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Anger Iceberg – The emotions we hide below the surface

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…

Are you a “passionate worker” or a work-addict?

I attended an innovative and uplifting conference recently in Kelowna, BC. Successful entrepreneur and local businessperson, Fred Sarkari, organized and hosted the event. There were about 7 speakers on the panel, all from a variety of industries. I was honoured to be invited as one of the speakers and to talk about work addiction.

I remember having a conversation with someone who asked about the role of passion amongst entrepreneurs. Her opinion was that passion for one’s work could be misinterpreted as being a symptom of work addiction. This is a great point and made me think about the following question: are people who over-work themselves (e.g., someone who works 60, 70, 80-hours plus per week) simply people who are passionate about their work? Or, do they really have a problem and are just turning work into an addiction?

I think there are two important distinctions to make. First, people who are addicted to their work often put work as the most important thing (and the only thing) in their lives. As a result, they usually have experienced negative consequences in their relationships, health, and feelings of connectedness with others. Work-addicts often get into arguments with their partners or loved ones because they do not spend any time connecting with them. They have replaced relationships to people with a relationship to work.

Secondly, work-addicts are actually quite inefficient employees. They may seem to be efficient employees because they’re always taking their work home with them and spend almost every waking moment on work-related activities. However, the truth is, they actually spend their time working on meaningless or unimportant details of their projects and often lack the ability to think about the “bigger picture.” As a result, work-addicts are often detailed-oriented and inefficient, whereas passionate workers produce higher quality work in a shorter amount of time and are able to see the bigger picture of what it is they are doing.

How do you know when you are spending too much time on your work? What are the signs in your life that you are over-working yourself? I would love to hear about your experiences.

(Dr. Bryan Robinson wrote “Work Addiction” in 1989. He provides some excellent insights on this topic. )

Update on my upcoming book, “Crossing the Line”

If you look at my list of blogs, you’ll notice that today’s entry is the first in over seven months (I can’t believe how quickly time has passed!). One of the reasons for the lack of blogging is because I’ve been using my spare time to work on my upcoming book, “Crossing the Line.” It will focus on teaching people how to monitor their bad habits and determine when their habits have “crossed the line” and become a problem or an addiction. The book will also provide a list of strategies and solutions for living life without bad habits. It’s expected to be available in the early part of 2013.

Hope your week is filled with much knowledge and growth.

Parentified children and anxiety: The child who acts like a parent

One of the issues I have recently been working with has been the topic of “parentified children.” Typically, a parentified child is someone who takes on many of the parenting responsibilities within the home. This sometimes happens when a parent, for one reason or other, is unable to follow-through with their roles and responsibilities within the home. One example occurs when parents suffer from an addiction: they’re inebriated and therefore unable to fulfill their duties and responsibilities as a mother or father. Other times, the parent is working several jobs and cannot be home when their children need them. As a result, one of the children (usually the eldest or the female in the family) begins to act like a parent to the other children (or a caregiver to the other parent). Hence, the term “parentified child.”

Physical exhaustion and a drop in academic performance are signs of a parentified child.

Physical exhaustion and a drop in academic performance are signs of a parentified child.

While it can be normal and acceptable to have children take on some extra responsibilities within the home, when does it cross the line? When is it inappropriate or “too much”? The answer has to do with functioning and occupation. Basically, a child’s responsibility is to be a “child” and to go to school. This is their job – their main occupation – during childhood. They are to regularly attend school, build friendships, and do the things that most children do at their age. When a child is unable to regularly fulfill this role, however, then one needs to look at what is happening in this child’s life. Specifically, one needs to look at

(1) Behaviour at school (is there an unusual decline in their marks?);

(2) Social and interpersonal life (Do they have many friends? Do they spend time with their friends outside of school?);

(3) Physical and emotional health (Is the child regularly ill? Does the child act depressed and disinterested in other things? Does the child seem anxious or nervous about things?).

While there are many things that can affect a child’s overall health, children who start taking on many of the parenting roles within the home can begin to develop anxiety, a problem that can remain with them as they enter adulthood.

It’s getting hot in here, so please stay calm: The relationship between heat and aggression

Here in Toronto, we’ve been dealing with some very hot temperatures lately. While I’ve heard my share of people complaining that it’s been too hot, I’ve also heard my share of people expressing gratitude for the beautiful weather.

So, I recently thought about what life might be like if the weather were hot throughout the entire year. Then I remembered reading a study in undergrad which indicated that hot cities had higher crime rates. So, I googled the phrase, “Heat and Aggression” and the resultant list provided articles supporting the Heat Hypothesis: that hot temperatures increase aggressive motivations, and in some cases, aggressive behaviours.

People are more likely to get aggressive when the temperatures around them are really high.

People are more likely to get aggressive when the temperatures around them are really high.

Heat and Aggression

Craig Anderson, a psychologist who has been studying the relationship between heat and aggression for over 10 years, has written extensively on this topic. Anderson uses various sources for investigating the relationship between these two variables. One source of data comes from field studies, and another from laboratory settings.

In field studies, crime rates from hotter, southern cities in the United States were compared with crime rates of northern US cities. Other types of field studies compare the rates of aggression-related crime within one city, but at different times of the year. In both cases, cities that reported higher temperatures (consistently above 90-degrees Fahrenheit or 32-degrees Celsius) had higher rates of spousal battering, assault rates, and batters being hit by pitchers. This last example is interesting: Anderson’s research has found that batters are more likely to be hit by a pitch on really hot days than on cooler days.

Research conducted in laboratory settings look at participants’ scores on measures of attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions when temperatures in the lab are very high, and compare it with the results of participants in really cool (or normal) temperature settings. In such cases, people tend to be more “cranky” and interpret things more negatively when they are uncomfortably warm.

So, the next time you are feeling cranky, anxious, or frustrated, pay attention to the temperature around you. It’s likely that you’re attitudes and emotions are being influenced by the external environment. Take a break and do something to cool you off rather than reacting negatively to something that is outside of your control.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge, growth, and comfortable temperatures.

(Richard Amaral, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist with a private practice in mid-town Toronto. Click on the About Me tab above for more information or to book a private session.)

Attribution Theory and the Fundamental Attribution Error

I’ve been really busy these last couple of weeks. As a result, my blogs have been coming out later and later as I re-organize my schedule. One of the things that has kept me busy has been my private practice. Because last week was a shortened work week (Canada Day weekend), I had fewer hours available for my clients. Additionally, I had to prepare for a workshop. So, as you can see, there were a lot of external reasons for why I was unable to produce and release a blog earlier last week.

A few friends of mine, however, thought there were different reasons for why I had not written a blog. “I thought you had lost the motivation to write,” said one friend. Another thought I had given up the ‘post-a-week’ challenge altogether. The point is, many of those on the outside attributed the causes of not writing as something internal. That is, they thought the causes and reasons for my behaviour (not writing) was due to a motivational factor, or something internal.

Attribution Theory and the Fundamental Attribution Error

The differences in perception made me think of the Attribution Theory discussed in social psychology. Basically, attribution theory states that when an individual has a negative experience, or makes a mistake, they will attribute the cause to something external. Others, however, will attribute the cause to something internal, something inherent in the individual’s internal locus of control. For example, in my case, I attributed the cause for my delayed blogging to something external (hectic schedule, shortened week, holiday, etc.), whereas those on the outside attributed the cause of my delayed blogging to something internal (lack of motivation, disinterest, lack of ideas, etc.). The other thing is that others (and ourselves) will hold on rigidly to those causes, making it hard to convince those who do not know us that they’re incorrect in their assumptions.

Origins of Attribution Theory

The first mention of attribution theory was by Fritz Heider in the late 1950’s. Heider looked at how people come to explain the causes of their behaviour and of those around them. Heider first made the argument that people tended to place more weight on internal reasons for success, but placed more weight on external factors when they made a mistake or error. This theory was studied more in depth by Lee Ross, who eventually coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error.” Other psychologists have extended work in this area and many would argue that it forms the basis of social psychology.

So, the next time you observe someone struggle at something, be open to the possibility that there were things in their environment that contributed more heavily than just personality traits or internal characteristics.

Hoping this bit of knowledge provides you with some internal growth…

(Richard Amaral, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist with a private practice in mid-town Toronto. Click on the About Me tab above for more information or to book a session.)

Mental health and work: A strong relationship

A couple of weeks ago, many news-sites published findings from a survey of Canadian managers and frontline workers on mental health in the workplace. One statistic from this survey indicated that 12% of respondents said they were currently experiencing a mental health issue in the workplace, and another 32% said they had faced one in the past (click here for a news article). In other words, 44% of all workers have experienced a mental health issue (depression, anxiety, addiction, etc.) at some point in their professional life.

The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health estimates that the Canadian economy loses about $33 million per year in worker productivity due to employee mental health and addiction issues. By the year 2020, the World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the leading cause of workplace disability.

Relationship between Work and Mental Health

I remember taking a course in career counselling as a graduate student. Up until that course, I had never given any thought to the role that our job/career/occupation played in the maintenance of our emotional and mental health. Since then, however, the relationship between one’s career and mental health is an area I have explored in almost all of my initial meetings with clients.

As a result of that course, here is something that I regularly point out to my clients. There are exactly 168 hours in a week. For the average person, at least 50 of those hours (more for those with longer commutes) are spent on work. That’s almost one-third of our week. Over the course of several years, imagine what your mental and emotional health will be like if you end up spending one-third of your life doing something you dislike? The more we dislike our job, (i.e., the more we dislike one-third of our week), the more likely depression, addiction, anxiety, and stress will creep into our lives.

There’s an old adage that says, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Here’s to hoping the upcoming week provides you with a step towards discovering what it is that you love.

(Richard Amaral, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist with a private practice in mid-town Toronto. Click on the “About Me” tab above to find out more).

Some quotes on Work

Find a job you like and you add five days to every week. – Jackson Brown, Jr.

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more luck I have. – Thomas Jefferson

Work is love made visible. – Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Love and work…work and love, that’s all there is. – Sigmund Freud

It is the quality of our work which will please God and not the quantity. – Mahatma Gandhi

I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. – Joseph Campbell

Two perspectives on counselling people in abusive relationships

I received a lot of positive feedback from last week’s blog. A few friends of mine wrote or called me up to talk more about what to do when a friend is a victim of relationship abuse (e.g., physical, psychological, verbal, financial). In particular, one friend asked about the specific role that a psychologist had in counselling people living with abuse. Specifically, she wanted to know whether a psychologist would counsel their client to leave an abusive relationship. Or, would they let the client decide on their own, even if it meant returning to an unhealthy and potentially unsafe relationship.

Humanistic versus Feminist Approaches to Individual Counselling

What I have found is that there are two approaches or ideologies that guide therapists working with clients in abusive relationships. These approaches originated with humanistic and feminist theories of counselling psychology. According to the humanistic or person-centred approach, the emphasis in the counselling process is for the therapist to ask questions that respect the client’s autonomy to make a decision. Believing that the responsibility for change lies within the couple, the therapist’s role is to facilitate change without imposing his or her own values, even though such a stance may result in avoiding the discussion of violence altogether.

Therapists working from a feminist perspective will make reference to the battered woman syndrome. According to Dr. Walker’s research (Cycle of Violence), women in highly abusive relationships develop a type of learned helplessness. That is, they become so accustomed to the abuse in their lives that they begin to believe that change is impossible; that they are helpless in changing their circumstances. Learned helplessness and the psychological trauma incurred as a result of the abuse, according to feminists, may render a person incapable of making balanced and thoughtful decisions. In other words, feminist theory would argue that because of her trauma, the battered woman is not capable, or is limited in her ability, to choose what is best for them and their children. As a result, therapists operating from a feminist perspective believe in persuading a battered woman to leave an abusive partner.

Facilitating Empowerment

In the end, a psychologist’s ultimate goal is to create a therapeutic environment that enhances their client’s ability to explore the pros and cons of their decisions, regardless of the theory, or theories, that guide their work. Psychotherapy provides opportunities for people to feel empowered and autonomous in deciding what is best for them during difficult moments in their lives. For many victims of abuse, feeling empowered and autonomous is a significant step towards healing and moving forward.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…

(Richard Amaral, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist with a private practice in mid-town Toronto. Click on the About Me tab above for more information or to book a session.)


Hunter, S. (2001). Working with domestic violence: Ethical dilemmas in five theoretical approaches. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 22(2), 80-99.

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