Sometimes on New Year’s Eve, when I’m feeling ambitious and intentional about our family relationships, we review the year together. One question we ask our kids is, “what’s one thing you learned this year?”
Our last year overseas, our then 10-year-old said, “I’ve learned that anger is a secondary emotion,” and I high fived myself.
Partly because it felt like I nailed something good in parenting, but mostly because I was glad our kids learned it so much sooner than I did.
It was something I learned that year too, mostly because I experienced a lot of it (we got a dog. It was hard. I got angry. Really angry).
Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning that it’s not all we’re feeling. When we’re angry, it’s usually because we’re feeling something else, something that feels vulnerable. So anger, which makes us feel big, covers the emotion that makes us feel small.
Anger was a theme that year for our whole family. It rose in me when we got our dog and everything in my life fell apart. Our daughter lived in it the summer before we moved back to the U.S.
For me, the anger covered shame, the shame of failure, of not living up to my image of a successful homeschooling, dog training missionary. Our daughter’s anger masked the fear she felt in being so completely out of control and sad in the process of leaving home.
What Anger Tells Us
Anger is a good barometer. We get angry when something we love feels threatened. Often it’s our image. Or it’s a way of life we’re trying to hold onto. Maybe our deepest desires feel threatened-our desire to be wanted, important, safe, right.
Anger doesn’t always show up as rage. In fact, often it doesn’t. It disguises itself as sarcasm, criticism, stubbornness, contempt. It slips out in clipped words and impatience.
Most of us don’t linger in anger for long. It feels wrong. We dismiss it, stifle it, or blow it off quickly, rather than allowing it to be a doorway into something deeper.
When we don’t linger, we never get to the bottom of what we’re really feeling. And we need to.
The Names of Anger
It might tell us its name is grief. Maybe shame. Fear. Fear of losing control, fear of not being enough. Weakness. Confusion. Despair. Beneath our anger is our true emotions that need to see the light of day so we can deal with them.
This fall, I was, in my husband’s words, “kind of mean.” That’s fair. (He was being gracious-there are stronger words he could use).
He said maybe I didn’t have much emotional margin after sending our son off to school, the prayer rollercoaster God took us on this summer, and the business of gearing up for a conference this fall that I’m leading.
Regardless, I’m glad he said something. It gave me an opportunity to sit with my anger and see what it was hiding. It told me I felt unimportant, lonely, unheard, in certain areas. As I sat with those more raw emotions, my anger began to dissipate.
Don’t ignore anger. Pretending it doesn’t exist, or dismissing it without question robs us of the path to deeper emotional health and wholeheartedness. Sit with it. Dialogue with it. Let it tell you what you’re really feeling.
What is your anger’s real name?