The anger iceberg can help you understand and address emotions below the surface.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned, or taught, about anger involved a teenager. *Like many teens, she felt like her parents were against her. Dad was always mad about her missing curfew, and Mom often lectured about poor choices in friends. There was a lot of yelling, in all directions.
While another adult may have recognized this as concerned parenting, my teen client thought that her parents didn’t care. When of course, it was just the opposite.
Her parents were actually quite worried, rather than mad, and that was coming through as nagging and anger. I’m not saying they should get the Parents of the Year Award, but their hearts were in the right place.
The anger iceberg is sometimes used to show how deeper, more complicated feelings can show up as anger. On the surface there may be yelling, judgment, or resentment. Underneath there’s likely to be fear, hurt, or frustration.
By breaking down the family dynamics with my client, and later talking it through with her parents, we were all able to recognize what was really going on.
They were terrified – concerned for her immediate safety as well as for her future. And when yelling back at them she was reacting instinctively, feeling hurt and defensive.
My client was surprised to learn that her parents were that worried, and it challenged a belief she had that they disliked her. They actually cared about her very much. By recognizing this as a family they became closer, and the nagging and yelling eased up a bit.
(*My stories of clients represent common scenarios, rather than literal cases.)
So how does understanding the emotional sources of anger help? Here are some ways to use the anger iceberg as a way to understand, teach, and address patterns of anger.
1. Validate the anger itself
Anger itself is not a problem. It’s a common emotion that humans and other animals have (Blair, 2012). In situations where there’s a literal physical threat, anger is simply instinct. It helps you prepare to protect yourself or those you care about. Regardless of the cause, you have a right to be as angry as you are.
2. Separate anger and aggression
Anger gets a bad rap because it is often connected with violence or other dangerous activities. Physical fighting, threats, or reckless behaviors may be fueled by this strong emotion. However, an emotion is different from a behavior. We’ll get to that in a moment.
3. Look underneath the iceberg
Icebergs are powerful because you can’t see what’s under the surface. The same happens with emotions. While a response to a threat may be instinct, ongoing patterns of anger are likely based on stronger and broader emotions.
Common emotions at the bottom of the anger iceberg may include:
Recognizing the core emotions, in yourself or others, is an important step.
4. Address the immediate emotions
Depending on the situation, addressing the underlying emotion may make the biggest difference.
For example, if you just snapped at your partner, you might apologize and explain that you were actually worried or felt threatened, but it was coming out as anger.
Or, if your young child is screaming because someone else got the last balloon at a party, you might help them name their deeper emotions like “sad” or “disappointed.” (“It can be so sad to miss out on something so cool. Are you sad about it? I feel sad too.”)
5. Uncover ongoing patterns
Experts at the Gottman Institute use the anger iceberg as a way to describe emotions that couples go through. Resentments may build up over time, based on hurts and disappointments. This might turn into frequent anger and then yelling and loud fights.
You can look at patterns to see what typically leads to concerning behaviors. Perhaps you only get snippy when you haven’t slept. Then you can work on improving your sleep while being more aware of your tendency to get short with people after a late night.
6. Find the triggers
Once you see a pattern, look for the triggers. Does your teenager get particularly mad and loud when you ask about homework? Maybe there’s something going on with a certain class or subject. Maybe they feel distracted or overwhelmed.
Or, perhaps your partner gets defensive when you ask them about certain topics. They might be perceiving some sort of judgment that you don’t intend. (Or, maybe you are being a bit judgmental and didn’t realize it.)
7. Address the triggers
Simply recognizing a trigger takes some of its power. Then, discussing it with your loved one may help them be more sensitive, or at least aware of it. They may be less likely to react negatively or hold it against you if you are occasionally rude. And that might help you be able to see and change the behavior, because it interrupts the pattern.
Likewise, some triggers can be avoided. If you have a friend who tends to put you down or cause a fight, maybe it’s time to take a break from that relationship. Frequently crossed boundaries can be a major source of anger.
8. Take care of basic needs
I know I’m most grumpy when I haven’t slept. It’s the number one factor that influences my mood. Maybe you get cranky when you’re hungry or haven’t had a moment to yourself all day. Not having basic needs met may fuel anger, and it will certainly make triggers worse.
9. Practice new responses
If you, your client, child, or other loved one tend to have problematic responses to anger, work on changing it up. Discuss which behaviors are most helpful for them. They may feel stronger if they yell at a boss or teacher when they’re angry, but does it really give them control? Perhaps being the calm, quiet one is actually more powerful.
Outbursts fueled by anger may also become a habit. Work on adding in new coping skills, such as mindfulness, to increase control in the moment. Practice new skills during calm times, so that you can use them more effectively when you feel triggered.
Fill Up Your Therapy Toolbox!
Working with a therapist can help you with the steps above. And if you’re a therapist, check out some of our resources for using the anger iceberg.
If you work with kids, download our angry iceberg worksheet set here. For adults, use our strong emotions worksheet or related resources in our CBT set.
Jennie Lannette Bedsworth, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed therapist with advanced training in trauma, anxiety, and PTSD. She has years of experience providing therapy and running therapy groups and trainings.
Blair R. J. R. (2012). Considering anger from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Cognitive Science.
Williams, R. (2017). Anger as a Basic Emotion and Its Role in Personality Building and Pathological Growth: The Neuroscientific, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. Frontiers in Psychology.