luxorphoto/Shutterstock
Source: luxorphoto/Shutterstock

Mark is crying.

We’ve been talking about grief. He's dealing with the loss of his mother and his distant relationship with his father, which have now surfaced in his relationships with his own wife and children.

Mark has come to see me because his wife is leaving him. Gently I ask if he knows what he’s feeling. “Pissed,” he tells me as the tears continue to stream down his face. He bats them away angrily. His wife is tired of being married to such an angry man. He’s angry instead of disappointed. He’s angry instead of guilty. He’s angry instead of sad.

Mark’s wife has experienced his angry responses to a wide range of experiences. She would be surprised to know that when she told Mark she wanted to leave him, his actual responses—on the inside, not the outside—were shame, hurt, and fear. These emotions feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, so rather than continuing to experience them he turned them into something that feels more powerful: Anger.  

Picture Mark as a young boy. Imagine him at four on the playground running happily until he trips, landing sprawled over a pile of rocks, knees bloody. He runs to his father crying and his father stops Mark in his tracks. “Don’t be a baby!” he says. “Stop crying!” Mark’s father isn’t trying to be cruel. He’s trying to raise a child who can survive in a world that crushes softness in boys. Mark takes a shuddering breath and stops his tears.

There are a thousand moments like this for Mark. The times other kids tease him for being a girl or purposefully bump into him in the hallway or in his neighborhood, or when his parents fight and he’s afraid. It’s never OK to cry or to look scared, but anger is safe. Mark develops a glare, and a habit of taking up space. If someone hurts him, he hurts them back. His body grows, his voice deepens, and eventually he forgets that anger is merely his surface self. By the time his mother dies, during his teenage years, he no longer has the capacity to cry. That year he gets into a lot of fights at school and on the street. Mark isn’t sad anymore; he’s angry.

One way of describing what happened to Mark is to think about primary and secondary feelings. Primary feelings tend to be the uncomfortable ones, the ones that make us squirm with discomfort, that wake us in the middle of the night. When Mark’s wife tells him that she’s leaving, he’s devastated and terrified.

Anger, on the other hand, feels powerful. Mark would rather feel anger then shame at how much he’s hurt this woman he promised to love and cherish. He’d rather be enraged than feel the fear and anxiety of losing his family, and not being there for his kids on a daily basis. Mark would rather think of his wife as a terrible person for breaking up their family. He’d rather be filled with righteous indignation at her for leaving him, instead of committing to working on their problems.  

Anger is almost always a secondary emotion. It’s an emotion we feel in reaction to other people. That means there are other, more primary feelings, beneath the experience of anger—and these feelings reflect deeper truths. This doesn’t mean that anger can't be a useful feeling. But for people who overidentify with anger, it is important that they develop the capacity to recognize and give voice to their more vulnerable feelings.

When Mark came to see us, he was sad, scared, and ashamed. Until we started talking about those emotions, he thought he was just angry that his wife was leaving him. He was identifying the secondary emotion with no real awareness that there was more beneath it.  

If Mark, or anyone like him, wants to develop a basic emotional intelligence, he or she needs to do the following three things:

  1. Have a few emotion words ready, such as anxious, sad, guilty, embarrassed, worried, scared, or disappointed. Why these words in particular? These are the feelings that tend to be the most uncomfortable to acknowledge because they are associated with powerlessness. Because these feelings are uncomfortable, many people learn to ignore them.  
     
  2. Develop a practice of paying attention to one's emotional life. People who aren’t paying close attention to their emotional lives tend to only notice their most extreme states. Mark should check in with himself throughout the day to see what he’s feeling. In the beginning, it might be useful to be aware of what’s happening in his body: Does he have butterflies in his stomach? Is it hard to breathe? Does his jaw feel tight? Over time, Mark may start to notice that butterflies mean he’s anxious. Or that difficulty breathing means sadness.
     
  3. Increase one's comfort level with talking about emotions by practicing talking about them. Mark should expect that talking about his feelings may initially feel uncomfortable. None of us are skilled at doing things we haven’t practiced. It takes time to learn how to talk about feelings with greater ease and comfort.  

Mistaking secondary emotions for primary emotions is one common error. These are five other emotional pitfalls:

  1. Using overly broad language. “Bad” and “good” are not emotions! They are words that can be used to described feelings, but they're not specific enough. Bad can mean too many things, as can good. To communicate a feeling in a way that’s useful to someone else, we must use words that are clear and detailed.
     
  2. Mistaking cognitions for emotions. “I feel confused.” OK, but confusion indicates a lack of understanding, not an emotional state. Try, “I feel like…” or “I feel as if…” What you say next will then be a thought, not a feeling.
     
  3. Mistaking judgments for emotions“I feel betrayed.” But betrayal, abandonment, and ridicule are all ways of judging another person’s intent rather than your (or their) feelings. Instead, try, “If I think that you betrayed me, I feel…”
     
  4. Failing to own the experience. Saying, “You make me feel worried,” rather than “I feel worried.”
     
  5. Mistaking an accusation for emotions. For example, “I feel like you don’t listen to me.”

As Mark leaves my office, he apologizes for crying in front of me. We see so many angry men here in our practice, men who hold themselves apart, who fail to cry, or who hold their fear close and their shame in silence. Mark imagines that his sadness will be met with disdain or revulsion, believing that if his wife were to see how sad he is, she’d think less of him. Being angry will keep him feeling safe and strong, but if what he wants is connection and intimacy, then sadness is what will truly save him.

About the Author

Carrie Askin LCSW

Carrie Askin, LCSW, is the Co-Director of Menergy, LLC, one of the oldest treatment programs for abusive partners in the country.

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