Anger: Spotlight, Shield and Balloon

Anger isn’t like other feelings. Spiritual leaders never promise freedom from happiness. No one gets sentenced to shame-management classes. No comic book heroes gain super-powers when they start to feel sad. Only anger gets this kind of concern and condemnation.

One quality that sets it apart is it’s inseparability from other emotions. You can feel pure joy, sheer terror or utter despair. It’s not really possible to feel angry without feeling other things as well. Three metaphors to help clients understand:

Anger is like a spotlight:

Photo copyright 2012 by Chris Cummings.When a client talks about an irritated moment, ask, “What else did you feel?” If your clients are like mine, you’ll get a puzzled look and the answer, “Just mad.” That’s not so, but part of what anger does is to make it seem that way. It’s like a spotlight in our eyes, blinding us to all other emotions. That’s because…

Anger is like a shield:

When I get that, “Just mad,” reply, I’ll supply a list of emotion words. Clients have identified as many as forty other flavors of sadness, fear and shame, none of which they were aware of until they had a reference sheet in their hand. Anger can trigger the fight-or-flight reaction, meaning it probably evolved as a survival mechanism.When we’re faced by a perceived threat, (“Someone took the last slice of pizza, and therefore I may starve,”) we respond with an agitated, threatening display that lets predators (or roommates) know we’re not to be toyed with.  Evan Katz, M.C., LPC takes credit for the notion that anger shields us from the more-sensitive emotions we also feel in that moment. Predators can’t see them, because we don’t even realize they are there.

Photo copyright 2012 by Katinka Haslinger

For exceptionally angry clients, anger may function like a shield reinforced with a stone wall.

This turns into a problem when the threat has passed, (“Chill out, already. I’ll buy the next one,”) but furious thoughts still churn inside. They’re driven by the pressure of the other emotions we haven’t expressed yet. Fortunately …

Anger is like a balloon:

A balloon is a limp sack of cloth or rubber. It will swell up to an imposing size, but only when inflated with gas or hot air. If the pressure goes too high, it’ll burst into shreds, unless we pop a safety valve.  When someone explodes with rage, we can see them deflated and torn once the crisis has passed. Emotion-word lists help clients flatten out the gasbag of anger, because naming something (such as the emotions inflating the balloon) gives you power over them. Naming an emotion usually means accepting,  expressing and with luck, releasing it.

My clients’ neighbors may be puzzled by shouts of, “GUILT! DESPAIR! EDGINESS!” coming from next door. I believe they  prefer it over the sounds of irate recrimination or violence.

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under anger management, Useful Metaphors

4 responses to “Anger: Spotlight, Shield and Balloon

  1. jkvegh

    Good thought provoking article. Most people are afraid of people who are angry and the reason for this is that they are not psychotherapists and don’t understand that it is just a shield. I feel bad for people, especially women who are sexually abused or taken advantage of by men (women) in some other way. They have such a rage that they carry around with them everywhere they go. Always trying to protect themselves with sarcasm, chips on their shoulders, cold attitudes, rough exteriors but deep inside very wounded souls just wanting some peace and happiness in their lives.

  2. santas helper

    Be careful with that thinking jkvegh, believing that it is “just” a shield can put your safety at risk… Men’s rage and anger is fueled by Testosterone at 99%, there is no shield, simply a natural design for fight, fly or hunt! Without it our ancestors would have never been able to bring food on the ‘table’. Anger is essential to win in sport, to fight in battles, to fight crime etc. The only thing we must do with anger is channel it and control it, not try to repress it…Men take it to the back streets, women use sarcasm, insults, etc.. Nature made men physically strong and they use this to sort out problems, women use the ‘other’ ways to bully their way around or get revenge.

    • Thanks for commenting, Helper, especially for your point that anger is a trans-gender phenomenon. Are you sure anger is essential to sports, battles and crime-fighting? Great strategists have prized a cool head in competition.

    • jkvegh

      The shield can drop through consciousness raising, spiritual focus, psychotherapy, so many things it takes to finally realize you are finished with this mentality. When you no longer want to live in the ego state. When you have done so, you are not longer facing competition or in a world that is about crime and battles. I am not there but I have met people who are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s