How To Deal With Anger in Early Sobriety (The Truth About Emotions!)

Anger In Early Sobriety…

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Fast talkers can puff up the pink cloud you’re surfing in early sobriety.

In moments of despondency, they can inject you with much needed hope and emotional fuel.

They can inspire you with motivational speeches, fiery body gestures, and clever catch phrases.

The truth, however, is that early sobriety is like shell shock.

For most of us alcohol was our primary tool for living and it’s just been removed from the picture.

There aren’t enough fast talkers in the world to keep that cloud soaring.

Eventually, in fantastic arrays of pink it bursts and you’re left with yourself.

Now what?

Well, one of the primary symptoms of this lack-of-tools conundrum is anger, before we tackle this emotional mammoth, let’s begin our tour with a quick overview of emotions.

Raw Emotions

Emotions come from the Latin term emovere meaning moving. The term is a combination of energy and motion, an expression of how life is constantly in flowing motion.”

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, “emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us.”

All e-motions are fleeting, as you likely noticed. They’re not a neatly fixed entity that’s easily observed and measured.

This hasn’t stopped psychologists from breaking emotions down into primary, secondary, and tertiary categories – a taxonomy of emotion as it were.

what is emotion?

Primary Emotions

Your first emotional reaction to any event is usually referred to as your primary emotion.

They’re less complex and usually extremely powerful and transient.

They are in and out.

Think of them as emotional first responders, first on the scene but the quickest to leave.

The most common primary emotions are basic emotions like fear, anger, happiness, and sadness.

Secondary Emotions

Once the first responders are done with their initial assessment, the more specific and detailed specialists move in.

These are usually referred to as secondary emotions, they provide feedback on the initial assessment.

Let’s think of secondary emotions as the emergency physicians, surgeons, psychiatrists, and the like.

Secondary emotions are less transient, they are more skilled in as much as they are conditioned responses.

For example, I get angry and lose my cool but then shortly afterwards am ashamed of my behavior.

The secondary emotion tends to scrutinize and react to the original reaction.

In other words, the secondary emotions tend to be intimately tied to specific beliefs we have about ourselves, others, and the world. Moreover, they are reactions to our feelings about an event or our primary emotion.

Tertiary emotions are just more intricate and complex, they further evaluate and respond to the secondary emotion.

The Feeling Wheel anger in early sobriety
The Feeling Wheel — Robert Plutchik, Ph.D

Is Anger A Secondary Emotion?

For the record, I tend to think the categorization is overly simplistic. I suppose it’s helpful for research purposes, but in reality the waters are far more murky.

Anger is a primary emotion, but it most certainly could be a secondary and a tertiary emotion. It’s all context dependent.

If someone breaks into my house with malicious intent anger is unequivocally an appropriate primary emotion.

If the justice meted out parallels the threat, then it’s not only healthy but responsible.

Nonetheless, this is rarely the case!

The Reckless Driver

If someone is driving recklessly on the freeway, 100mph and swerving in and out of lanes, it would be the height of stupidity to follow pursuit in anger trying to match their threat with a parallel justice.

Instead, you’d merely have two maniacs on the road.

Actually, if each subsequent person encountered followed the same route, you’d merely multiply the amount of lunatics on the road infinitely.

Anger here is the primary emotion and it will in no way serve you. It’s unresourceful and extraordinarily primitive.

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This first responder needs the specialists to step in and correct the underlying issue.

A quick fix won’t be effective here, this emotion needs the operating room.

However, secondary emotions can often be intricately employed to conceal. Thus we arrive at the problem.

The Anger Iceberg

The majority of the time anger serves one vital purpose: to protect raw feelings.

This is critical for our current discussion.

Now that you no longer have alcohol – or whatever addiction you may have had – your raw feelings are open, bare, seemingly vulnerable to the hostile and cold world.

With what will you shield them? Anger.

A common manner at observing this phenomenon is found in the anger iceberg.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet taught us two primary things: love is a heaven and icebergs will bring you there.

The dangerous thing about icebergs is the fact that what you see is misleading.

The tiny amount that breaks the surface is but a small part of a massive piece of floating ice.

How is this analogous to anger?

The anger tends to be the surface, it’s what is visible. The upshot is what’s not visible, what’s below the service, is what you’re using anger to camouflage.

Why conceal what you’re really feeling with anger? Why be all cloak and dagger? What possible reasoning can you have to employ emotional clandestine operations?

Because you lack the tools!

High School Pep Rally Disaster

A perfect example of this is a cringe worthy experience I had in high school.

As an aspiring basketball player the pep rally was a big deal. Not merely to fuel the crowds but to stamp my image indelibly on their hearts and minds.

This was my chance to prove myself.

What was my vision?

Once the announcer called out my name and number I’d slowly trot towards the rest of my teammates and at the perfect moment rip off my buttoned windbreaker pants revealing my full mint attire and brand spanking new Air Jordans.

The goal? To revel in my glory and bask in the woos from the ladies.

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Fate, however, had other plans in mind.

Once they called my name and number I proceeded as planned. During the moment of execution, I accidentally tripped, bringing the pants and shorts down to my knees and falling face first and bare assed for the world to see.

The feelings that surged within me were so horrifying and overwhelming I knew little else other than fleeing from the court full speed and hiding in the locker room.

Nothing in my 13 years of experience prepared me for this emotional catastrophe. I lacked any and all tools for this white squall of negative feelings.

I wasn’t without support though. My closest friend, Danny, followed me in the locker room trying to convince me it wasn’t that big of a deal and no one really cared.

I wasn’t buying it.

I screamed violently at him and with many rage-fueled expletives told him to hit the road.

Why? Because anger was a convenient way to disguise my inability to deal with such difficult feelings.

This is frequently what people mean when they refer to anger as a secondary emotion.

For some a “secondary emotion is an emotion fueled by other emotions. For example, if you become hurt in some way, you might express this negative emotion instead of emotional and physical pain – it might be easier to express anger than express hurt.”

“Primary emotions are how we react to events and situations. Secondary emotions are reactions to how we feel.”

At this point I’m confident you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

What Can We Do About It? (Concepts from Mindsight)

I suppose the real question is, “Are we sentenced to a life of difficult feelings with little weaponry to counter the attack?”

Of course not! Numerous psychotherapies offer a variety of strategies and techniques to take control of your emotional state and your reactions to the world around you.

One such work in particular stands out. Dan Seigel, creator of Interpersonal Neurobiology, authored a phenomenal book titled Mindsight that holds some intriguing, even invaluable and novel ideas.

In my estimate, Seigel has developed an armory of tools to aid you in your quest to conquer emotional marauders.

Vanessa Van Edwards, a contributor to Science of People, summarizes Siegel’s work magnificently,

Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, enables us to get ourselves off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in…The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in the accepting to let it go, and, finally, to transform it.”

Two of the main strategies of Mindsight I will present here to enable you to competently and confidently deal with your anger and/or whatever other troubling emotion you are seeking to avoid.

1st Strategy: Name and Tame

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One of the major strategies for Mindsight is the “name and tame” technique.

Dr. Bruce Freeman aptly captures the thrust of this method in his article “Name It to Tame It: Labelling Emotions to Reduce Stress & Anxiety.”

Dr. Dan Siegel coined the phrase, name it to tame it. Psychologist David Rock states, ‘when you experience significant internal tension and anxiety, you can reduce stress by up to 50% by simply noticing and naming your state.’ Abblett further explains, if we can see the emotion, we do not have to be the emotion. Noticing and naming our emotions helps create some distance between the emotion and the intense feelings that accompany it.”

You may think this trivial, perhaps even irrelevant, but give it a try. 50% is hardly a trivial!

If emotional health is the ability to adapt and adjust to the conditions around us, then understanding ourselves is the beginning of optimized self-regulation.

For instance, instead of saying “I am angry,” be more forthright, “I feel angry.”

This is more of an honest statement because anger is a process, not an event.

It’s the process of being angry. Recall, emotion is just energy in motion.

It’s not static nor is it fixed.

So, the statement “I am angry” is patently false. You’d be claiming your identity, which is far more concrete than emotion, is in fact a transient emotion.

This would be admitting that an emotion has actually subdued you, has overtaken your will in some capacity.

Consequently, the reality is you have accepted a belief about yourself that is extraordinarily limiting and serves you in no way.

This, however, is not the emotion of anger but a maladaptive belief about the self.

Thus, wisdom instructs us to turn this feeling back into a verb, to capture it’s motion.

In NLP, or just grammar in general, a nominalization is a verb (or adjective) that functions as a noun. For example, as nominalizations, the verbs “state” and “assume” become the nouns “statement” and “assumption.”

NLP demonstrates how this is critical for our mental and emotional health.

“I feel angry,” expresses the nominalization with more clarity, this is because being angry is the process of feeling the emotion of anger.

Just like relationships are a process of relating and a decision is the process of deciding, so being angry is the process of anger.

With this insight it is far easier to distance oneself from the emotion, because like all processes it will inevitably come to a closure and move on to the next process.

As that ancient maxim states, “this too shall pass,” and it will, in fact it must, by design.

In sum, if we can “see” the emotion we do not have “to be” the emotion.

So, name it and tame it!

2nd Strategy: Leaving Autopilot

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Another important principle in Mindsight is learning to jettison autopilot. The idea is to be aware of your mental processes without being completely swept away by them.

To piggyback off the “see it, don’t be it method,” this strategy seeks more than mere identification with the emotion, it aims at a total overall of the default processes that create them!

If you pay attention, you’ll discover a host of ingrained behaviors, habitual responses, and emotional loops, that are largely unconscious patterns that govern damn near everything you think, feel, and do.

In a remarkably clear and intuitive article titled “How to Stop Living Life on Autopilot,” Gustavo Razzetti breaks down the entire structure of Leaving Autopilot into two systems.

System One he says “is an automatic, fast, and unconscious way of thinking—it’s our autopilot. This system is autonomous and efficient, though deceiving too. It’s more prone to bias and repetitive errors.”

This system is the predominant one. When you’re driving down the freeway and completely zone out, losing yourself in the spiral of your thoughts, and drive four exits past your offramp, you’re steeped in System One.

When you’re at the office all day, being productive but basically remembering nothing, once more lost in the swamp of your consciousness, this is autopilot.

On the opposing end of the spectrum Razzetti observes that System Two is slow, conscious, and effortful—it requires attention and energy. It’s more reliable and can filter the misjudgments of System One.

I call this system our internal auditing software. This system is intentional and able to provide software updates and tweaks to the operating system of your mind.

Obviously you cannot remain in this state all day, nothing would ever get done. Rather, this is where the blueprint is designed. System Two constructs the project and then System One takes the data and applies it.

Throughout the article Razzetti painstakingly highlights the importance of System One and how, when driven by healthy beliefs and rational assumptions, it can be a well calibrated and resourceful system.

Nonetheless, in order to fine-tune autopilot you need to get back in the driver seat and command System Two with intentionality and purpose.

He identified five tips to enable you to achieve this ideal.

  1. Notice how you drive.
  2. Set your GPS.
  3. Bring meaning to your routines.
  4. Stop and reflect.
  5. Go beyond your comfort zone.
  6. Make better decisions.

Noticing how you drive is about paying attention to your autopilot.

What do your habits look like?
How’s your interactions with others?
Where are you effective?
Where are you not?
What can be improved upon?

Like a detective begin to ask why things are the way they are. Look for root causes by examining effects. What are you driven by? What do you fear? What motivates you?

The next step is to set your GPS

Setting your GPS refers to the injection of meaning into your life.

It’s about understanding your values and establishing goals that align with them, a properly calibrated system.

Frequently, anger is the result of a situation or event that is not congruent with our values.

In other words, our values are not being honored and we are emotionally reactive.

The problem is that when we are governed by our default autopilot system, we tend to point the finger at whatever seems to be causing our distress, rather than seeing our values being clashed with.

If your GPS was set, you’d be far less likely to run into these encounters because you’d intentionally place yourself in conditions that complimented your values.

Live a life congruent with you values anger in early sobriety

To illustrate, maybe you’re in a relationship and your partner is unfaithful or operates on the fringe of fidelity.

This relationship was established by strong feelings that seemed to disregard values.

However, after a short period of time you find that your values aren’t necessarily compatible.

You tend to like strong communication and spending tons of time together. Perhaps they like their space and tend to keep things to themselves.

Maybe you value honesty and transparency whereas they prefer honesty but are willing to bend their morals a bit in the name of self-interest.

Unless you’re willing to compromise a significant portion of your values, which in my experience is next to impossible, you have two options.

The first is to sever the relationship because the values are not incompatible.

The relationship consists of two people who have a GPS set in a totally different direction, the destination will likely forever remain too far apart.

These types of morally long distance relationships never work!

Or, you could force the person into your value mold. You could amplify their good qualities and minimize their bad ones. I call this the Amplification Proclamation.

The problem here is that it’s not real. You’re in love with an idea, not a person.

The Amplification Proclamation will create a significant portion of conflict and anger, because the truth will rear it’s ugly head on occasion.

The only way to experience emotional contentment is the first option because it’s in accord with your values and corresponds with reality.

This is setting the GPS, that is crafting a life and lifestyle that is congruent with what’s most important to you.

Naturally this approach will bring meaning to your routines because you’re living life on purpose!

A life lived and enriched with intentionality and goals forged by your personal values is the needed software optimization of your mental hardware

In order to keep this consistent, you need to stop and reflect and recalibrate and refine.

You’re only as effective as your ability to pause and reevaluate.

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In this sense, you’ll begin to push yourself moving beyond your comfort zone, or what I call your familiarity zone.

When a problem emerges on your current level for development you’ll seamlessly progress to a higher stage.

A problem created on one stage demands transcendence to an elevated stage to solve it.

You become willing to expand, grow, and develop.

This, in turn, will create a broader field of awareness and, with a plethora of options, the result is superior decision making.

So, enroll in driving school.

It’s time to relearn the fundamentals, don’t let your anger and other difficult emotions exploit your sobriety.