Shining the Light on Sneaky Emotions, Part 1: Anger as a Rowdy Ruse

We’ve all been there – the experience where irritation or rage rolls over us and we’re not exactly sure where the thunder came from. “What the #$*@ were you thinking!” “I need to speak to your manager!” “Stop jumping on the couch!”

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Emotions have this way of converting quickly into a message that is more familiar or less disempowering. Emotions even have a way of converting into physical symptoms that may seem much easier to nurture than the confusion of the mind and heart. In psychology we call the former experience a shift from primary to secondary emotions and the latter experience psychosomatic symptoms.

A primary emotion is the initial feeling – primal in nature – that arises in a given situation to communicate something important to us. A secondary emotion is what comes next, either in response to the first emotion or due to the complexity of the emotional experience (i.e.: feeling several emotions at once – very common!). Psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that arise in response to an emotional trigger. The energy of the emotion is converted, so to speak, into headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, or other physical ailments. What’s interesting about secondary emotions and psychosomatic symptoms is that they almost always happen undetected by our conscious experience. This can lead us down dangerously unhelpful paths and often perpetuate a feel-bad cycle. Sneaky, right?

For the next few posts, I’ll highlight some of the most common sneaky emotional experiences as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on and increase your chances of aligning with your authentic experience, solving the problem, and feeling better.

The Collateral Damage of Turing Every Emotion Into Anger

Sadness, anxiety, and shame are extremely uncomfortable and potentially disempowering emotions. As you can imagine, they easily intertwine and are difficult to tolerate, generating an innate desire to hide or retreat and lick our wounds. Due to this, many people swiftly convert these emotions into anger.

You’ve seen this before – an executive loses a promising promotion and becomes irate about a parking ticket that normally wouldn’t have phased her; a parent preoccupied by his own father’s pending heart surgery snaps at his children to stop being so silly; or a partner initiates sexual intimacy and upon being turned down, nastily retorts about the other person’s libido or physical appeal. You’ve seen this during all the squabbling over funeral arrangements, and you’ve certainly seen this in your own or others’ divorces. The sadness, anxiety, and potential shame of these situations convert to anger because anger feels more powerful. It’s as if we suck the energy of our primary emotions out of our personal awareness into a ball of anger to lob at the nearest target we think we can hit – deserved or not. “Get that emotion out of me!” we say with our angry actions.

Although there are certainly ways we consciously harness anger for meaningful change, most often the unconscious conversion to anger is ineffective. You’ve missed out on the important communication your primary emotion was attempting to share with you and are likely focused on the wrong thing, making the situation much worse. In addition to whatever triggered your primary emotion, now you’re also angry – potentially about minor things. And now you’re lashing out at others – potentially others you care about. How hard is it to get the comfort or reassurance that may ease your original concern if you’re busy pointing fingers or yelling at the very people most likely to provide that support? In addition, the ball of anger is now being passed among you and your colleagues, family, or community in a “hot potato” of continuing disconnection.

Next time you find yourself irritably taking your bluer emotions out on others:
1. STOP!
2. Take a very deep breath and a quick moment to check in about what could be really going on. Try to name it – both the trigger and your emotion(s).
3. Consider steps for problem solving or healing that are more fitting to the emotion or situation at hand.

Remember that in addition to the action steps you may take to alleviate your discomfort, sadness also demands comfort while anxiety and shame often seek reassurance. Soothing your original hurts will do wonders for your mood, not to mention how shared vulnerability with our loved ones strengthens those important bonds. Even if you still slide into or decide on anger as a way to cope, this check-in with your truer self will help you harness your anger in more beneficial ways.

Don’t expect this to come easy at first! It will take practice – but the practice is worth learning how to choose the most appropriate salve for your wounds such that you can actually heal them.

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Stay tuned for Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and I’m Not Upset, It’s Just a Stomachache in this 3-part series on sneaky emotions!

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

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