It’s like putting up a fence to keep out the air.
April 4, 2021
Using Anger as a Cover-Up Emotion
Most of us didn’t learn how to allow ourselves to feel afraid or vulnerable. We did, however, learn how to cover our fears and vulnerabilities with anger because that made us feel powerful.
Often, our models were exhausted parents who, at their wit’s end, would blame us because of how we made them feel. And they’d be angry.
But the truth of it was, they were afraid they weren’t doing a great job. Back in the day, self-awareness wasn’t a big focus or topic of conversation in most families. So getting at unconscious fears wasn’t a daily activity.
I’ll never forget when my five-year-old son and I were disagreeing; I said no to something he wanted. He was yelling, but more importantly, so was I. This huge person was yelling at this human a fraction of her size, Not because it was effective. But because I was exhausted, frustrated, and feared I sucked as a mom since I had this five-year-old who couldn’t accept no. Ridiculous, right? That’s what five-year-olds are supposed to do — resist when they don’t get their way.
When I realized how nuts the interaction was, I bent down to his eye level and said, “Sweetheart, I’m going into the bathroom to calm down because one of us has to be older than five.”
Even back then, I was covering my fears with anger. It’s a hard habit to break.
Yelling at my son didn’t make me feel strong. It made me feel weak and snarky.
Years ago I created a manufactured conflict with a partner because I was nervous about attending a party thrown by his office.
My voice got loud and whiny; my eyes were flashing a bit with anger to make me feel strong and cover the fear of which I wasn’t yet aware. The truth was, I didn’t want to go. I wouldn’t know anyone. What if I didn’t fit in? What if they didn’t like me? What if I was so boring I ended up in a corner with no one to talk to?
When I noticed what was happening, I saw the cloak of contrived anger that covered my fear. And I was aware of how deceptive and confusing it must have been on the receiving end.
It only took a couple of minutes to come back to myself and see that making my partner feel as uncomfortable as I was feeling was not the way to go.
I needed reassurance, and I was responsible for letting him know that. I wanted to hear that I was okay and could handle the situation. To know that we were okay (despite my snarkiness). And that together, we would handle it just fine.
When I put my fears into words, my partner gave me what I needed. For a moment, I had a place to rest my fear and share the weight of it with someone who could handle it.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
To successfully navigate life, we need to see what we’re doing — self-monitoring to the rescue. Without it, we can be nuts!
What does it mean to self-monitor?
Self-monitoring is first the ability to notice what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing. Secondarily, it is the ability to know when our behavioral responses to those thoughts and feelings are not working in our best interest, or are harming someone else. We need to see when we are taking ourselves or someone else down a rabbit hole of suffering.
The goal isn’t to stop having unpleasant, snarky, or confusing thoughts or feelings. It is to figure out what’s going on before we’ve lashed out at someone or eaten a box of double fudge cookies.
Anger has its place. It can tell us that something needs our attention, something is wrong. But sometimes, it’s not authentic. Sometimes, it’s just a cover-up for feelings we haven’t yet figured out how to feel.
Feelings like longing, fear, loneliness, and disappointment can be more challenging than anger because they can make us feel small and powerless.
The reality is we have no control over what thoughts show up or the emotional reactions they trigger. We do have the ability to manage ourselves maturely if we respond to what we’re feeling, rather than what we’re avoiding.
But we have to see it to manage it.
Self-awareness isn’t easy. But it is essential to the health of all relationships.
That day with my friend, I didn’t want to feel afraid, and my automatic response was to lash out in anger at her imagined thoughtlessness. Anger was more comfortable at that moment. It was not, however, helpful or healing.
When we monitor ourselves and achieve a degree of self-awareness, we can generate compassionate and loving interactions. We can not only mend fences but gently remove them or even make them unnecessary in the first place.