Commonly referred to as a secondary emotion, anger serves to protect one against having to experience a primary emotion. It can be understood as an iceberg - the tip is generally visible from the ocean surface but a large portion of the iceberg goes unnoticed beneath the ocean line. The expression of anger, like the tip of the iceberg, is readily available for all to experience and to recognize. Beneath the anger, however, there exists a myriad of emotions which remains unexpressed and avoided. Fear, sadness, worry, hurt, shame, rejection, and disappointment are but a few of the many unbearable emotions which are often relegated to the underworld. These emotions are not only avoided but are also re-packaged and presented as anger.
For example, Sandy indicated that she experienced difficulty in being able to control her anger in the presence of her terminally ill mother. She spoke about being ‘short-tempered’ and ‘irritable’. Sandy explained that she had always shared a close relationship with her mother and could therefore not understand her behaviour, especially in her mother’s time of need. Sandy slowly uncovered and explored the emotions beneath her anger and soon began to recognize a sense of fear. Sandy was terrified at the thought of losing her mother. However, having been raised to view fear as a sign of weakness, Sandy had repackaged her fear and instead presented it as anger. With this increased insight, Sandy hesitantly allowed herself to begin to experience and to share her vulnerability and through this process she was able to reconnect with her mother.
One’s ability to recognize anger as a protective emotion can open new avenues for understanding oneself and for communicating with others. Constantly being curious about the primary emotion being defended against, will enable one to view potentially volatile situations from alternative perspectives. Defensiveness can be replaced with empathy and attack can be exchanged for compassion.