Understanding Anger

Under the Surface

By Landon Cotton, LPC

When people ask me what my job is, I sometimes joke, “I work with a lot of angry boys.” While this is obviously an oversimplification, anger is an emotion that many of my clients present with. No one can say they have never experienced anger- Anger is an emotion that affects all of us at different times.

What people may not realize is there is so much more beneath anger that is so often not identified. Anger can be an extension of feeling embarrassed, scared, anxious, depressed, guilty, or hurt. Many times however the only emotion that is recognized is anger because that is what is the most visible. The clients I’ve worked with express their anger in a multitude of ways including shutting down, having verbally or physically aggressive outbursts, or acting like they are unaffected by those around them. It isn’t until we start to look at what’s lying beneath the surface that the real problem can be recognized.

You may have heard this analogy before, but picture yourself on a boat floating towards an iceberg. All you can see is the ice that is piercing through the water, but you know there is so much more underneath. If the ice above the water is anger and the visible expressions of anger, what is under the water are the underlying emotions and triggers.

For some, it may be disappoint that a relationship has ended. For others, it may be the lasting hurt of past abuse or neglect. Still others may be experiencing fear about an upcoming event or challenge. Before anyone can work on anger, they must first be able to recognize what is underlying their anger.

If you are a parent or caregiver with a child or teen that is dealing with anger, take time with them to discuss what other areas or emotions may be having an impact. The most important thing you can do is listen to them and help them recognize what other feelings or experiences are leading them to where they are in that moment.

If you are someone dealing with anger, find someone you trust and explore what may be underneath that emotion. We have to first explore what is lying beneath the surface before we can truly deal with our anger in a more effective way.

There’s no one correct way to approach this topic with someone, but there are a few key things to remember in making this conversation effective.

First, make sure you are calm before beginning this conversation; coming at anyone in an aggressive way will only lead to them shutting down or escalating their anger even more.

Second, make sure to communicate to them you are there to listen no matter what they share; if they don’t feel safe, the conversation won’t go very far. After that, ask them an open-ended question to allow them to put how they are feeling into their own words.

Some examples of open-ended questions that help:

  • “What are three words that best describe how you are feeling?”
  • “What do you wish was different right now?”
  • “What is something that makes you feel worse? What is something that may help you feel better?”

If they are not willing to talk to you in that moment, allow them space or ask if there is someone else they would feel comfortable talking to.

Lastly, do your best to respond with empathy; you may not completely understand how they are feeling, but all they need to hear in that moment is that their feelings are valid. After that, the conversation can move to ways to help them through whatever situation they may be in.

It all begins with creating a safe space for someone to be allowed to be honest and vulnerable about what they are feeling.

About the Author:
Landon is a Licensed Professional Counselor with almost 10 yrs of experience working with youth, adolescents, and young adults.  Landon is an expert on the "lost boy" and loves to write, teach and host workshops on empowering boys and young men to find their most fulfilling path in life.