NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Discovering That Sadness is Often Hidden Underneath Anger

People are often surprised to discover that when they deal with their anger in therapy, underneath their anger is sadness.

While this phenomenon might not be true for everyone, as a psychotherapist in NYC, I've seen that underlying sadness or grief is often the underlying emotion for many people who experience a lot of anger.

Sadness is Often Hidden Underneath Anger

Anger Feels Easier To Deal For Many People Compared to Feeling Sadness
Many people find it easier to be angry than to be sad.  Feeling angry makes them feel more empowered as compared to feeling sad, which feels disempowering.

So, anger often becomes a cover up for sadness when people feel uncomfortable dealing with their sadness.

Let's look at the following example, which, as always, is a composite of many cases to protect confidentiality:

Mark's wife urged him to come to therapy because he was snapping at her and their children.

Mark recognized that he had a problem with anger, but he wasn't sure what to do about it.  He came to therapy reluctantly at first.

Mark, who was in his mid-30s, had never been to therapy before.  Prior to coming to therapy, he thought that only people who had serious mental illness came to therapy, so I provided Mark with psychoeducation about therapy, which included common reasons why people came to therapy.  He was surprised that many people came to therapy for problems that were similar to his problems.

When we went over his family history, he realized that his parents didn't deal with their emotions.  Not only did no one at home talk about how they felt, but talking about emotions was actually discouraged.  So, Mark never learned how to deal with his emotions.  Instead, he stuffed his feelings, and he was hardly aware, at any given time, what he was feeling.

Identifying Emotions
The first step in our work together was helping Mark identify his emotions.  At first, he was able to only identify in a very general way uncomfortable and comfortable feelings, but nothing specific.  This was a good start.

The Mind-Body Connection in Therapy
I worked with Mark to identify where in his body he was feeling his comfortable and uncomfortable feelings.  This was completely new to Mark because he was somewhat cut off from what he felt in his body.

Just learning to sense into his body was a big step.  This took time because Mark felt like he was going against an unspoken family rule that they shouldn't acknowledge their feelings--let alone intentionally sense them.

Gradually, he discovered that he generally felt his comfortable feelings in his chest and his uncomfortable feelings in his gut (this is a very individual pattern, and it will be different for each person).

Then, we worked towards helping Mark to differentiate his feelings.  Over time, he learned to distinguish anger and happiness.

Since Mark was struggling not to lose his temper with his family, we spent more time on his feelings of anger.

After a while, Mark was more adept at identifying his anger and where he sensed it in his body, so I encouraged Mark to talk about an incident where he became angry at home and to stay with these feelings as long as his feelings remained tolerable.

It took a while for Mark to build the emotional capacity to tolerate staying with his feelings.  At first, his inclination was to either distract himself with other feelings or to shut down emotionally.

Just like building a muscle takes time, building the capacity to stay with uncomfortable emotions can also take time.

On an intellectual level, Mark knew that he learned unhealthy patterns in his family about dealing (or not dealing) with his feelings, but knowing this alone wasn't enough to change it.  So, we worked towards increasing his capacity a little at a time.

When he got to the point where he could stay with his angry feelings, he was able to go deeper, and that's when he discovered the sadness underneath his anger.

To say that Mark was surprised would be an understatement.  Until then, he had no idea of just how much sadness he was carrying inside of him.

Working with the mind-body connection, Mark began to identify the early memories of loss that were connected to his sadness so we could work through those feelings.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned earlier, anger often masks sadness.  This is usually an unconscious process.  Until you can work through the sadness in therapy, more than likely, you'll continue to have problems with anger.

Working with clients who mask sadness with anger, I've found that working with mind-body psychotherapy like Somatic Experiencing is often much more helpful than just using regular talk therapy alone.

The body is also a window into the unconscious (see my article: Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious).

Mind-body psychotherapy helps people to orient themselves to the physical cues that are in their bodies.

If you think your anger could be a mask for underlying sadness or trauma, you could benefit from working with a therapist who has expertise with this problem and works with the mind-body connection.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many therapy clients to lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my web site:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my article:  Mind-Body Connection: Responding Instead of Reacting to Stress