De-armoring takes guts and curiosity. We owe it to ourselves to ask: what’s behind the shield?
Lu Hanessian, MSc
When you get angry… how would you describe your reaction?
Slow-boil or Mt. Vesuvius? Does it come on like a tsunami or a lightning bolt? Linger for days or quickly dissipate?
Do you stuff it or spew it? Stonewall? High decibel or silence? In anger, do you say things you can’t take back? Or camouflage, slip into hyperdrive, pretend everything’s fine?
Anger is a high information emotion. What does it tell us about who we are and what we need? Anger’s a signal, a response to a perceived threat. We might feel unsafe, unseen, and undone, depending on our story around anger.
Anger is deeply familiar with our narrative self.
The way we’ve created our narrative is based on our experiences, how emotion and how conflict were modeled for us when we were young, and what we’ve practiced over the years.
Anger gets a bad rap. But, why?
Anger is generally perceived as a negative emotion. In early years, we might have received the message that our anger was inappropriate, impolite, threatening, frightening, overpowering and disempowering.
We may have learned that anger can scare others into submission or shrink people into oblivion. Maybe we learned to shapeshift for approval, to forfeit our needs, put up barricades.
From home to school and beyond, we got the message that when we’re mad, we’re out of line. Out of order. Out of our minds. We bought into the false narrative that we can’t express anger without going too far, being cast out, or cut from the team.
Little wonder we often say anger is messy. It’s full of contradiction — and pain.
That’s because anger is wrapped tightly around themes of abandonment, disappointment, inadequacy, rejection, fear of being alone, danger, and loss.
In fact, neuroimaging studies show that social rejection is registered in the brain as physical pain.
The thing is, we didn’t just outgrow these anger messages. We practiced and embodied them. Now, as adults, even with all of our hard-won wisdom, we still practice and embody all the defensive measures around our anger:
… we fear it, suppress it, disown it, project it, fuel it, wield it, regret it, begrudge it, pretend and defend it.
We practice these defensive tactics without thinking. Without awareness. Privately, we might ruminate, worry, harbor shame. But, ironically, studies on interpersonal conflict show we generally think the other person’s to blame. We only attribute the problem to ourselves 1% of the time.
Anger works overtime to defend our position. The angrier we feel, the more rigid our stance.
Despite all of its primal power, anger is actually a secondary emotion. Secondary… because what’s beneath or behind it are the disappointments, sorrows, shame and fears that we often try to avoid by keeping them under wraps.
We’ve learned to use anger as a shield.
Surgeon David Hanscom calls anger “turbocharged anxiety”.
Anger as anxiety. Jumping out of our skin. Tightly coiled. Revved up. We know how it feels. We have our limit. Our tolerance for discomfort.
Anger is often a way of shortcircuiting that discomfort — our nervous system’s attempt to gain control when we’re feeling out of it. But, it’s also a circuit-breaker, draining us of energy.
Not as a one-time event, but a pattern of reaction and depletion.
Over the course of our lives, we developed an emotional defense system to protect ourselves from our anxiety and fear, from the pain of our own emotions, from other people’s pain.
People like… loved ones. People like friends, colleagues. Even strangers.
If we’re always reactive, we can’t be reflective.
We can approach our anger with curiosity and compassion.
So here we are. With our anger, our armor — and some questions.
Do we dare explore what’s behind it?
How can we approach our anger and feel it, but not get hooked by it and spiral?
We need to take it on without having it overtake us.
Through practicing self-inquiry, we can develop deeper awareness. That awareness can help us explore our anger with curiosity and compassion.
Here’s a science-based guide to de-armoring anger and deeper self-understanding.
1. Become aware of your anger armor. Notice how and when it shows up in your relationships.
We are wired for safety. That means we’re threat detectors. Always scanning our environment for signs of danger. Sometimes, those come from inside us. Sometimes, we perceive that threat in others (even when there is none).
We can feel anger armor come up in our physiological and psychological reactions. We get defensive. We can become hooked on the rush of adrenaline and the analgesic effect of norepinephrine, hormones which are secreted in anger and “fight” stress responses.
How does your anger armor show up in relationship? Feeling out of control can make us use our anger to control others. Mistrust can provoke blinding rage. If that rage could see, it might discover the pain of humiliation, betrayal, and the fear of unworthiness.
2. Notice the moment your back is up. Identify the internal trigger that set you off.
Every angry reaction has a trigger — and a story. Our reactions have built-in associations with previous experiences. These live in our deep neural networks, connecting our sensation and story and struggle in a split second.
Iceberg thinking can help us track anger to the hidden emotions beneath it. One way to get there is to ask ourselves a simple question over and over again: what is it about this that is upsetting me so much?
Each time, asking again “…and what is it about that that upsets me?”
Our triggers are connected to stories which provoke our angry reactions, which, when we dig just a little with a simple question and answer without judgment, allow a feeling to emerge.
Eventually, we get to the bottom of the iceberg.
We know when we feel it. And when we feel it… we know it.
3. Recognize your need. What is the unmet need that is trying to get your attention?
Anger is a sign of our unmet needs. Of where we are hurting. Of where conflicts within us are left unresolved. Of where we must tend to that hurt in ourselves, before we can tend to others and anyone else can tend to us.
Sure, sometimes, we’re just ‘hangry’ — hungry and angry. Sometimes, we are exhausted, sleep-deprived, and have a short fuse. Understandable.
But, our needs are more nuanced than we might think. Loneliness can make us feel anxious and agitated. We might tell ourselves we don’t need anyone, while deep down craving connection. Exclusion can arouse feelings of intense anger camouflaging a deep need for belonging.
What need is not being met? A need for safety? Autonomy? Rest? Self-expression? Empathy? Check out this Needs List to explore further.
4. Name the emotion behind the anger. What is its story?
We are meaning makers. Our minds, brains, and bodies have created infinite associations from the stories of our lives. Emotions are rich with autobiographical data.
We may feel hardpressed to name an emotion beyond mad, sad, or glad. But, some researchers estimate we have at least 34,000! Robert Putchik boiled them down to 8 primary emotions. Check out Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to pique your emotional curiosity.
Peering beyond your anger shield, you may discover another emotion.
Maybe it’s sadness. Or grief. Or intense disappointment.
As you explore the story of that disappointment, you may realize that it’s not just about unfulfilled expectations, but a ruptured trust.
Sadness may have a story about loss.
Some of us hold stories of feeling small and helpless. Beefing up our anger armor is often our desperate attempt to ward off those feelings.
Research shows that naming our angry, sad, or painful feeling — instead of stuffing or spewing it — signals a part of our brain to release a calming chemical that recovers us from our activated state, which in turn, can allow us to feel calmer.
The practice of knowing and naming our emotions reduces their lingering impact, and we bounce back better — and more quickly — from stressed states.
Reinforcing our anger armor may give us a false sense of protection. But, it doesn’t allow us to be our true selves, free from pretense and defense.
Getting to know our anger — and our armor — can teach us about where we need to heal to grow.
This is the gift behind anger’s shield.
We develop trust and compassion for ourselves. Only then can we offer the same to others.