Anger: Breaking Through the Protective Wall

Anger within Relationships

Is your relationship suffering from an overflow of anger? Are you having a hard time dealing with your partner's anger or your own anger towards your partner? Or maybe it's coming up with a coworker that continually pushes your buttons?

Anger, in and of itself, is not necessarily a sign that your relationship is in trouble. There is nothing wrong with anger as an emotion - it is often simply a sign that something is feeling unfair or unjust. Anger is just an emotion - not unlike the others in our range of emotions. But when anger is pervasive or used in a way to act out in a relationship, it can create division, resentment, and isolation.

"I know my anger is a problem. I hate that I yell and make my partner feel bad. I'm worried about what I'm modeling to my kids. But, honestly, most of the time I don't even realize I'm doing it until it's over. Then I get filled with guilt."*

"My coworker is driving me absolutely crazy. She continually belittles and undermines me in front of our other coworkers. It drives me crazy! I'm worried one of these days I'm going to snap and lose it!"*

"When my partner does not prioritize me over other things in her life, it makes me so angry! I yell and accuse her of not caring about me, but part of me knows that this is not the way to get her to pay more attention to me; I worry I'm actually pushing her away."*

Anger as Self-Reflection

Anger usually shows up to give us information about something. The task is to slow down and quiet enough to be able to learn the lesson it has for us.

Here are some questions you can reflect on and ask yourself when you notice anger:

- How do you notice anger starting to creep into your body / emotional space? Where do you feel it? (This is different for everyone, but here are some common examples: heart races, face feels flushed, body tenses or trembles, breath quickens, etc). What are the signs to look out for to notice that anger is starting to build?

- What is the anger responding to? What happened *just* before you noticed the anger starting to appear? (Maybe it was something someone said, a look in someone's face, a thought that came into your mind. Maybe it was obvious or maybe it was very subtle)

- If your anger had words, what do you imagine it would be trying to tell you? (These again are very individualized, but some examples may be: That wasn't fair! How dare he/she! Defend yourself! Get away from him/her!)

- Finally, is there something vulnerable that the anger is protecting? Perhaps the anger is actually a reaction to something else that was touched in the interaction that is more vulnerable (an old emotional wound, a hurt feeling, etc). Anger can sometimes be a way to push someone away so that they stop hurting us or so that we feel a powerful emotion (like anger) instead of a more vulnerable emotion (like hurt).

Try relating to Anger in a different way

Once you are clear what your anger is trying to do for you or get for you, try letting it know that you've heard its message. You "get" what it is trying to tell you. Without trying to either get rid of that important perspective OR act out completely driven by that perspective, just recognize and honor it. Take a pause with it. Often, as we recognize what is driving the anger and as its function or perspective feels held and acknowledged (even if just by us), it will begin to ease. You may notice this by your breathing returning to a more normal rhythm, your tense body beginning to release a little, or the flush draining from your face. This may happen quickly or it may take a while for your body to regulate itself again.

Express Anger in a different way

Then, from a less activated/agitated state, it becomes more possible to "speak for" our Anger. Instead of Anger having the keys to the bus (of our speech, actions, behavior), we take the keys back. We can say: "Part of me felt really angry when you said that a minute ago - it didn't feel like a fair representation of how hard I have worked."  "Part of me really bristles when you make choices that do not include me - it makes me feel left out and that's really hard for me."

When we speak for our Anger from a less activated state (as opposed to Anger taking over and speaking for us), while still representing the truth of what came up for us, we have a better chance of being heard. We have a better chance of not triggering the other person (though this is never a guarantee because other people's stuff is their stuff!). By breaking through Anger's protective wall we have our best shot at disarming the other person's protective walls and achieving more productive, relationship-building conversation.

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© Ellie Vargas, LCSW

*All examples are composites of multiple case examples and fictional material. Any resemblance to any specific experience is purely coincidental.


Ellie Vargas, LCSW is a wife and a mama of two girls, a trekker on the bumpy trail of personal growth, and a Trauma-Informed Psychotherapist. In that order.