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.

In Praise of Vulnerability

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I came across this quote today and I wanted to share it. We have for so long been told sharing our vulnerability with others is a sign of weakness, but many of us would prefer to do just about anything than share something really vulnerable. One of my firefighter clients once told me he'd literally rather go into a burning building than tell his partner how scared he feels inside when they fight!

Being vulnerable is not only a sign of being brave and authentic, but it's also a necessary part of creating real intimacy and security. Vulnerability fuels connection. Sharing something real and tender is a big part of how we build and sustain close bonds. As those of you in EFT therapy know, we get out of the negative cycle by sharing our vulnerable feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and fear rather than hiding them behind protective walls of criticism or defensiveness.

This principle works in any close relationship. If I share something vulnerable with you, and you respond with care and understanding, I decide that you can be safe for me, which makes me more likely to open up to you in the future. "Wow — he was really kind and listened to me. I felt good sharing that with him. Maybe I can tell him more!" I learn that my sharing this part of me with you doesn't make you reject me, which helps change how I view myself. "You know the real me — even this part of me I'm not so sure about — and you still seem to like me? Maybe I'm OK after all…" Also, my sharing invites you to share something personal about yourself with me. "Wow! She really shared something vulnerable with me — maybe I can open up about this thing I've been worried about, too!" All of this creates an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and closeness between us, a positive feedback loop where the more you share, the more I share, and we keep feeling safer and closer.

The Police Officer's Paradox

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"To function effectively in our job, you must annihilate, smother, and suppress normal emotions like fear, anger, revulsion, and even compassion. To do so otherwise is to invite overwhelming doubt or hesitancy when decisive action is required. The penalty for your achieved competence is a mindset that might as well be a foreign language to your social contemporaries. We are…victims of our own success. When these same normal and appropriate emotions…surface in personal relationships, we automatically shut down and wonder why, over time, that the people we care about the most complain that we are aloof, cold, and uncommunicative." — Lt. Al Benner, San Francisco Police



One of my clients in law enforcement shared this powerful quote with me, and I wanted to share it with you, too, because it really touched me. Firstly, it really allows us to get inside the world of the police officer, the soldier, the first-responder, to empathize with what they see, what they carry, and how they might need to shut down to carry out their duties. What a powerful thing to keep in mind, too, as we have more conversations as a society about the relationships between police officers and the communities they serve.

But this also touched me more generally, as this quote is thoughtfully addressing the toll that trauma takes on us. How living through (or growing up in) traumatic circumstances so often requires we come up with strategies that aid us in our survival, but become a hindrance as we move past our trauma and try to live and thrive in the world.

Thirdly, this is a story that many men know all too well, given the often toxic attitudes about masculinity we have in our culture. So many men are raised with the attitude that you must always be invulnerable (rub some dirt in it, toughen up, don't be a wuss, boys don't cry), you must shut down feeling to be acceptable and valued as a man…and so, at great cost to themselves, men often do that. Only to find their intimate partners, children, and other loved ones frustrated with them for becoming exactly what they've been told they're supposed to be.

Love Never Fails

A colleague forwarded this clip from The Office. Jim and Pam are running into an awkward patch in their marriage, but they show us here how to keep reaching for each other vulnerably and responding, even (especially) when it's hard.

Love

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LOVE is a sculpture by Alexandr Milov that was displayed at the Burning Man festival. According to Milov, "It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature. The figures of the protagonists are made in the form of big metal cages, where their inner selves are held captivate. Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives."

This is one of my all-time favorite images. It captures our innate, inborn (literally "wired-in" in this image) longing for connection and depicts the cages our defenses can represent. It's also a perfect encapsulation of what we strive to do in therapy: help the vulnerable parts of us make direct and clear contact with a safe and loving other rather than turning away in pain.

Be a Man

This clip explores the toxic pressures on men to hide their feelings and how we (still!!) give boys and men the sense that they must be completely invulnerable in order to be masculine. This seems to be a key reason so many men shut down and withdraw with their partners, out of the fear that they'll be seen as weak or unattractive if they share their vulnerable feelings and needs with their loved ones.

The Price of Invulnerability

Another great video from Dr. Brene Brown reviews the costs of avoiding vulnerability. When we're afraid to be vulnerable:

  • "Joy becomes foreboding—something good happens and we become compelled to beat vulnerability to the punch."
  • "Disappointment becomes a lifestyle…it's easier to live disappointed than to feel disappointed."

And, of course, we numb out. But as Brene reminds us, "you cannot selectively numb emotion." Numbing our pain and fear also means numbing the joy, love, safety, happiness, pride, and closeness that we could be feeling…and without that, we lose all the good things that can help us hang on through the hard times, all the things that make life meaningful.

The Power of Vulnerability

Dr. Brene Brown is a researcher who studies vulnerability…who hates vulnerability. Like a lot of us, Dr. Brown struggles with shame, self-judgment, and a sense of weakness when discussing her perceived failings and vulnerable emotions. Her storytelling prowess, hard-won authenticity, and self-deprecating humor make her a powerful advocate for treasuring the parts of ourselves we most want to hide.

These two devastatingly funny, heartfelt TED talks do a wonderful job of explaining how critical vulnerability is to our relationships with our selves and being authentic and how vulnerability and emotional risk is ultimately the thing that creates connection and safety with others.