This post is an installment of the What We Learned series, a seasonal practice of reflection, initiated by the lovely and soulful Emily P. Freeman. What We Learned is a simple habit of paying attention to the things that energize, delight, drain, and stretch us—be they serious or silly—as we learn to cultivate a soul at rest.
What I Learned (Winter 2020)
1. Anger is a secondary emotion.
I never considered myself an angry person until a few years ago, when I noticed an undercurrent of irritability seeping into my days like toxic groundwater.
Unlike the occasional bad mood that would ease after a good night’s sleep, this funk wasn’t going away. Each day I felt my internal posture stiffening into frustration, annoyance, and resentment—all synonyms for anger.
My counselor talked to me about the “anger iceberg” early on in our time together, back in 2017. I understood the concept then, but didn’t appreciate the truth of it until this winter. If you’re unfamiliar with the anger iceberg, here’s a graphic:
The basic gist is that when we feel angry, our anger is really just the “tip of the iceberg.” The emotion at the root of the anger is often submerged. We might need to do some deep-diving to figure out where the anger is coming from.
This winter I discovered shame and fear lurking beneath my anger. Processing those submerged emotions hasn’t been easy or quick, but I’ve already experienced better emotional rest by recognizing that anger is only the outward expression of something deeper.
2. Anger can often be soothed by some basic self-parenting.
For all the times my anger is rooted in other emotions, it’s just as often triggered by my tendency to live like an unsupervised toddler. I barrel through my days without resting, overstimulating my senses. I refuse to eat my vegetables and instead fill up on empty calories. I sit in front of a screen for hours on end rather than playing outside.
When my kids were little, if one of them threw a tantrum, I always asked myself this question: “How long has it been since food or rest?” I knew how quickly emotions could spiral if my toddlers’ basic physical needs weren’t met. Why, then, am I so slow to recognize those same needs in myself?
It’s much harder to tackle the issues beneath my anger if I’m also battling sensory overload or blood sugar fluctuations. Self-parenting means looking at unbecoming emotions with curiosity instead of condemnation, recognizing my body’s imbalances, and disciplining myself to pause for sustenance or rest.
3. It’s okay to be honest with God about anger.
Speaking of anger, this winter some of mine has been directed heavenward.
I haven’t been able to admit that until recently. What right have I to be angry with God? My head knows He deserves only worship, but my heart has been iron-fisting some hard questions that suggest otherwise.
I was scared to be honest with Him about that, so instead of telling Him, I stopped talking to Him altogether. It wasn’t a conscious decision, rather a gradual drifting over a span of months.
A few weeks ago I found my voice and asked Him those hard questions. I also told Him how I feel about the answers, or lack thereof. The moment I finished speaking I was tempted to backtrack, to apologize away my rant and recite platitudes. But I’m weary of words that sound true and ring empty, so I shut my mouth and sat with the echo of my anger reverberating between us.
In the ensuing stillness, I expected shame or detachment. I expected to feel every bit of the yawning chasm that seemed to have opened between us. Instead, I sensed the surprising warmth of connection, as if I’d cast narrowed eyes upward to find Him gazing at me with tenderness, even pleasure.
I don’t pretend to understand much about God, but I understand this—He wasn’t a bit jarred by my anger. It didn’t shock or startle Him. He didn’t disown me because of it. Of course He didn’t—yet some part of me had been afraid He might.
I still don’t have answers to the questions I laid before Him. My anger didn’t magically evaporate. But He listened to my worst and didn’t turn His face from me, and that gives me deeper spiritual rest than I’ve had in some time.
No Such Thing as an “Angry Person”
These lessons about anger reinforce my counselor’s assertion that anger is an emotion, not a characteristic. It doesn’t define us, or detract from our value as human beings.
Instead of berating myself for being an “angry person”—which only produces shame that cycles into more anger—I’m learning to view anger with curiosity and grace. This new mindset is helping me gain emotional bandwidth to explore the base of my iceberg and discover the real source of my anger.
Do you struggle with frequent anger? Have you ever thought of yourself as an angry person? I hope this post frees you from self-condemnation and helps you view your anger in a gentler way, with curiosity—and hope for more rested days ahead.