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Mad or Sad? Is Anger Protecting You From Other Feelings?

3 steps to take when you're mad or sad.

Key points

  • There are a number of causes of anger, both internal and external.
  • Anger often works to protect us from other painful feelings.
  • Recognizing and addressing the underlying emotions can help us manage anger more effectively.

“My wife wants me to see you,” David, an accountant in his mid-fifties, told me. “She got your name from her therapist. Marley, my wife, says I’m too angry these days, and I need to see a therapist to work on my feelings. What can I say? She’s got breast cancer. I don’t want her to die. I’m not angry at her, I’m just angry about the cancer, but she says I’m so irritable all the time that it feels like I’m angry at her. And she says I’m not being supportive of her. She says I’m not tuned into her needs at all.”

There are a number of causes of anger, both internal and external. We get frustrated when we’re stuck in a traffic jam or waiting for a plane that’s delayed or when our computer goes on the fritz. We also feel angry when we disappoint ourselves or don’t live up to our expectations for ourselves. But we can also get angry in response to other emotions.

In her book The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, or Desperate, Harriet Lerner writes that when we are “drowning in emotions,” it’s hard to draw on our ability to connect. Instead, we tend to “get critical, defensive, or just plain mad.”

Fear of the loss of someone important to us and fear of our own death are two feelings that most of us would rather not feel. Anger, which makes us feel strong and powerful, is a way our psyche protects us from feelings of sadness, helplessness and powerlessness. I wondered if David’s anger might be protecting him from fears about his wife’s illness.

Most of us have no idea that our anger has moved in to protect us from other painful feelings. But frequently when anger is a problem, there are vulnerable, painful emotions hidden behind it. Because I’ve seen this dynamic frequently as a psychotherapist, I automatically look for underlying hurt and sadness when someone tells me about being angry in a relationship.

For example, I heard pain beneath the frustration that Annette*, whose mother had Alzheimer’s, was telling me about. “I know she can’t help that she forgets something two minutes after I tell her,” she said, “but I find myself getting mad at her anyway.” Of course there’s a natural frustration at having to repeat yourself multiple times, but as we talk she also begins to cry. “I’ve lost my mom,” she says. “She looks like my mom, and a lot of times she sounds and acts like my mom. But I have to always be prepared for the fact that suddenly Mom disappears and it’s just her body, but not her.”

Zilvergolf / 123rf stock image#148769771
Source: Zilvergolf / 123rf stock image#148769771

Annette* was struggling with something called “ambiguous loss,” which I wrote about in a previous post. In her book Ambiguous Loss, Pauline Boss writes that families of Alzheimer’s patients are often angry and sad at the same time. She says, “To be unable to make a single connection with someone with whom we have had a lifetime of meaningful conversations would give rise to ambivalence in the best of us.”

Because it’s hard to be angry at someone who can’t help themselves, sometimes we turn the anger on ourselves, chastising ourselves for not being better, more caring people. We may get angry at life, or at God, or at the medical world for not having found a cure for a disease or a problem. And sometimes we do something that psychologists call “projecting,” which means that we think that someone else, maybe even the person we’re angry at, is angry at us, even when there’s no evidence that they are.

All of these responses are our psyche’s attempts to protect us from the underlying pain, but many of them cause problems of their own. For your own well-being and for that of your loved ones, it can be much more useful to find ways to manage your anger and tap into the underlying hurt, sadness, fear, and vulnerability instead of acting on the anger.

How can you do this?

I think of managing anger as a three-step process, moving from “outside” to “inside.”

First, acknowledge your anger, without giving in to it. This is as simple as stating out loud, “I’m really angry!”

Second, ask yourself to take a minute to calm down, so that you can assess the situation. This can mean getting out of physical proximity to whatever is making you so upset, or it can mean taking time to breathe in and out in a measured amount of time. There are numerous techniques for self-calming. One of the ones I like a lot is Richard Brown’s “coherent breathing”, but there are many others that you can find by googling “self-calming techniques.”

Third, think about what feelings might be lurking beneath your anger. Your brain will try to take you back to whatever you are angry about, because it wants you to stay irritated rather than to feel sad or lonely or frightened or any of the other painful emotions you might be pushing away. But the more you can connect to those other feelings, the more easily you will be able to continue to manage the angry ones.

And the most important benefit of all? You’ll free yourself up to begin to problem-solve. When you’re filled with righteous indignation, it’s very hard to find a solution to the underlying problem, because you can’t even let yourself know what that problem really is. But when you start to connect to the other feelings that your anger is hiding, your brain will, almost of its own accord, start to look for solutions.

Interestingly, sometimes those solutions have to do with connecting with the person who has made you angry! This is how it worked for David. When he began to recognize his fears about losing his wife, he was able to sit down and talk with her about those feelings. They had some hard evenings, as they talked about their fears, from death to chemo to losing control of their lives. But even as they cried together, David said, “something in me loosened up. And I knew we would fight this together, and we would find ways to manage, whatever happened.” So, the next time you feel angry at someone, ask yourself if you’re feeling mad. Or sad. Recognizing sadness beneath feelings of anger is one of the best ways to manage your emotions and find a solution to a problem — maybe even with the help of the person who triggered both emotions.

*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.

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