Have you ever noticed that when someone who has authority over you is disrespectful or gets into your personal space it makes you afraid? That’s odd isn’t it? When someone is disrespectful it should make you angry. If our friends or our family members were to be mean to us, that would make us angry. So why not when it is someone who out ranks us?
Anger is, at its core, an indicator that our brain gives us that a rule has been broken or that a boundary has been violated. Rules are our expectations for other people, while boundaries are the expectations we have for how others interact with us. Some rules are reasonable, but too many rules will land you in anger management. “I don’t want my friends to lie to me.” is a reasonable rule, but “No one can disagree with me“ is not.
It is important to be in touch with anger because it lets us know where we want boundaries to lie and what rules it is important to us that others follow. When we are in touch with our anger, it allows us to be assertive and enforce our personal boundaries and rules effectively. When we feel like we are powerless to assert these rules, such as when a supervisor is rude to us for example, we become afraid.
When we feel that a certain negative emotion is not allowed in a situation, we will often find that it is not available to us and substitute another. In the example above of a supervisor becoming disrespectful, the emotion of anger is “turned off” so it is being substituted for the feeling of fear. When we feel that we have no power, we often revert to feeling fear instead of anger. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to panic attacks and dissociative disorders.
As a psychotherapist a lot of the work I do involves figuring out which of our emotions
When our amygdala becomes activated and we experience our “flight or fight” anxiety, it is our beliefs and our awareness of our circumstances that tells us which of the three core negative emotions that we are feeling. There are many hyper descriptive words for our negative emotions, but each one will have a root in one of the three negative core emotions: Sad/Hurt, Angry/Broken Rule, or Afraid/Vulnerable. For example; worried means “I am a little bit afraid”, furious means “I am extremely angry”. When we begin to have fight or flight anxiety, it is the understanding of ourselves and our environment that informs how we feel.
Everyone has a different tendency to feel emotions or turn them completely off based on their own beliefs about themselves and the world. Often the families we grow up in will influence our tendency to “turn off” these three core negative emotions. We do this when we have learned there is an emotion that is not allowed or that does not get us what we want and is pointless.
For example, some families teach their children that it is not okay to feel sad. These families have a “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” attitude that can become hard to overcome in adulthood. When we do not allow ourselves to feel sadness, our hurt feelings will express themselves as anger. YOu have likely known someone who was so out of touch with their ability to be hurt that they exploded into anger every time something made them sad. People who lack the ability to feel hurt will punch holes in the wall during a break up, or fly into a rage when their pet dies.
People who are out of touch with sadness or a capacity to hurt will often have obsessions, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and an inability to relax and enjoy life. A lot of the work that I do in psychotherapy teaches my patients to be able to successfully recognize what emotion they are feeling so that they can be more adaptable to life. Often when you cannot stop feeling afraid or feeling angry, it is because you are not really feeling the emotion that need to feel.
There are so many conditions that I have seen in therapy that are caused solely by a patient’s inability to feel certain emotions. For this reason understanding how a person feels emotion has become one of the first things that I assess in psychotherapy with new patients. Patients experiencing extreme anxiety, panic, and dissociative episodes are often out of touch with their own sense of personal power, and ability to assert rules and boundaries. These conditions are triggered by scenarios that make them feel out of touch with their ability to assert their own boundaries or personal rules on the world.
The three core negative emotions all represent an important way that we can process the energy from our fight or flight response. I think of these emotions as being on an incline or hierarchy. We lose the ability to process the hardest to feel first, and in extreme crisis we are left incapable of feeling anything but helpless terror. Because trauma radically affects our ability to see ourselves and perceive the world, it is likely that trauma will disrupt patients’ abilities to regulate these emotions. Often trauma will throw patients down the incline towards the least adaptable emotions.
We need access to all of our negative emotions in order to function in a healthy way. Allowing ourselves to feel sad is an admission that we have been hurt. Allowing ourselves to know that we are damaged is the hardest emotion to acknowledge. To allow ourselves to feel hurt we must have the psychological fortitude to have hope that we can heal and the faith that we can be OK again.
Understanding what makes us angry is important because it lets us understand the rules and boundaries that are important to us. Exploring anger allows us to understand if our expectations for ourselves and others are fair or reasonable. If someone continues to violate boundaries that are important to you, then your emotions are telling you to enforce that boundary or stay away from that person.
Fear is a last resort emotion when we go into fight or flight. It is awareness of the reality that we are vulnerable and cannot defend ourselves. When we feel fear we have no choice left but to run. Patients who have experienced trauma will often remain in a permanent state of fear.
Even though negative emotions are not fun to feel, they are an important part of our functioning. Our core three negative emotions are not always fun to feel, but they tell us something important about ourselves or our environment. Without being in touch with negative emotion we cannot make informed decisions about what it is that we want to change about ourselves in order to be healthy. Finding the emotions that you have turned off is an important part of becoming a healthy and whole person.
Joel Blackstock is a psychotherapist at Birmingham Anxiety and Trauma Therapy.