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Anger Iceberg – The emotions we hide below the surface

January 11, 2013

Recently, I had a conversation with someone on the topic of anger. He wanted to understand why he was always so angry in his relationship with his partner. So, I pulled out my dry-erase whiteboard and drew an iceberg.

Sometimes, anger is the only emotion visible to others. All the other emotions are hidden below the surface.

Sometimes, anger is the only emotion we show to others. All the other emotions are hidden below the surface.

I think the iceberg is a really powerful metaphor for how we think, feel, and behave. According to most estimates, about 10% of an iceberg is above water and about 90% is below water. This means that we only see a small fraction; most of the iceberg is hidden beneath the surface. Well, in much the same way, our feelings and thoughts are often hidden below the surface. The behaviours that we do see (the top 10%) are influenced by the thoughts and feelings that we don’t see (90%). For those who struggle with anger, the 10% seems to be the only emotion they feel most comfortable expressing.

In certain relationships, we sometimes only show the top 10% and keep the most important feelings and thoughts hidden below the surface (the other 90%). This is when problems start to pile up. Our partners – and those close to us – end up only seeing the behaviours above the water, and those behaviours can sometimes push them away.

After drawing the iceberg, I asked this gentleman to tell me about the other emotions hidden below the surface. At first, he looked at me rather confused. So, I asked him the question again. “What are some of the other emotions that you think you kept below the surface, hidden from your partner?”

I waited for about 10 seconds. You could see the look of concentration and focus in his eyes. I waited another 15 seconds. And then a little longer…It must have been around 30 seconds before I decided to break the silence and provide him with another emotion.

“How about sad?”

“Yes, I’ve felt that way before,” he nodded. Still, he looked confused, as though he couldn’t find the right words to describe his emotions.

“How about hurt? Have you ever felt hurt in your marriage?”

“Yes,” he nodded softly. He then proceeded to tell me some examples of when he felt hurt, sad, and betrayed in his marriage.

“These are the emotions that were likely causing you to feel angry.” He looked at the words a little longer, and then started to cry.

So, what’s an important key for controlling anger? Turn the iceberg upside down. In other words, when you feel anger coming on, stop and ask yourself, “What am I’m truly feeling? Do I feel hurt? Sad? Tired? Misunderstood? Worried?” Often times, the pause we take to reflect on these other emotions is sufficient enough to make the anger subside. Also, by pausing, reflecting, and then talking about the other 90%, we develop greater self-awareness and become better communicators of our thoughts and feelings.

Think of the last time you were angry. What were some of the emotions that lead you to feel that way?

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…

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  1. Once again great Article.Love the Metaphor (Iceberg Pic). It is very important that we each recognize that what we feel immediately before the anger, this is what is important. Feeling offended, trapped or pressured, are what we keep bottled up inside and if we do not express these emotions, then we see the tip of the Anger Iceberg. Thanks, keep up the great work!

  2. You’re absolutely right, Mary. Feelings of being trapped, pressured, offended…these are all powerful emotions that contribute to our anger. I always appreciate your insightful comments. Thanks for your contributions!


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