The Secret Every Angry Person Is Hiding
I’ve lived with anger all my life. Among my friends in school, I was known for being quick to argue and for my predilection of getting thrown out of class.
Among my friends after college, I was known for my angry strut and predilection for slamming doors.
Living with my anger was like living on a fault line. I always knew a quake was coming, but I never knew when. And when it exploded everyone, especially myself, suffered its wrath.
For years, I lived at its mercy. I yelled at girlfriends. I punched holes in walls. I broke plates. My anger has cost me dearly. I have violated trusts, ruined relationships, and lost jobs. My only luck was that my anger never led me to be violent.
What’s funny is that most people who meet me these days don’t know that I have and continue to struggle with anger. To them I seem level headed, calm, and more than able to endure stress. This is the result of a lot of work I’ve done to cope with my anger and with difficult situations.
Despite this, sometimes I still am caught in anger. I still have private furies, where I kick walls, slam doors, yell, and sometimes even hit myself. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it feels uncontrollable.
And while they’re rare, these tremors of anger still reverberate through my life. Just the other day I experienced one of those tremors. And looking back, I’m amazed at what set it off. All it took was a lost coffee cup.
I know, silly right? Of course, my angry self would want to tell you that it wasn’t just any lost coffee cup, but a nice and relatively expensive vacuum sealed Klean Kanteen. But that’s beside the point.
Here’s what happened,
Most days I go to a coffee shop to work, and I usually take my Klean Kanteen. It saves paper, keeps my coffee warm, and is easy to carry. But on this day, I couldn’t find it. I looked all over my house and in my girlfriend’s car but it was nowhere to be found.
I suddenly realized I must’ve left it at the coffee shop the day before. I was sure that someone took it and it was lost. I felt so stupid that within minutes my blood pressure rose and my mind began to spin. I was sitting in the eye of a storm of rage.
I soon realized that the coffee cup had little to do with this outburst. Much like real earthquakes, eruptions of anger often have little to do with the thing that triggers them.
I’ve learned that the small events that precede an anger quake are connected through tiny cracks in the heart, that lead to a huge well of pressure. This well builds quietly over days and weeks, or even months and years.
For many people these connections are hidden, but with practice, I’ve learned to find them. So after the anger subsided, I was able to track my thoughts back to the wells of pressure that were lying in wait.
Once I saw what caused the anger, I had a better understanding of the parts of my life I’ve neglected. And I got a better idea about how to address them.
I also realized how common these centers of pressures are for many of us, and I wanted to share them so that you be able to have a better understanding of how these wells of pressure might play a role in your life or in the life of someone you love.
Wells of Pressure
Here is what I discovered:
While there were many factors that played into my anger quake, these three wells of pressure played the biggest role.
Pressure of Success
When I was caught in anger, I had thoughts that if I was more successful, then I wouldn’t be so angry. While losing the coffee cup was annoying, it was the cost of the cup and the fact that replacing it would mean spending money that I should be saving.
To understand why I was so sensitive to this, you have to understand some of the things that have been happening in my life recently.
I just had a big project and a big stream of income disappear very suddenly. And while the change won’t put me on the streets, it increased the perceived sense of pressure around making a living.
On top of that, this sudden change played into an old story of mine that I’ll never be successful. And how I’m not capable of making my way through the world.
Ever since this big project fell through this pressure had been building in my mind. And even though I was aware of it, I’d been unable to let these thoughts go.
Losing the coffee cup meant I had to spend money on a new one, and having money to spend on small things is a key factor in my idea of success. Losing the coffee cup ignited this story of failure and turned a small event into a big deal in my mind.
Pressure of Anger
It’s not acceptable for people with anger to express their emotions and this adds another layer of pressure. Feeling anxiety or even crying from time to time is considered normal, yet yelling and slamming doors is often seen as a character flaw that runs to the very core of a person’s being.
I know this because I’ve seen the look in people eyes when they watch me explode in anger. When someone watches you release anger, there’s always the question in their mind of what might set you off the next time. To them, you seem unpredictable and somewhat dangerous.
Because of this perception, anger carries a great deal of shame and fear. Losing your temper becomes a big risk and so your instincts tell you to suppress it whenever possible. And while this works in the short term, over the long run, it’s a strategy that’s doomed to fail.
When anger begins to arise, I immediately feel an internal pressure to hold it in. But this internal pressure only exacerbates the anger I’m already feeling. On it’s own, this internal pressure is manageable, but when combined with other forms of pressure, it can grow out of my control.
Pressure of Karma
Karmic patterns are powerful intensifiers of anger.
Losing this coffee cup triggered an old belief I had that I’m a total screw up. Part of the reason I used to smoke so much pot was because I felt a deep feeling of sadness about having great gifts that I failed to use.
Karmic patterns remain hidden deep in our minds until pressure builds and a series of events triggers them. Once they are triggered, the cascade of thoughts that come with them can spin out of control.
This cascade not only intensifies strong emotions but makes this outburst about more than what caused it. A simple expression of anger or sadness can become an indication of greater flaws in your character or a failure of your existence.
When Our Powers Combine
Individually each of these centers of pressure are something I can and often deal with. But when these centers reacted with one another, they reflected and amplified my emotions beyond what I could manage.
And while this understanding is helpful after the fact. When the anger struck, observing these cracks of shifting earth would’ve been like trying to count the branches of a tree I was falling out of.
In the moment there was just raw emotion pouring out of me in ways that I couldn’t understand. But part of the reason I offered this tour of my anger is so that you can see that even in the most basic expression of emotions, there are deep and powerful patterns at play.
Uncovering Your Fault Lines
At this point, you might be wondering where I’m going with all this and asking yourself why I’ve taken you on a long tour through my own mind and patterns around anger.
Well, I wanted to share this with you, because it might help you see your own fault lines and understand the complexity of what lies at the root of your feelings.
Anger and anxiety don’t just arise. Instead, they are cultivated by small choices we make to avoid our feelings, our thoughts, and even difficult truths we would prefer to avoid.
Rather than looking more deeply at our patterns, most of us avoid them until they surface in dramatic ways (explosions of anger) or subtle ways (passive aggressiveness).
But it doesn’t have to be like this. You can learn to uncover these fault lines and release some of this pressure. With practice, you can learn to avoid and even diffuse these deep hidden places in your life.
Here is a technique I’ve used to discover these hidden pressures in my life.
1. Notice Anger, Fear, or Sadness
The first step to uncovering hidden fault lines in your life is to notice your emotions. Many people miss this small but important step because it seems so simple.
But if you can’t see and accept your emotions on a very basic level, you will never be able to see beneath them. The key to this is to simply see your emotions and name them without judgment.
“I’m feeling anger.” Or “I’m feeling sad right now”
2. Notice the Story
Usually along with any outburst of emotion is a story. This story will be about what is wrong with the world, yourself, or the other people involved. This story usually has some truth, but doesn’t give you the whole picture.
The first step is to notice this story and realize that it’s a story. Some part of yourself will want to stake a claim to this perspective and grab onto it, because stories make us feel safe. Your job isn’t to agree or disagree with the story but instead to just notice the story and name it.
“I’m telling a story about how losing my coffee cup makes me a screw up.”
3. Look Underneath
Underneath every emotion is usually another emotion. Our emotions are often layered like the earth, with different types of feelings hidden underneath the surface layer.
For me fear is often underneath anger and sadness is often underneath fear. In order to understand my anger, I know I must look for what I’m afraid of and sad about.
Of course, your emotions may be layered differently. They might go fear, anger, and then sadness. But what really matters is that you look for the emotions underneath the one you are feeling by asking: What am I afraid of? What am I angry about? And What am I feeling sad about?
Again, like with the first two steps, your job is not to judge these deeper emotions as right or wrong, but instead to merely see them and name them.
“I’m feeling angry because I’m afraid I’m a failure.”
4. Look for the fixed belief
At the very bottom of our suffering are our fixed beliefs.
Underneath all of these emotions will often be a small but clear fixed belief about who we are or the way the world works.
In my case, the fixed belief I most often struggle with is that I’m a bad person. This fixed belief sits at the bottom of many of my reactive patterns and has motivated a lot of my unhealthy behaviors. But as I’ve gotten to know it, I’ve been able to see it and mitigate its effects on my life.
I may sound like a broken record but again once you discover one of these beliefs it’s crucial that you observe them without judgment. Passing judgment on a deep belief only gives it more power. Instead, all you must do is see it, name it, and own the feelings it brings up for you.
“Some part of me believes that I am a bad person and that makes me feel very sad.”
5. Be Patient
Even though I laid out these 5 steps in a very simple way, this process can take days, weeks, or even months to get through.
Powerful emotions are dramatic for a reason; so they can hide things we don’t want to see. The process of digging into these places can be difficult, which is why you absolutely must be patient with yourself.
There is nothing wrong with spending many months just working on the first step. In fact, this step is so important that I still practice it more than any other. And if you want to see your fault lines, it’s essential that you try your best not to add any more pressure to your system.
No matter who you are, experiencing strong emotions is completely normal. What’s important is what you do with the information they give you. You can choose to ignore these canaries in the mines of our live, or instead you can choose to look directly into their flames.
I know that for myself it’s essential I continue to face down my anger, fear, and sadness with compassion and wisdom. If I don’t I know that it won’t be long before I am constantly trapped in a web of my own mind.
Need help with anger or other difficult emotions? Based on the needs of readers I’m considering offering group coaching on a trial basis. If you’d be interested in signing up for group coaching please sign up here and I’ll be in touch with you soon.