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:
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.
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