JENNIFER BALLERINI

Therapist Blog

What's Behind Your Anger?

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You guys, I could write SO MUCH about this topic. But here's the TL: DR version — anger is often just a surface emotion for us, a shell we use to protect our tender hearts. In EFT couple therapy we call that a secondary emotion, a feeling that shows up to cover up a more vulnerable primary emotion, like feeling hurt, alone, sad, scared, or ashamed.

To clarify, anger is a very legitimate and important feeling. Angry feelings (like being frustrated, annoyed, irritated, enraged, etc.) set boundaries on behalf of the self, push back against injustice, and assert, "This isn't right!" We wouldn't be complete as people without access to our angry feelings. For some of us, feeling angry is REALLY hard, and being angry IS the vulnerable feeling we don't want to share.

For many of us, however, feeling injured or threatened emotionally tends to put us into "fight mode." In that mode, we shield our deep-down vulnerable feelings of hurt, sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame behind an angry wall, where no one can see how much pain we're really in. Although vulnerability is really scary to share, vulnerability has a tremendously positive impact on connection and communication. When someone shares their vulnerable truth with us, we tend to melt. By contrast, when someone comes at us in an angry, scolding, or defensive way, we tend to…not melt.

For a relationship/communication boost, try slowing down when you're angry and taking a look at what else you might be feeling. Ask yourself, what was the tender, primary emotion that happened in the nanosecond before the anger? Were you sad? Were you scared? Were you ashamed? Be brave and share that core feeling with your partner in a soft way and see how it goes — you might be pleasantly surprised.

The Negative Cycle

Sharon Mead, an EFT therapist in the South Bay created this helpful video about the negative cycle for her clients. Check it out!

The Pain of Being Shut Out

It is often hard for withdrawers to see how disengaging and shutting down can be so hurtful to their partners. Compared to the angry protests of pursuers, it can seem like a small thing to go quiet and turn away. This wonderful new video from attachment researchers Sue Johnson and Ed Tronick really clearly depicts how that seemingly small move can be quite devastating to the person on the receiving end of that withdrawal.

Dr. Tronick first shares an example of how a mother failing to respond to her baby for just a few minutes (the still face experiment) causes the baby to despair and protest. Next, in a lovely demonstration of how our adult love relationships parallel the parent-child bond, Dr. Johnson's couple session shows the exact same scenario playing out with a husband and wife. Feeling anxious, the husband (the withdrawer in this relationship) shuts down and fails to respond to his wife's bids for reconnection. As she feels more and more panicked and abandoned, she escalates and protests — just like the distressed child — trying to get back into sync with him.

Why "Communication Skills" Don't Work

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For so long, behavioral psychologists have told distressed couples that they all they needed was better “communication skills.” The theory was that if people could just use “I” statements and use active listening, that their conflict would stop. According to new research by Ronald Rogge at the University of Rochester, this myth is busted. It’s not that couples don’t have these skills — they do — it’s that they can’t access them when they’re in conflict, when they’re panicking about the security of their attachment to their loved one. Or, as Sue Johnson explained, “distressed partners who constantly break all the rules of good communication in my couple sessions [can] show exquisitely honed listening and empathy skills with my receptionist.” This, of course, can be maddening for partners who wonder, “how come you can be so nice, generous, and emotionally present with this other person, but not me!?”

So, why do skills not work? Sue theorizes that practicing skills requires us to be up in our heads, thinking about the “steps” rather than feeling the beat of the emotional music. A husband may be saying the right things, but the emotional disconnect keeps it from being meaningful, keeps it from really soothing his distressed wife. Without being emotionally present, we might say soft things, but our face, our tone, our body language may still convey distance, anger, or other invulnerability to our partner. As Sue says, “We have to learn, in real interactions, how to send the heart messages that touch our loved one and move them to care.”

I Get Mean Because I Love You

Dr. Sue Johnson shared this fabulous song by Edie Brickell with us when she was in Davis last month. I just love how the song and the great illustrations explain the experience of the angry pursuer in relationships, how behind the anger there is so much sadness, loneliness, and longing for connection. Wanting that closeness but being too afraid to ask vulnerably for your needs to be met is such a painful, hard place to be in ... and such a trap for this little mouse.

Edie Brickell, “I Get Mean.”