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The door slams shut with a loud BANG. Marcia feels the frustration and anger rising in her. Here we go again! She can hear her 11-year-old daughter slam drawers and scream at her sister to get out of her room. “That is really taking it to too far”, she thinks. “How dare she behave this way? If I had ever acted like this, I would have been grounded for life!”
Marcia has different voices in her. The outraged voice is one of them. Then there is the sad voice that feels frustrated and helpless to guide her daughter through this time in her life. Then there is the voice which says she has failed as a mother; she somewhere must have gone wrong in raising her children.
Marcia has not failed. Most of us have just never been given the tools to cope with anger in a healthy way. We learn it is wrong to be angry and that showing anger or even rage is inappropriate. Yet, this response is literally evolutionarily ingrained into our brains for protection. The sub-cortical areas of our brain are wired for fight or flight. Stan Tatkin calls those more instinctive parts of our brain our “primitives”. When we feel overwhelmed, stressed, threatened or unsafe in some way, anger instinctively kicks in for us to be able to fight and keep ourselves safe.
In November, The Gottman Institute posted an interesting article about anger by Kyle Benson. He uses the analogy of an iceberg to describe how anger is only the tip of that iceberg. More important than the anger visible above the surface is what is underneath the water. Anger is a secondary emotion. Anger is our protection from more vulnerable feelings, like helplessness, sadness, grief, loneliness and shame, just to name a few.
Anger is our internal GPS and guidance system that we are somehow off track in regards to our needs. When we accept anger as a feedback mechanism rather than a problem, which needs to be fixed or suppressed, we can investigate why it is there. It’s easy to see your partner’s or child’s anger but it can be more difficult to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting. We need to listen closely to what is going on at a deeper level. Underneath anger there is a longing for something else. Marcia will need to sit on the anger iceberg with her daughter to help her figure out what she is really feeling.
Your partner or child’s anger is not a personal attack. It’s about their underlying primary feelings and unmet needs. Rather than judging her daughter’s outburst as wrong or taking it personally, Marcia needs to become curious as to why she is angry. Is her daughter perceiving something as unfair, is she sad about a recent loss, is she confused, is she experiencing helplessness, is she feeling like a disappointment, is she carrying responsibility too heavy for her age and therefore feeling overwhelmed, are her human needs met, and so on?
As Dhebi DeWitz’s chart from her book “The Messenger Within” illustrates, our needs can be grouped into physical nurturance, autonomy, interdependence, celebration/play, integrity and spiritual communication. As a child transitioning from childhood to adolescence, Marcia’s daughter, for example, wants and needs to feel physically safe and taken care of, loved and accepted, able to play and laugh, able to experience a sense of achievement and independence while being reassured she can reach out to others, develop a sense of purpose as well as beliefs of a benevolent universe.
Anger often lives in our shadow. We have learned to disown our own anger as “bad” or “wrong”. The more Marcia has embraced her own anger, the easier it will be not to be triggered by other people’s anger. She can then let her daughter know that it’s okay to feel angry. She can invite her to connect with the more vulnerable emotions and the possibly unfulfilled needs that the anger or rage is protecting. When her daughter feels heard and accepted with all her emotions, pleasant and unpleasant ones, her primary emotions can rise to the surface and steps can be taken to address the underlying needs.
Join Dhebi DeWitz and myself for our next bi-monthly FREE webinar. Our topic on Tuesday, May 7 is “Are Your Essential Needs Being Met?”. How to discover your essential human needs that are not being met in your life and to honour them. Click here to receive the link to join us life from 8:00-9:00 p.m. EST or 5:00-6:00 PST. The webinar will also be posted here for you to access it at any time.
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