Spotlight on Mental Health – Unmasking Anger

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Dr. Yossi Shafer 

 

We’ve established that anger does exist, but not as a primary emotion.  Rather, anger is a response, a coping mechanism to override the painful primary emotion. Put simply, anger is a protective measure that cloaks what we’re really feeling: abandoned, unloved, worthless, ashamed, or guilty, among other feelings. 

This awareness can be lifechanging in virtually every area of life. When you learn to look beyond anger, you gain profound insight into what lies beneath it. Rather than attempting to overcome the symptom (anger), you’ll begin identifying and eradicating the root cause. 

Three of the major relationships affected by anger are spousal, employee/employer, and parental. Imagine these scenarios: 

In Marriage 

Linda has had a rough day. She argued with her sister, her mother guilted her for not visiting on Shabbat, her client was disappointed with her work, the kids misbehaved all day, and her fancy dessert just flopped. At the end of the day, she vents to her husband, Joey.  

Now Joey’s a logical thinker who automatically offers solutions to Linda’s tale of woe. Your sister will get over it. Go visit Mom tomorrow. One disappointed client is fine, he’s too picky. Next time give the kids some extra screen time. Maybe frosting will help? 

Joey is pleased with his good-husband skills. But, shockingly, Linda turns her fury on him. Don’t you think I know all that? Why do you always do this? Do you think I’m a total idiot? 

Feeling rejected and hurt, Joey returns the anger. Well, excuse me for trying to help. If you’re so smart, why do you even tell me all this? 

What both spouses need here is to explore and express what they’re really feeling. This takes vulnerability and openness, which can be scary but will pay off. Linda needs to share that she wants someone to listen and validate her feelings – without problem-solving – instead of misdirecting her frustration and overwhelm onto Joey, and Joey needs to react with the stinging hurt that he’s feeling (hey, that’s hurtful, I was just trying to help) rather than with anger. Bonus points if he can recognize that she’s reacting from a place of pain! 

In the Workplace 

Tensions ran high at Max’s office today. The boss chewed him out for taking a lunch break, a coworker called him a moron for making a rookie mistake, another coworker is upset that he’s not pulling his weight on a joint project, and the secretary keeps asking him to do things outside of his job description.  

So when he finds himself teetering on the brink of road rage on the way home, snapping at his kids, and writing snarky passive-aggressive responses to emails, he realizes it’s time to take a look at what’s really driving his anger. 

I feel like the boss is always out to get me. Coworker #1 is a bully. Coworker #2 doesn’t listen to me; it feels like what I say doesn’t matter. The secretary is taking advantage of my people-pleasing tendencies. 

When Max gets in touch with these underlying emotions, he can effectively deal with them and their fallout. 

I’m insulted that he called me a moron, but I know I’m not a moron. Clearly he had a bad day. 

The boss yells at everyone when he’s stressed. Why am I taking it personally? 

I need to clearly lay out boundaries with my project collaborator and the secretary before this gets out of hand. 

Once he reframes, he can handle the workplace stresses. 

As a Parent 

Bedtime is endless tonight in Rose’s house. Eli keeps popping out of bed, disturbing his siblings, and getting increasingly wilder. An hour after lights-out, he’s bouncing off the walls, his brother is crying, and Rose hasn’t accomplished anything. 

When the baby – who finally fell asleep – wakes up from Eli’s antics, Rose loses it. 

She manhandles Eli into bed, threatens everything that he loves, and slams the door. Three minutes later, three kids (and their mom) are crying as Rose collapses on the couch in a fit of shame. Why am I feeling so guilty? He doesn’t listen until I get mad.  

When a parent reacts angrily, it’s about the parent, not the child. To avoid the out-of-control angry response, Rose needs to tune in to herself: his actions make me feel powerless, disrespected, annoyed, like a bad parent. When she shifts her mindset to recognize her true emotions, she can employ parenting tactics that will work without leaving her with post-anger guilt. 

Next month, we’ll discuss how to respond to others’ anger. 

 

 

Dr. Yossi Shafer, PhD is the clinical director and a clinical psychologist at Empower Health Center, a private practice of multispecialty psychotherapists. They have offices in Deal/Long Branch and Lakewood and can be reached at (732) 666-9898 or office@empowerhealthcenter.net