What is anger made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice? NOPE! Definitely not. Clients often talk about how they get angry for “no reason”. Does this sound familiar?
Thing is – there is always a reason.
But we humans are often unaware of what exactly it is we are feeling in any given moment. We can stumble through an entire day or week without attending to specific feelings. As therapists we ask people what else they were feeling if they are confused by a sudden temper. Sometimes, that can’t be answered readily. All that is certain is that there is rage. Maybe they’ve “lost it” and lashed out at someone. Maybe they’re in a heap crying and not sure why.
It’s happened to us too!
And so the next thing we ask is – by any chance did you start crying once you’d finished losing your temper?
If the answer is yes, and it usually is, then we have a real clue as to what’s going on: Someone or something has hurt you or you are sad, maybe scared. The real feeling got expressed once the seemingly inexplicable rage got out.
It’s often easier to get annoyed than to state our vulnerability. Like, telling someone to “Get *&^^% lost!” feels easier for most of us than saying “What you just said/did there hurt me. Please don’t do that. I feel rejected, undervalued by you now and I need more from you. I’d like an apology so I feel respected and cared for and not injured, threatened or dismissed. “
Nah..it’s easier to throw a tantrum and walk away, right?
And so (drumrolllll) we present our “Pint of Guinness theory of anger”:
Here’s a visual we use when we feel that anger brewing (!!)
The top, the head, the white, is the first thing we see when we imagine or are presented with a pint of Guinness. It represents the anger, the white rage that we immediately see.
But if we hold it at arm’s length the fuller image emerges. The darker underside. That’s the main body of the anger. That’s where the pain, sad or fear is hiding. It’s by far the bigger part of the pint, takes up most of it. And once the angry white froth is blown away, it is the denser part of it. It needs more attention, and takes longer to deal with.
(You could think about a glass of coke with the frothy bubbles on top much the same way. Or a root beer float.)
Jason (not really his name of course) was a client of Sally’s years ago. He was a violent, scary young man, the kind you’d cross the road to avoid. But immediately likable. He was sent to therapy, more than referred – threatened really. Given a grim set of choices. He was not a willing client. He was flummoxed by his rages and could not understand why he was constantly being arrested. Well, he knew why, it was to do with a long string of arrests for serious assault and damage to property. Plus a few broken bones. No hiding that really.
Jason just couldn’t trace the anger, figure out where it had come from, or how quickly it came.
Not long into therapy the notion of the “pint of anger” was introduced and he suddenly burst into tears. It was incredibly moving. He realized then all the hurt he was carrying, and it was a lot. Family stuff, friend stuff. He had been dismissed horribly and often. He was grieving for many things, lost time, lost fun, lost people, lost opportunities. He had hurt himself by not supporting himself. He was realizing that he had literally punched his way through the last ten years.
He looked up and smiled, tears streaming – “I get it now, I have emotional fists”. Jason cried a lot in sessions after that. He really warmed to it! He learned to monitor his feelings and take more responsibility for them, and as a result, his life is very different today.
“Emotional fists” has become one of Sally’s catchphrases. She uses it to teach people who are referred for “anger management”. (He knows of course, and is chuffed). Simple but powerful lessons were learned (by the way, clients teach their therapists all the time).
We all suffer pain. We all get angry. One super fast way of dealing is to know what we are actually feeling – what is the anger covering up?
What is anger made of? Personal and professional experience tells me that the answer is this:
Pain+/or Sad+/or Fear = Anger.
And here are 5 Steps to deal with your Anger:
1: Recognise the signs (thumping heart, hot head, shaking hands, sweaty, shaky, dizzy feeling in your stomach, sore and clenched jaw)
2: Breathe. Properly, check our post here for how.
3: Ask yourself “What has just happened or has just been said to me that has made me feel hurt or sad?
4: Ask yourself: What do I need to do or say and to whom so that I feel more valued/ safe?
5: Then take a risk, and what ever the answer to 4 is, do that instead of lashing out.
Incidentally, if you are trying to diffuse someone else’s temper, gently asking 3 and 4 can be very helpful indeed. Particularly so with young children. Plus, the added benefit is that you’re teaching them three important life lessons:
1. Anger is a normal human feeling and you accept their feeling.
2. There’s always a reason for it and so you respect their feeling.
3. Anger can always be managed!
The science bit:
When we’re triggered into a rage-state we are not able to connect with our logical/reasoning side. It is all emotional/physiological, and that is super-confusing to our logical brain. And best of all there are explanations for why and how this happens. There are many sites that have a depth of knowledge about the physiology of anger. This one goes into just enough detail to help you get a better understanding of what happens to our bodies and brains when we’re angry.