Have you ever wondered why we get angry? According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, “emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us.”

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman tells us that anger causes blood to flow to our hands, making it easier for us to strike an enemy or hold a weapon. Our heart rate speeds up and a rush of hormones – including adrenaline – create a surge of energy strong enough to take “vigorous action.” In this way, anger has been ingrained into our brain to protect us.

The purpose of anger

Think of anger like an iceberg, a large piece of ice found floating in the open ocean. Most of the iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water. Similarly, when we are angry, there are usually other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see a person’s anger but can be difficult to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting.

For example, Dave believed he had an anger problem. When his wife would make a request of him, he would criticize her. He didn’t like his reactions, but he felt he couldn’t help it. As he worked on mindfulness and started noticing the space between his anger and his actions, he opened up the door into a profound realization.

He didn’t really have an anger problem. Instead, he felt like his wife was placing impossible demands on him. By seeking to understand and accept his anger, rather than fix or suppress it, he began to improve his marriage by recognizing his anger as a signal that he needed to set healthy boundaries for what he would and would not do.

Dave’s story points out an important concept. As Susan David, Ph.D., author of Emotional Agility says, “Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.” Her point is there is something more below the surface of our anger.

Anger as a protector of raw feelings

Anger is often described as a “secondary emotion” because people tend to use it to protect their own raw, vulnerable, overwhelming feelings. Underneath Dave’s anger was pure exhaustion and feeling that he wasn’t good enough for his wife. So his anger was protecting him from deeply painful shame.

Learning to recognize anger as a protector of our raw feelings can be incredibly powerful. It can lead to healing conversations that allow couples as well as children and parents to understand each other better.

Below is what we call the Anger Iceberg because it shows the “primary emotions” lurking below the surface. Sometimes it’s embarrassment, loneliness, exhaustion, or fear.


You can download a free PDF version of the Anger Iceberg here.

3 tips for listening to anger

One of the most difficult things about listening to a child or lover’s anger, especially when it’s directed at us, is that we become defensive. We want to fight back as our own anger boils to the surface. If this happens, we get in a heated verbal battle which leaves both parties feeling misunderstood and hurt. Here are three powerful tips for listening to anger.

1. Don’t take it personally

Your partner or child’s anger is usually not about you. It’s about their underlying primary feelings. To not taking this personally takes a high level of emotional intelligence.

One of the ways I do this is by becoming curious of why they’re angry. It’s much easier for me to become defensive, but I’ve found thinking, “Wow, this person is angry, why is that?” leads me on a journey to seeing the raw emotions they are protecting and actually brings us closer together.

2. Don’t EVER tell your partner to “calm down”
When I work with couples and one of the partners get angry, I have witnessed the other partner say, “Calm down” or “You’re overreacting.” This tells the recipient that their feelings don’t matter and they are not acceptable.

The goal here is not to change or fix your partner’s emotions but rather to sit on their anger iceberg with them. Communicate that you understand and accept their feelings.

When you do this well, your partner’s anger will subside and the primary emotion will rise to the surface. Not to mention they will feel heard by you, which builds trust over time.

Maybe you grew up in a family where anger wasn’t allowed, so when your partner expresses it, it feels paralyzing and you freeze. Or maybe you try to solve their anger for them because their anger scares you. Open yourself up to experience you and your partner’s full spectrum of emotions.

3. Identify the obstacle
Anger is often caused by an obstacle blocking a goal. For example, if your partner’s goal is to feel special on their birthday and their family member missing their special day makes them angry, identifying the obstacle will give you insight into why they’re angry.

The bottom line is that people feel angry for a reason. It’s your job to understand and sit with them in it. By doing so, you will not only help them to understand their anger, but you will become closer to them in the process.

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The Anger Iceberg
Kyle Benson

Kyle Benson is an Intentionally Intimate Relationship coach providing practical, research-based tools to build long-lasting relationships. Kyle is best known for his compassion and non-judgemental style and his capacity to see the root problem. Download the Intimacy 5 Challenge to learn where you and your partner can improve your emotional connection and build lasting intimacy. Connect with Kyle on Twitter and Facebook. For more tools visit kylebenson.net.

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  • K Love

    Ummm….no. “Sitting on someone’s anger iceberg” might get you abused. Angry, abusive people do not just get calm and reasonable when you seek to understand them. They still act abusively and you slip quickly down the co-dependant and enabling slope. I understand this advice when I think about relating to my young children. I don’t get it at all when I think about my husband. With him, nothing is ever enough and coddling him only makes me lose myself over time. In fact, no healthy grown-up should need someone to “sit on their anger iceberg” – they should know how to navigate and control that themselves.

    • Jela Vaught

      Possibly if you have been taught how to manage your anger.

    • Karen

      With abusers, what’s hidden beneath the iceberg is their need to control, because their anger is a tool of control. They can control their anger, and they do – for instance they will wait until they are alone with you to carry out the abuse. I really agree that it is no adult’s ‘job’ to understand and sit with an angry person. That’s the job of a professional. The ‘job’ of an adult is to themselves primarily – to recognise that the anger is not about them, to remain calm by recognising what’s going on in their own iceberg that might cause them to react in kind, and to walk away if a person is being disrespectful.

    • Maya Schnaidman

      Strongly agree with you, K. Grown up adults who vent their anger on their partners tend to be more aggressive and abusive when the partner is “understanding”. I worked with women who by the name of being loving and developed suffered years of abuse. This advise is great for young children. DANGEROUS for grown up adults. Verbal violence is no different to physical violence and a very clear border should be set there.

    • I understand how you can see that doing as I said might get someone abused. But there is a big difference between anger and aggression. Someone can be angry and not hurt someone else. To take action with that anger is aggression and any violence is never acceptable. No one should ever “sit” with someone who is being abusive.

      But feeling anger and letting it be healthily expressed is good. It gives it a space to air out so the more vulnerable feelings can come out. It helps kids navigate their emotions and it helps (non-abusive) adults feel heard.

      The feeling that you are losing yourself in the relationship suggest that your husband’s own insecurity about not being enough for you, is played out in your relationship by him placing that on you which makes you feel rejected by him, which is why you’re losing yourself overtime. There is a middle ground where he can stop making you feel that way and you can meet his needs without sacrificing yourself. This would require rewiring both of your internal working models. There are quality Gottman Therapist who are well trained in doing this.

      I disagree with your statement that a healthy grown-up should navigate and control anger by themselves. We are relational beings and our relationships can be powerful antidotes to soothing our emotions. Researching co-regulation will give you some insight into this.

      It is both partners responsibility to be there for each other. The angry partner must learn to work with their anger and speak to it in such a way that helps their partner listen, just as the partner who is listening to their angry partner must learn to have the capacity to let their partner be angry without trying to dismiss it. To learn more, read about meta-emotion.

      Again. There is a BIG difference between being angry and being aggressive. Being angry and healthily expressing that anger can bring couples closer together. Being abusive or violent has no place in a relationship.

      • Anon47

        Kyle, what is the difference between anger and aggression to you? I think some forms of anger are perceived as aggressive behavior. What constitutes abuse? We have to define these terms and agree on them before we can really dissect if the particular expression of anger is warranted. Although people say things like I can’t do this anymore, we’re done, but not mean it hours later…people say this is anger. To me, this is aggression/abuse…and to others they’re fine with it…

        • Anger is a feeling. Aggression is a behavior. The problem is society often blends these words together which makes it confusing.

          Feeling angry is an emotion like happiness or sadness and it’s normal. But the behaviors people exhibit when they feel angry make a difference in whether or not they become aggressive. Aggression is a choice. It is aggression, the action one takes (verbally, physically, or even neglect) that causes abuse.

          Aggressive behaviors try to bully the other person into doing something whether they want to or not. This neglects the other person’s feelings or needs.

          Just because someone feels angry doesn’t give them permission to treat others badly. The example you use of someone saying they can’t do this anymore but not mean it later is a typical protest behavior which is a form of manipulation in an attempt to get your attention which can be abusive because it is threatening the relationship and that causes the person being told this to become insecure, anxious, etc. Check out this article http://kylebenson.net/connection/ to make more sense of this.

          Being angry is healthy, being aggressive is toxic. There’s no excuse for domestic violence or abuse.

          • Anon47

            By this definition, do you think protest behaviors/aggressive behaviors of threatening to quit, or asking you to leave the house are deal breakers in relationships? Does that hold the same in marriage?

          • I do not believe protest behaviors are deal-breakers the first few times. If the hidden meaning behind the protest behavior is not address and the emotional connection continues to lead to protest without repair and new ways of loving each other, then it can cause strain on the relationship which may lead to splitting up. I’d get curious as to what unmet need is not being met and why the person is being indirect (protest behavior) about asking for what they need. Does that make sense?

    • Shawn Spencer

      As has already been pointed out below, society too frequently blends anger and aggression/abuse. I’m sure we can discuss for days the difference between them. However, my concern is this: “In fact, no healthy grown-up should need someone to “sit on their anger iceberg” – they should know how to navigate and control that themselves.”

      I fear it is that exact mindset which is contributing to the shame and guilt people feel when they get angry. To me, it relates to the problem of “common sense.” Everybody has heard the phrase “common sense isn’t common.” Well it’s called “common sense” in the first place because the “common” refers not to the frequency of this knowledge among the population (the commonly assumed meaning of the word “common” in this phrase. Pun intended.), but instead what thoughts/beliefs/actions should be “common,” i.e. socially acceptable, to a population. But regardless of the tangent I’ve lead you on (sorry…), Common Sense is NOT innate. We are not born with it. You have to be taught it.

      Very similarly, the ability to deal with difficult emotions has to be taught. We are not born with it and I believe very few would ever be able to figure this out on their own without external assistance. Although it would be nice if we all learned to cope with these emotions as a child, the truth is that most parents were also not taught and therefore are likely unable to teach their child.

      So writing it off and saying that all adults should essentially ‘suck it up and deal with it by now’ is perpetuating the same stigma against people with anger (not abusive, aggression) issues. This does not mean to coddle them or enabling the behavior. Instead the point of this article was to confront the issues underlying the anger.

      • Robert Ted Elliott

        “In fact, no healthy grown-up should need someone to “sit on their anger iceberg” – they should know how to navigate and control that themselves.”” Another way of viewing this is saying “they should know how to…” is a cope out, in other words we don’t want to understand…. we just want the friggin problem that is presenting itself to us should just go away. This brings to mind a repeating response from a friend that they have, in their words, “gotten over” childhood wounds for no better reason than they are adults now,…. frankly I call this wishful thinking and bullshit.

  • Sandra Buschi

    Hi. Love this iceberg. Really clarifies all of the different emotions that can be involved. Angry is a word that my 7 year old uses a lot. I have tried talking/listening to his thoughts/feelings. Its been going on since we moved 2.5years ago. He was rralyy settled at first, eager snd excited about it all. Then a year in he didn’t like the town we live in and school can be great one day and crap the next… not sure where to next…

  • Zen Green

    I would think that you would have to choose carefully when to use this approach. However, an emotionally and verbally abusive person would take this to mean they have an excuse to release their explosive anger toward a target, usually a partner, and more frequently toward a woman. It seems that there is an epidemic of men who do this, mostly behind closed doors. More women’s shelters and support groups consider verbal and emotional abuse behaviors as a form of domestic violence. In fact, more women show up for help because of these behaviors than they do for physical abuse. You cannot reason with someone who has rage reactions. It becomes a habit for many. Many of them don’t think that they have an “anger problem” and blame their reactions on others. Many men, for whom anger is a problem, are unpredictable about what triggers their anger, much of it a power issue and obsession with having to have everything their way. Your approach may work for people who don’t recognize their anger and suppress it. But I think that a lot of angry men are abusers. Anger seems to be the most difficult emotion to express and regulate. Many meditation programs for children are teaching them, at an early age, to become aware of and express anger in healthy ways. This is not to say that only men have anger abuse behaviors. There are certainly women that have the problem as well. I know many women who are targets of this and try to survive in spite of it. A number leave the relationships.

    • Robert Ted Elliott

      “obsession with having to have everything their way.” is a very immature way of looking at this. What if they never feel they are listened to, their explanations response is always considered immature, they are always made to feel like they are immature, they are not listenened to.

    • Robert Ted Elliott

      Anger is not the same as aggression. How are we supposed to express anger, by saying we are angry, will that finally sink or do we need to show anger through agression. I think most people do not hear, “I’m angry” they have to feel it for it to sink in”

    • Concerned in Austin

      Men learn from their families and society at an early age that they are not allowed to express soft or vulnerable emotions. By the time they start kindergarten, they have already learned that they must suppress their emotions, and that only works such as anger are acceptable. Is it any wonder that they grow into angry men, disconnected from the underlying emotions? The only way to change this is to change the messages we give boys at an early age. Both boys and girls would benefit greatly from learning to recognize and understand their feelings and how to express them in a healthy and safe manner.

  • Emobitch

    Anger is not a secondary emotion. It is one of the key basic emotions and it is indeed about obstacles to one’s agency or personal empowerment. Shame and all those other complex emotions point to ideas and beliefs one holds. So, sorry but I agree with K Love. Ummmm…..no.

    • chomps

      Maybe not for you, but it’s true for me. It’s also true for all of my family members. The underlying needs aren’t being met. Some people get angry, some people withdraw. But it’s not the anger itself that needs to be addressed, it’s whatever triggered the FIGHT response in the angry person. Withdrawal is a FLIGHT response. Those survival responses are just that: responses. They don’t exist spontaneously.

  • Jack Reacher

    I highly suggest people do what I do. Whenever I am angry, I get my yoga mat out, sit crossed legged, breathe slowly, and imagine my anger being pushed down inside of me, deeper and deeper. Tick…tick….tick…

    • Robert Ted Elliott

      Oh yah, that really works when you are in the car on the way to work having an argument, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to control the context, wouldn’t that be grand.

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  • 360musicnghq

    Anger is quite different from Aggression because Anger is a feeling while Aggression is a behavior.

    Couples should learn to respect each other Respect