When was the last time you got angry? If it’s been a while it might be hard to remember what caused it or why you got upset. Maybe it was recent – just this week, even – and right now you can feel your blood pressure spike just thinking about it. Anger is strange like that, isn’t it? On one hand, it can be fleeting and forgettable, and on the other, residual and explosive – even long after the fact.
What makes you angry? If you’re like some of us, it might take something major. If you and your partner were having an argument and – in the heat of the moment – you were called a hurtful name or reminded of an unrelated time you really screwed up, you’d probably feel a flash of anger. In your mind, especially in real-time, they made you angry. They provoked you.
Anger can also be the culmination of lots of little things, can’t it? If you’re not sure, just ask anyone who’s ever overslept – especially the night before something important, like a Monday morning meeting or an exam. Everything from the faulty alarm to their lack of coffee is a perceived microaggression until their rage is eventually unleashed on someone in traffic. Anger, in those instances, sounds a lot like a car horn and looks like a middle finger.
In all of these moments, it’s tempting to point at anger and misidentify it as the problem or the issue. To be clear, it’s okay to feel angry. Anger is a universal human emotion, and to not feel it from time to time would be unusual. So know this: anger is your right.
But understand the truth of this as well: anger is a secondary emotion. In other words, anger is not the primary emotion you experience when you get upset. Think about our examples above.
Arguments and misunderstandings happen, even in the best relationships. But when the disagreement devolved into insults and name-calling, you got angry. But what was below that anger? It’s likely that you felt hurt and shame, especially if something felt like a low-blow. Those were the primary emotions. And instead of being able to calmly state “that hurt me and made me feel ashamed” – both were repackaged as anger and you lashed out with equal force.
And is a fellow motorist really the source of your anger, not to mention the coffee pot or alarm clock? Of course not. Instead, you were probably experiencing embarrassment and fear. You were scared that your job, grade, or reputation was on the line. You were driving to work imaging that you’d be laughed at by your colleagues. Again, those are the primary feelings – the things we’re slow to admit – and anger is how we often express them.
If it all seems counterintuitive, you’re not wrong. When we give ourselves the time and the space to take a closer look at our anger, we’re guaranteed to find the real source lurking below the surface. It’s a lot like an iceberg. The jagged cap sticking out of the water looks dangerous, and for good reason: it will cause damage. But the iceberg is only the result of a much bigger, and much deeper, block of ice below.
It’s easy to play ship captain and spot the icebergs of anger in and around us. But what’s going on underneath it all?
Even rejection and disappointment can fuel feelings and expressions of anger.
Men, in particular, often find it more difficult to identify or name the primary emotions that trigger their anger. Many of us were taught – either implicitly or explicitly – to hide, suppress, or ignore our feelings – that’s what “man up,” “walk it off,” and “suck it up” really mean, isn’t it? That not-so-subtle messaging becomes a part of who we are and how we operate. It’s difficult to stop. That’s why anger is so prevalent. The real cause has been buried. It’s deep down below the surface. The only thing we see is the anger sticking its head out of the water.
So much of the work we do at Social House involves jumping into the water. That’s how we begin the process of understanding ourselves and all of our emotions – by seeing what’s below the surface. Anger is one of the best places to start. It has the potential to damage every aspect of your life – from your relationships to your career – unless you learn what those primary emotions are and how to process them. And there’s good news:
You don’t have to do that work alone.