Anger is no wallflower. When it’s in the room, it can overshadow everything else, which has led to theories trying to explain its influence. One of them is the Anger Iceberg, and it looks like it sounds. The emotion is the on tip above the water, covering up and maybe pushing aside a slew of harder-to-show feelings like fear, resentment, and sadness, which rumble around beneath the surface. Anger, it illustrates, is only part of the story.
The Anger Iceberg is a plausible diagram, because anger is big, loud, and easy to call dominating. But, as Mitch Abrams, a clinical psychologist and author of Anger Management in Sport, says “it oversimplifies a complex emotion.”
In a way, the iceberg makes anger its own category, when, as Abrams points out, it’s neither good or bad. Anger is an emotion like all the others. Yes, anger can be aggressive and scary and some people get uncomfortable dealing with it. But the same can be said of facing someone who is sad or depressed.
But anger also comes with an overlooked upside. It gets you to act, and can make you more focused, stronger, and faster, and, as the Inverted-U Theory suggests, the right amount can improve your performance, notes Jesse Cougle, associate professor of psychology at Florida State University.
Too much anger, however, can hinder what you’re trying to do. It comes down to tempering, not eliminating, it and not feeling bad that you got angry in the first place.
“No one gets in trouble for getting angry,” Abrams says. The trouble, he notes, is in your reaction. Anger can take the lead. You could punch the guy, but you could also use a calm, strong voice and end up being seen as a calm, strong guy. While it might not feel like you’re in control, anger is a decision, and understanding what it’s doing can help rein it in and allow those other thoughts and feelings to enter the picture.
How Anger Gets It Start
People get angry for all sorts of reasons. But underlying it is a threat, compounded by daily things like hunger and fatigue. But it’s also learned and socialized from childhood, so for some it’s the “safer” response, under the belief, Abrams says, that it’s better to be bad than to look stupid.
Whether there’s a model or not, anger often sets off as part of the fight-or-flight response. A threat is in place, and it’s usually around injustice or unfairness, says Jeffrey Nevid, professor of psychology at St. John’s University and practicing psychologist in New York City.
That sense could be for a group of people being mistreated or just about you. Either way, someone’s getting screwed and you are not going to take it. That empowerment feels good, but the trick is turning the reaction of, “I’ll show you,” to an intent of, “Here’s how I’m going to show you.”
This takes thought, which requires … wait for it … some kind of pause, which in turn allows you to get out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic, Abrams says. It means assessing yourself and the situation, because it’s easy to take every slight personally, when you may not, in fact, be getting screwed.
Or you might be, but it still might not be personal, or it could be. Anger bumps up against an inconvenient truth: Life isn’t fair.
“People have a hard time with bad things happening,” Cougle says. But steaming and getting white hot doesn’t make anything necessarily better. What’s needed is some regulation.
How to Cool Down
So, you’re angry. First you validate, because, “Getting angry is as normal as getting happy,” Abrams says. Giving yourself that go-ahead eliminates the belief and undue stress that you should be reacting in a different way. After that, check in with the actual situation. Danger might feel real, but Abrams likens it to seeing a shark and asking yourself, Am I on the boat or in the water? Both might be scary, but only one is the true threat.
Jeremy Frank, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recommends asking: What are you thinking? What are you feeling emotionally? And what are you feeling physically? Follow that with deep breathing for 10-30 or however long you need, and re-ask the questions. Chances are your awareness has expanded and empathy can creep in, allowing you to say, “Someone was having a bad day,” or it might be nothing more than, “Guy’s a jerk but he’s probably that way all the time.”
If you’re visual, imagining a stop sign can help slow you down, Nevid says, but with the ability to consider how you’re actually feeling, you can consider a different action. As Frank says, rather than yell or give the finger, it could be to wave or shrug and possibly end up making a connection, if only for a second.
It’s not automatic, and while practice can improve your emotional muscles, you’ll still pop off because remaining self-aware is nearly impossible. The challenge is not spiraling out just because you got mad. As Abrams says, other than anger, the only emotion that comes with more shame is shame.
Handling anger is about being kind to yourself and making a commitment to being more peaceful, since having anger on an open tap is a drain to yourself and others. You can dig deep for reasons, but your motivation can also be pretty basic. As Abrams puts it, “Who wants to be around someone who’s a grumpass all the time?”