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Behind the Anger

December 01, 2011

What parent hasn't had the experience of a son or daughter — 2 or 3 years old — running toward the street? In an instant, many of us angrily shout at the youngster to get back onto the curb.

And who hasn't had the experience of a partner saying something that triggers hurt feelings, and in an instant, we respond with an angry "bark," maybe even a "bite"?

In each example, there's a burst of anger. But anger didn't actually stir first. Before the anger in the first two examples there was initially the feeling of fear. In the third example there was the feeling of hurt. We're not good at noticing and naming our primary feelings (the difficult ones that expose our heart and render us vulnerable, like fear or hurt). We're better (and a lot more practiced) at leaping to secondary anger — "secondary" because it stirs after the primary feeling. We prefer to jump to secondary anger because we feel strong and powerful showing our anger — not vulnerable.

There's a problem with secondary anger: it tends to be maladaptive, unhelpful; it doesn't transmit the key information that a partner needs to make sense of what just happened.* In the examples above, the key information would be: "I'm afraid," or "My feelings are hurt." That's what a spouse needs to hear to understand what's really going on — and to respond in an appropriate, compassionate way. Naming our primary feelings can spell the difference between a couple slipping into a minor pothole or tumbling into a deep pit (from which it's very difficult to climb out).

The next time your partner barks at you with anger, calmly ask, "What else are you feeling? Could there be hurt, or fear, or shame?" Go slowly; give yourselves time to look behind the anger. If you're the one getting angry, look for your own primary feelings.

Anger isn't always secondary, but when it is, it can make a world of difference to shine a light on the feelings that came first.

References & Citations

*Greenberg, Leslie S. and Jeremy D. Safran. Emotion in Psychotherapy. The Guilford Press, 1987 (p.176).