your well-being, you must take immediate action to separate yourself for your own safety.
* Communicate that you understand and accept their feelings.
The point of this step is to help the other person feel heard. This can build trust over time. It doesn’t mean you accept or condone their words, beliefs or behavior.
Did you grow up in a family where anger was discouraged or not allowed? When someone expressed it, did you feel scared or anxious?
Or maybe you tried to solve their anger for them to reduce your discomfort, but at what cost to you?
But, living in emotional adulthood means that you are able to allow the full spectrum of emotions to arise. Both in your self and others. You understand that all of it, the good, the bad and ugly are part of the human experience. You do not resist the emotion or try to dismiss it hurriedly.
* Identify the goals and obstacles.
Anger may be caused when an obstacle blocks a goal. If you can identify the goal and the obstacle, you will gain insight into what underlying emotions may be fueling the anger. There may be actions they can take to eliminate or work around the obstacle so they can achieve the goal.
What emotions do you suspect underlie your own or someone else’s anger?
You and your husband can help each other recognize that anger, while a valid emotion in it’s own right, can be protecting or concealing a whole array of other emotions that warrant attention too.
A little curiosity and willingness to explore together can help you better understand what might be fueling the anger.
Problem solving strategies can help you make strides in managing your own angry outbursts and your responses to other people’s displays of anger while maintaining your dignity and self-respect.
Need help exploring the possibilities? Just let me know right here. Let’s dig in!