When we are asked why we got angry in a certain situation, there’s a good chance that we respond by pointing to what someone else did that bothered us. “Because she never listens to me!” “Because he’s always yelling at me!” 

We tend to believe that our anger is the direct result of what the other person is doing to us and that the solution is to get this person to stop. “If you would just listen to me I wouldn’t be yelling at you!” “If you would just stop yelling I’d be able to listen to you!”

A alternative perspective on our anger is that it is not so much the direct result of what the other is doing, but more a result of our discomfort in having a certain vulnerable feeling which has been triggered. We generally don’t like to feel vulnerable feelings and we often cover them with anger, which allows us to feel strong and protected. And there are particular vulnerable feelings we especially don’t like to feel. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “I am angry because you (possibly inadvertently) triggered me to feel one of my least favorite vulnerable feelings and I don’t know how to handle that.”

Ad infinitum

If a person is interacting with a you in such a way, intentionally or not, that triggers you to feel your least favorite vulnerable feeling, then you are likely to perceive that as a personal assault and to feel angry at that person. If you are not skilled in the art of managing your angry feelings, you might be inclined to respond with an angry behavior directed at that person. 

If you know that person fairly well, then you may unconsciously know what vulnerable feelings he or she most likes to avoid & you may choose an angry behavior that triggers that very vulnerable feeling. In response, he or she may also feel angry and fire back with an angry behavior directed at your most vulnerable feelings. This cycle of firing torpedoes at each other’s underbelly can continue into infinity.

When we take the time to examine the vulnerable feelings under the anger, we are less likely to be confused by the lashing out of others and ourselves. We tend to naturally engage in this examination process well when trying to figure out the disruptive behavior of babies and pets. “Why is this baby kicking and screaming?” “Why is the dog whimpering?” We assume that the baby or dog is hurting or uncomfortable in some way. We don’t take the disruptive behavior personally and we try to tend to the pain or need underneath.

But in our adult human interactions, we can be quick to perceive a personal attack, feel hurt and threatened and fire back without wondering what vulnerable feelings are at play.

Emotional vocabulary

The list of potential vulnerable feelings under the anger is long. Some are most uncomfortable feeling alone, rejected, unloved or unappreciated. Others most dislike feeling inadequate, unimportant, shame or guilt. Knowing which vulnerable feelings have been triggered under your anger and the other person’s anger is key to navigating a successful relationship. 

In an intimate relationship, it would be ideal to be able to name these vulnerable feelings out loud. “I think I felt scared and alone when you didn’t call me last night, and I understand that you were feeling controlled and overwhelmed and needed some space,” versus “I can’t believe you didn’t call—you’re so inconsiderate!”

Yes, to expose these vulnerable feelings involves some risk as the other person may not respond favorably, so we may may choose to not be so open with strangers or people with whom we don’t feel safe. Naming vulnerable feelings in this way requires a nonjudgmental and accepting attitude towards the feelings which allows us to calmly tolerate the discomfort without defending and retaliating against the person we perceive to be the enemy.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of ManicMorFF/ morguefile.com


Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.