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January 8, 2022

Behind Anger Lies Fear…

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.

A mom is fuming. Her face is hot, and her breath short. Her kids have been neglecting the entire house, leaving a mess everywhere and just plain old non-compliant. She’s just flipped her lid at her 8-year-old and 12-year-old children, yelling so hard the house probably shook…

She’s been through the wringer today.

She’s exhausted. Leaning on the cold granite counter in the kitchen, trying to regain some composure.

And then it hits her. The guilt. Which turns to shame, which then turns to disgust…

“Ugh. How could I have done this again today? I just screamed at them yesterday, and I said I was gonna do better today. Fudge, I’m a failure.”

Have you been there? Done that? I have. There are very few parents who haven’t flipped their lids on their kids…

And yet, yelling doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually meet any psychological or emotional needs at all.

Okay, it might seem like your needs are met. The kids get so frightened, they just do whatever is being asked.

But what does that teach them about anger? Or emotional expression? That we should fear anger?

Well, yes. That is exactly what is happening in terms of the brain-body connection.

The neural wiring that gets set into kids who experience this kind of thing on a regular basis is that “anger is not okay.”

And as nervous system science tells us, our mind-body system is literally looking for cues of safety and danger in our environment ALL THE TIME. Things that are not okay are a type of threat… a type of danger – at least to the nervous system and how it registers the cues it gets.

So, now we have a bit of a challenge don’t we?

If kids fear the emotions of others, what about their own? If anger is to be feared, then anger is not be felt either – wouldn’t that have some “psycho-logic” to it? Especially to the immature child brain that isn’t fully developed until age 25+? It would make sense that if anger is not okay, feeling angry is also not okay. Self-judgement and shame come into play here… And this is when kids start to lean on negative coping mechanisms that start a whole other spiral…

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a session with a client, and our discussion revolved around anger. What manifested in our discussion was a clear link between anger, fear, and shame. The cyclical nature of these emotions was impacting the client’s relationship with her child.

Anger is an emotion all of us have experienced. There isn’t a human on earth who hasn’t at some point experienced anger. So first, let’s normalize this.

Anger is often coined as a primal emotion (remember the movie Inside Out?). In that, we don’t think much before it arises.

The energetic somatic impact of anger shows up in our limbs.

Anger impacts how the amygdala in the brain—the organ that tries to protect you from danger—responds. Anger is a reactive response to some stimulus, and if the stimulus causes the amygdala to go “Uh-oh! Something’s not right here,” it will release a cascade of physiological responses in the body, including the redirection of blood flow away from key areas, such as digestion and certain parts of the brain, toward large muscle groups to prepare the body to “fight or flight”—to prepare the body to move.

Hence, one of my coaches said to me during my training with her, “Anger lives in the arms.” Our limbs want to move. We may have the urge to throw something (I have broken at least three cell phones doing this *insert facepalm emoji here*), or unfortunately end up on more violent paths. Our legs are impacted too; we may stomp, kick, pace back and forth, or want to walk out on someone who we perceive is the source of the anger stimulus. Or we may have some other urge in our legs.

Dr. Peter Levine (world renown trauma expert), in one of his lectures I attended, shared the research by a Finnish team wherein emotions were being mapped in the body by way of sensations. The results showed that anger was primarily impacting the upper body, significantly in the arms. (See research from Aalto University here.)

When you look at nervous system science, you start to see that the “fight” response (fight, flight or freeze are survival responses of the nervous system) is accompanied by anger or some variation of anger (frustration, irritation, annoyance, or rage).

Now, if ‘fight’ is a survival response, and anger is the emotional consequence, then something else is at the root. If you think of an iceberg as a metaphor for the mind-body system, ‘fight’ is showing up in the behavior that is visible above the surface of the “water” and anger is the rising bubble beneath the water… but what’s the cause?…

What is at the root of anger?

Behind anger are much more vulnerable feelings…

One of them – if not the primary – is FEAR.

Beneath feelings, are needs.

Fear is beneath the anger.

Fear of a need not being met.

At the core of our human existence, we have needs. Yes, we have basic needs; food, water, shelter, clothing, etc. And, we also have emotional, mental, and social needs as well.

Some of the core needs and sub-needs we have include:

CONNECTION: acceptance, affection, belonging, compassion, empathy, respect/self-respect, love, intimacy, safety, security, support, to be seen, to be heard, to be understood, presence, authenticity.

PHYSICAL WELL-BEING: touch, fresh air, movement, rest, sexual expression, and the basic survival needs.

PLAY: joy, humor.

PEACE: beauty, ease, order, equality, communion.

AUTONOMY: choice, freedom, independence, space.

MEANING: challenges (to conquer), clarity, contribution, creativity, discovery, growth, learning, mourning, self-expression, stimulation, to matter, understanding.

So when anger is arising, there is a fear of a need not being met.

Now, can we get curious about that?

If we are at a place where we can notice our thermometer rising in a situation, the anger is bubbling up (the volcano has not burst yet but we know there is something brewing…), can we reach for a coping tool or practice (breath, safe movement, connection to nature, and other sensory calming tools). And as we are in the moments of coping, are we able to ask ourselves

“What am I afraid of here?”

Helping parents get connected to their anger in a safe and loving way is a key part of my work. And once parents can notice themselves and their anger, they can also learn how to receive their child’s anger. I show parents how to do this empathically and gently using important techniques to shift their family dynamics of anger.

Here are some examples for you to consider around anger:

  1. Age 2-7: Your child screams and wails at you for not giving them cookies for breakfast. They want cookies. They want it now.

Anger is the emotion. The screaming and wailing is the behaviour. What’s behind the anger? Fear. Fear of what? Not getting a cookie? Yes. But today it’s a cookie, tomorrow it’s not getting to watch their own show, and the next day it’s not getting to go to Grandma’s house.

The anger isn’t just about the cookie.

Could it be the child is looking for autonomy (choice) in what she eats for breakfast? Or perhaps she needs some soothing touch and connection after not seeing mom or dad all night before heading into breakfast (maybe some snuggles in bed before rising…); perhaps some sensory touch will soothe her nervous system so that the family can ease into a peaceful breakfast routine? Touch releases the hormone oxytocin (often coined the connection hormone).

Could it be the child is ready to play, but is being told to eat breakfast instead – how could we meet the child’s need for play? Maybe mom becomes playful and pretends to morph into a big cookie who wants to eat the child instead (just for fun)? Play and humor can release tension in the body and completely change hormonal responses. Laughter releases endorphins (endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress).

2. Preteen/Teen: Your child rolls their eyes at you when you express your anger about having to do the dishes again because she didn’t do it and it was her responsibility/chore for the day. That angers you even more. It’s as if she doesn’t even care what you are going through with all the household responsibilities you have.

What is behind the anger? Fear of a need going unmet. Let’s take this on another angle: What could be the need for you as a parent right now? Perhaps you need more clarity about the situation you and your child are in? Perhaps you need to be seen, heard and understood? Perhaps you need ease?

Now, the anger is rising in you, and you could scream back at your child, threaten or punish… but what needs are being met by doing those actions…? Are any of your needs being met? How about your child’s needs – they are not being met either with threats and punishments.

Before anything else, don’t take it personally!

And, when you and your child are in a more regulated state, ask her what she was feeling and what she needs in regards to the dishes?

Sometimes simply asking your child this will lead you to discover it’s not even about the dishes! It’s about the friend at school who called her a know-it-all for getting A+ on the test…

Kids have big feelings, and they don’t always know how to express them effectively.

Or is it really about the dishes? Is too hard, too much? Is there a time of day she’d prefer to do them? Or maybe switch tasks with a sibling or choose a different task? Ask if she’d be willing to explore solutions to help her with the task? Does listening to her favorite music help? Or maybe sitting on the couch to talk about your day together first, before doing chores? What does she need that will help support her in accomplishing the task agreed upon?

I would like to give you context that simply creating “chores” without establishing a clearly defined set of family values may lead to resistance on the part of kids: why do they have to do that thing? Kids do better when they know how and why things are the way they are…

Simply stating “Because I told you so,” will not create the long-term connected, loving and cohesive family team that you desire…

3. Adult relationships: I have flipped my lid on my husband many times when we’re having deep conversations about our marriage and I start to see that he’s shutting off and turning away from me (freeze/flight response).

When this happens, I start to experience deep inner desperation – kind of like I can’t breathe. I can easily tell you this is a result from childhood experiences of not being heard, valued, seen and felt [empathy] from my own parents; not being understood. (Needs chronically going unmet…)

The desperation often resulted in me raising my voice to speak louder and trying to use different words so that he can finally “get” what I’m saying (usually we’re talking about feelings and needs ironically…). But I’m going into fight mode… What am I fighting for?

To be heard. To be understood. To be felt. To be seen.

These 4 basic mental/emotional/social needs we have from childhood were often not met by our parents who just didn’t know how to tune-in to their children in an empathic manner, which manifests in the dysfunctions of our adult relationships.

Basic needs were often squashed in grade school too wherein we were continuously asked to conform to expectations, rules, and teachers’ needs. Even the basic need to urinate – we were often asked to ignore and “hold it until recess”; thereby teaching us that others’ needs matter, but maybe ours don’t matter so much.

As we entered teenage relationships, we might have struggled a lot as our conditioned upbringing taught us to meet the needs of the other and tune out our own needs. I know this has impacted many females and resulted in traumas…

And thus… when we are finally in what is supposed to be a “safe and secure” relationship, such as marriage, we might feel the ability to speak up for our needs. But when we do, if we are met with resistance, fight or flight on the part of our spouse, our triggers flare.

The trigger? Our needs are consistently not being met.

Result: fight/flight/freeze. (“Appease” is another term you may have heard of and might fall under freeze as the appeaser is looking to keep the peace…)

Long story short: A fear of needs not being met.

Shame can show up after the fact; both shame in showing anger – because we were conditioned during childhood to not show “negative” emotions. And shame in the voicing of needs, because we were conditioned to ignore our own needs.

But we don’t need to live in this fear always. We don’t need the anger to blow up before we understand ourselves. We can do “the work” and discover our layers, dig deeper and unearth our challenges, look at them and resolve them.

We can also know that behind anger lies fears of needs not being met; when we understand that anger is normal and so are needs, the anger doesn’t need to take over. Instead, notice the need behind the emotion, and feel your way to meeting the need…

We can do this for our kids too. When we know that the expression of anger is healthy — it’s telling us something — we can receive them in their anger and know that behind this is a more tender feeling.

Our job as parents is to become good guessers – an empathic presence – and discover what the child might be needing. How do we meet our child’s needs in the moment? How do we meet our mutual needs in this parent-child relationship, in the moment?

Get curious.

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