It’s funny how raising kids forces you to take intangible concepts and solidify them for the sake of teaching them to others. Because it’s one thing to understand something, and quite another to PUT IT INTO WORDS so someone else can understand it.
So here’s something I was forced to put into words the other day, while leading my children through the resolution of a confrontation.
Anger: a Secondary Emotion
The biggest myth about anger is that it’s a direct response to something that has happened to us. But that oversimplification leaves out one very important link in the chain. Anger is only a secondary emotion.
Most of the time, anger is a defense tactic employed to mask the vulnerability we feel from other emotions – often pain or fear, but there are a variety of emotions that expose this vulnerability we would rather keep hidden. In Kaelin’s case, Koren was making her feel inferior. Threatened by this emotion, she lashed out at him in anger, one of the two methods we humans have for defending ourselves when we feel vulnerable (the other being withdrawal).
While withdrawal is more like a shield, anger is a knife: a defense-via-offense tactic, and used much like a cornered cat uses its claws, or a frightened snake its bite. Emotion has a tendency to block cognitive function, so we flail our knife about in an effort to restore our own security, slashing whatever (or whoever) happens to be in our way.
But anger doesn’t solve anything. It typically makes our insecurity worse instead of better, because then we have regret to deal with, and usually end up causing in others the very wound we perceive to have incurred.
It isn’t really fair to bring anger unless you’re willing to own and admit to the underlying emotion. In Kaelin’s case, we worked on saying, “Koren, when you boss me around, it makes me feel like you think you’re better than me, and that hurts my feelings.”
Elementary, but it was so much more effective than her previous reaction, which sent Koren running to me in tears. Koren apologized for hurting her and said he would not do it again.
Dealing with Anger
The flip side to this is communicating with someone who is displaying anger. This concept is a little mature for Koren, so we didn’t go into it deeply at the time, but I’m going to put it here anyway.
There are basically three ways to react to someone who is flailing their knife around in response to something you have said or done.
- Engage them in the knife fight. This is basically allowing yourself to be caught in the same trap of mistaking your anger for the true emotion and refusing to admit the underlying vulnerability. We’ve all done this. Both parties get injured and nothing gets solved.
- Run away. This option is so very tempting. When you start to lose control of the conversation because you’ve set somebody off, it’s easy just to withdraw from the range of the knife, or put up your own impenetrable shield. Even though this may protect you from a few nicks, it still doesn’t solve the problem. Rather than restoring the relationship, it establishes distance. Distance demonstrates rejection and abandonment, which are damaging to the person who is already trying so hard to mask and protect his/her own vulnerability.
- Compel the other person to drop the knife by responding to the underlying emotion instead of the anger. In addition to patience and self control, it requires some insight to detect the underlying emotion. Generally it can be picked up by the cues of the conversation and the timing of the anger response. Had Koren been a little older, he could have analyzed Kaelin’s reaction instead of just responding to it. He probably would have realized that her anger was the result of being threatened by his attitude and dictation of the items on her chore list. It would then have been appropriate to say, “I’m sorry that I’m treating you unfairly. I don’t want you to feel that way, so I will stop. Also, it will help me in the future if you can tell me how you’re feeling instead of yelling at me, because yelling at me only hurts my feelings and makes me confused.”
The most important thing to remember when dealing with someone who is angry at you is that the anger is only a facade. What’s underneath is vulnerable and likely linked to a deep fear or pain, that the angry person themselves may not even recognize or understand. Handle with care.