Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud may or may not have said. That is, sometimes anger is just anger. You’re annoyed or aggravated, because you’re genuinely annoyed or aggravated.
But other times, anger sits on the surface while other emotions and past experiences swim underneath.
According to Chris Boyd, a psychotherapist in Vancouver, these underlying emotions might include: “fear, shame, rejection, exhaustion, embarrassment, stress, disappointment, powerlessness, envy, sadness and grief.”
Stephanie Dobbin, LMFT, CGP, is a relationship and group psychotherapist who specializes in helping busy healthcare professionals have happier relationships and less stress. She regularly sees partners criticizing each other and blowing up over seemingly small things. When they start digging deeper, they realize that each of them actually feels lonely and disconnected. Each of them longs to be appreciated and seen.
Recently, Boyd worked with a client who became furious with his wife for no reason, which didn’t make any sense because they have a healthy, happy relationship. When they delved deeper, it turned out that this client’s anger stemmed from being bullied in middle school and subsequent feelings of shame that have followed him into adulthood.
Sometimes, a big reason why we huff and puff is because “expressing feelings in the anger family…can feel safer for some people, said Dobbin, who has a private practice in Rochester, NY. Expressing some of the “softer emotions that anger often hides”—like shame and sadness—feels more difficult.
“Anger is a way for us to avoid vulnerability,” said Patrice N. Douglas, LMFT, a certified anger management specialist in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
We also might get upset about feeling upset, and try to turn the tables. “When we are embarrassed or hurt by someone, instead of saying I’m hurt [or I’m] embarrassed, we’d rather try to make [the other person] feel the same way,” Douglas said.
Knowing what underlies your anger is vital. Because, as Douglas noted, that’s how we create change, whether it’s in our relationships or in our lives overall. For instance, you realize that it hurts you when your partner jokes about your relationship in front of your friends, so you talk to them about it, and ask them to stop. They honor your request, your relationship gets stronger, and you no longer feel resentment. Of course, sometimes, it’s more complicated than that. But self-awareness is the first step to any adjustment.
You might be thinking, That’s all well and good, but how do I actually identify what’s floating below my frustration and fury? How do I know what’s really going on, especially when my anger often roars so loudly?
First focus on calming down. If you’re feeling furious or enraged, both Douglas and Dobbin stressed the importance of removing yourself from the situation. Dobbin also suggested splashing cold water on your face, finding a quiet place to practice deep breathing or taking a shower.
“You might even try progressive muscle relaxation…to go through each muscle group and consciously release tension.” (Try this YouTube video.) Calming down is key because you can’t think rationally when your nervous system feels like it’s on fire.
Keep an anger diary. Reflect on moments of frustration every day, “while it’s still fresh in our minds,” said Boyd, co-creator of the Mental Health Boot Camp, a 25-day online program that helps to strengthen your well-being. This can help you to spot patterns. Be sure to be specific: Document your triggers, thoughts, sensations and actions, he said. And be sure to be curious, instead of judgmental. Because, as Dobbin said, “Judging yourself for having the feeling in the first place will block you from finding out more about what’s happening. “
For instance, a lot of people are quick to criticize themselves “for being ‘stupid’ or ‘out of control,’” when they display big emotions, she said. But these big emotions are “valid and deserve attention.”
Maybe you recently got so angry that you started crying. Scratch that—sobbing. At work. Your impulse is to berate yourself for being so ridiculous, for being such an embarrassment. But when you reflect on why you cried, you realize that you feel like an impostor (something you’ve struggled with for years). Or you realize that your workplace is toxic (and you’d rather leave). Or you realize that the issue is at home, and you feel like you and your partner are living separate lives (and you yearn to reconnect). These are all revelations you can do something about.
In other words, Boyd suggested asking yourself: “Does my emotional reaction fit the situation?” If it doesn’t, your anger likely stems from an underlying emotion or past issue.
Ask yourself why over and over. Keep asking “Why?” until “you get to the heart of things,” Dobbin said. She shared the below example about a mom who’s angry with her daughter:
“Why was I so angry with my daughter for refusing to participate during soccer practice?” “Because we paid for 8 weeks of it and now she’s not even playing!” “Why is that important?” “Because I hate wasting money.” “Why?” “Because we don’t have a lot of disposable income these days.” “Why?” “Because I made the choice to quit my job and stay home with the kids.” “Why?” “Because I thought it was the best choice for our family.” “What feelings do you have about staying home?” “I like it sometimes. But I didn’t know that I’d be so anxious about money all the time. It’s really exhausting.”
In other words, by simply asking “Why?” this mom gets critical insight into her anger, which reveals it’s really about fear. And that’s important information.
Sometimes, anger isn’t just anger. Instead, it’s sadness or shame or fear or disappointment. Getting to the root can help you resolve what’s really going on. But first you have to be willing to take a look. So get curious, be open, and dive right in.