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The Anger Iceberg: What It Is And How To Use It For Managing Anger
Relationship Advice

The Anger Iceberg: What It Is And How To Use It For Managing Anger

Are you (or your partner) struggling with anger issues? Here’s your complete guide to how to manage anger using the anger iceberg concept.

Sadia Maqsood
April 22, 2022

As humans, it’s natural to feel angry. But sometimes, this anger can be blown out of proportion. You might do or say something that you regret later on. However, that doesn’t make anger a “bad” emotion. 

According to Dr. Schekeva Hall, a lifestyle wellness coach and clinical psychologist, anger is the most invalidated and misunderstood emotion next to anxiety. The anger iceberg can help you understand this emotion better and deal with it effectively.

What is the anger iceberg? 

The Anger Iceberg is a popular concept in psychology given by psychologists Julie Gottman and John Gottman of The Gottman Institute. The Anger Iceberg theory assumes that anger is an emotion found at the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the iceberg lie a range of emotions. The following chart will help you better visualize this.

Source: Thrive Global

This means that when you’re angry, you’re experiencing several other emotions such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, pain, exhaustion, anxiety, fear, loneliness, and grief.

Since these emotions are "hidden" or buried under the surface of the water, you’re unaware of their existence, so all you’re conscious of is anger. 

What is the purpose of anger?

Even though anger is an emotion that gets a bad rap, it can actually be useful and serves many functions. 

Our mammalian ancestors expressed anger when they perceived threat or vulnerability in their surroundings, and anger helped them neutralize threats and minimize vulnerability. As we’ve evolved, the threat is usually not in our physical surroundings but to our ego, which makes us angry. 

Think of the last time you had an angry outburst while arguing with someone. Chances are, this happened because the other person demeaned or devalued your point of view, and it hurt your ego (how you perceive yourself and how you want others to perceive you). You may start feeling your blood boil or screaming in a fit of anger. 

Anger can also help us diagnose larger problems in our lives. For example, in married couples, one of the two may have anger issues, which results in constant arguments and friction. 

However, the problem might not be that one partner has anger issues, but that their boundaries are being violated in the relationship or that their partner might not be meeting their needs. Reflecting on the situation can help the angry partner pinpoint the root of their anger and take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.

Why do we lose control of our emotions?

There can be multiple causes of losing control of our emotions, ranging from medical conditions to psychological disorders. Some causes of emotional outbursts and temper tantrums include drug abuse, head injury, diabetes, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and psychosis. 

How to use the anger iceberg to examine your anger

Now that you’ve understood that anger is only a surface emotion and there are a myriad of emotions underneath, the next most important thing to do is to go deeper down into the surface of the water. Explore what emotions you’re really feeling. 

With so many emotions involved, this can be more complicated than you think. The simplest approach is to replay the situation in your head and identify what triggered you

Perhaps someone humiliated you. In this case, the underlying emotion will be shame. Or you lost someone or something important to you, pinpointing towards grief.

When you’re in a relationship, you might feel angry because your needs are not being met, making frustration the root emotion.   

Once you’ve unpacked your anger and have more clarity, you need to work through your raw feelings. Sometimes you can do this work yourself, but you will need to seek help from a professional therapist in other cases. For example, if you and your partner keep fighting over the same set of issues such as finances, maybe it’s time to seek marriage counseling.  

How to make anger more productive

As mentioned earlier, anger can be a helpful emotion but only if you make it so. If you let your anger take control of you, it takes a toll on your mental health and makes you do and say things you regret later. 

You can choose to take control and use this emotion productively. Here are three tips for anger management:. 

1. See anger as a symptom

Remember that anger is a symptom of other underlying issues. Try to understand what your anger is communicating to you. For instance, you might be upset because of a sarcastic remark your partner made five minutes ago. Use the anger iceberg discussed earlier to understand where your anger is coming from and take corrective steps. 

2. Examine your thoughts

According to the famous CBT triad (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) in psychology, feelings are linked with thoughts.

Have you ever felt upset at your partner for no reason at all? Maybe unhelpful, negative thoughts were running in your head that caused anger. If you feel angry without reason, try to observe your thoughts and get rid of the unhelpful ones.

3. Practice relaxation techniques 

When you’re in a fit of rage, it’s easy to become tense and irrational. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, stretching, walking, and progressive muscle relaxation can help you become grounded and calm down. 

Tips for listening to your partner’s anger

You might have to deal with your partner’s anger, whether they are mad at you or someone else. The easiest thing is to tell your partner to calm down and relax. 

It’s very common to become defensive, however, this is not the best approach. Here are two practical tips to help you listen to their anger:

1. Accept responsibility for your actions 

When your partner is angry, it’s easy to play the blame game and say things like “It’s not my fault you did XYZ!” or “You should’ve been more careful”. Such statements only aggravate the situation and intensify your partner's anger.

Sure, it’s possible that your partner might be at fault but it’s equally possible that you’re at fault too. Examine the situation closely and identify where you might have messed things up. Acknowledge and accept responsibility for your actions. Apologize to your partner for the mistakes you made. 

When things have cooled down a bit, sit down together and have a discussion around how both of you can avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. 

2. Don’t give advice

Another big mistake many of us make in relationships is offering advice when the other person’s angry. You might do it with the best intentions, but it doesn’t help your partner and only adds to their frustration. You should listen to and accept their anger as it is. 

Managing anger in relationships

All in all, see your anger (or your partner’s anger) as one emotion on a spectrum of emotions. Instead of labeling it “bad”, use the anger iceberg to explore it.

If you find yourself getting angry easily, learn anger management techniques to help calm yourself down. If you’re on the receiving end of an angry partner, keep in mind what you should and shouldn’t do. With a better understanding of anger, you and your partner can experience better physical and mental health.

Sadia Maqsood

Sadia Maqsood is a professional blogger, published author, and freelance writer with over 3 years of experience in writing about relationships, psychology, and self-improvement. She holds a degree in Psychology. Her work has appeared in Thrive Global, The Good Men Project, and top Medium.com publications. When she's not writing, she's immersed in true crime. She tweets @becomingsadia.

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