NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Anger as a Secondary Emotion

In a prior article,  Boredom as a Secondary Emotion, I introduced the concept of secondary emotions as it relates to boredom.  I also discussed how secondary emotions  often mask other emotions, like anger, sadness, fear, shame, and so on.  Anger can also be a secondary emotion that masks other emotions. The emotions that are being defensively masked by anger are often unconscious.

Anger as a Secondary Emotion

Anger as a Secondary Emotion
The following fictional vignette illustrates how anger can be a secondary emotion in a relationship and the importance of each person in the relationship being able to identify these emotions, understand the emotional triggers underlying emotions involved, the roots of these emotions which can go back to early childhood, and how to communicate with each other based on the underlying emotions:

Bess and Ken
As a last ditch effort to save their marriage, Bess and Ken begin couples counseling to deal with their tumultuous relationship.

Anger as a Secondary Emotion

They both agree that frequent arguments throughout their five year marriage has eroded their relationship to the point where they are considering getting a divorce.

From Ken's perspective, Bess has a problem with anger management.  Whenever he has to work late or travel for business, Bess becomes enraged.  He feels it's impossible to communicate with her when she gets angry, and he stopped even trying.  Before they got married, he told her that his job involved long hours and frequent travel, so he feels she is being unreasonable.

From Bess' point of view, Ken is dismissive of her feelings.  When she tries to tell him that she feels lonely in their relationship, he tells her that she shouldn't feel that way, which feels dismissive to her.  When he dismisses her feelings, she feels frustrated and angry (see my article: Loneliness and Lack of Intimacy in a Relationship).

Before they got married, Bess says Ken promised that he would search for another job that didn't involve so many long hours and travel, but he never tried to find another job.  She feels that he actually likes being away from her much of the time, and all of this makes her feel like she's not important to him.  If he would listen to her and consider her feelings, she wouldn't get so angry.

Aside from the usual ground rules about the fee, the cancellation policy, and similar issues, their couples counselor set some ground rules for their sessions, including that they have to actively listen to what their spouse said without being judgmental and without interrupting.

Then, the couples counseling turns to Ken and asks him what he heard Bess say.  Initially, he looks surprised that he is being asked this, and then he admits that he has heard Bess complain so much over the years that he barely listens to her anymore.  But he is aware that she doesn't like that he is away from her so much and that she blames him for not finding another job.  What Bess didn't know, he explains, is that he has been looking for another job, but he hasn't found anything yet.

He tells the couples counselor that he wishes that Bess wasn't so "needy," but then he catches himself, he acknowledges that he is being judgmental and apologizes to Bess, who looks upset, "This is what I have to deal with all the time from Ken.  Instead of trying to understand how I feel, he criticizes me for being 'needy' or 'acting like a baby.'  There's no getting through to him."

After getting Ken's and Bess' family history over the next couple of sessions, the couples counselor provides them with psychoeducation about their attachment styles (see my articles:  Why It's Important For Psychotherapists to Provide Clients With Psychoeducation and How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

She explains that it's common for people with certain attachment styles to come together. For instance, people with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style often get together with the dismissive-avoidant attachment style.

Ken laughs, "The dismissive-avoidant attachment style sounds like me.  I never wanted to get married, but when I met Bess, I fell in love and I knew that I would lose her if we didn't get married."

Bess says hesitantly, "I guess the anxious-preoccupied style sounds like me.  I knew Ken didn't want to get married and, on some level, I think he resents marrying me."

Throughout the next few months, the couples counselor teaches Ken and Bess to de-escalate so that their arguments don't get to the level where they're shouting at each other.  They both become more considerate of each other, and Ken makes an effort to come home early from work more often and he sends a subordinate on some of the business trips.

The couples counselor also teaches them to recognize what emotions get triggered for each of them before they argue.

Ken recognizes that he is dismissive, in part, because he feels helpless whenever Bess gets upset about his time away from home.  He sees that, rather than feeling helpless, he shuts down emotionally and accuses Bess of being "needy" and "immature" but, in reality, he can't stand feeling helpless.  It feels "unmanly" to him.

They were able to explore the origin of Ken's feelings about masculinity and how "a man should be." When Ken was growing up, his father hardly showed any emotion, positive or negative, so Ken learned that in order for "a man to be a man," he should never feel helpless.  Now, as difficult as it is  for him to admit it, he's able to see that it's not reasonable to say that men should be allowed to have certain emotions.

Listening to Ken, Bess was touched and she placed her hand over his as an affectionate gesture.  Ken seems surprised and he clasps Bess' hand in his.

When it was Bess' turn, she said she had no idea that, underneath his dismissive attitude, Ken was feeling helpless. If she had known that, she said, she would have been more compassionate towards him.  She reiterates that she feels angry and frustrated whenever Ken dismisses her feelings.

The couples counselor helps Bess to dig deeper beyond her anger, and Bess realizes that underneath her anger she feels hurt and abandoned, feelings that were familiar to her from her childhood whenever her parents went away and left her with her grandmother.

Bess realizes that it feels "safer" to her to feel angry as opposed to feeling hurt and abandoned, which makes her feel too emotionally vulnerable.

The couples counselor explains the concept of secondary emotions and how these emotions often mask other more vulnerable feelings like sadness or shame.

Anger as a Secondary Emotion

Gradually, Bess and Ken learn to trust each other again, and they allow themselves to feel and express their more vulnerable feelings.

After they completed couples counseling, they each sought their own individual psychotherapist to work on unresolved childhood issues that were getting triggered in their relationship (see my article: Relationships: Unresolved Childhood Issues Can Create Conflict).

Anger is often a secondary emotion.  Secondary emotions, like anger, often mask other more vulnerable feelings like sadness, fear, and shame.

These underlying feelings are usually unconscious and the secondary emotions are used as a defense to ward off the more vulnerable feelings.

When each person in a relationship is struggling with secondary emotions, they often keep looping in the same arguments without a resolution because they're not dealing with the core feelings.

Getting Help in Therapy
The underlying emotions beyond the secondary emotion is usually hard to detect on your own, especially if you're stuck in a destructive dynamic with a spouse or significant other.  Each person digs in their heels and nothing changes (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help individuals and couples to become aware of their particular dynamics, including their attachment styles, identify emotional triggers, discover the underlying emotions, and work towards having a more fulfilling relationship (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

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

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