“I am glad I paid such little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
I am not a fan of advice columns. Especially when I am in my role as a psychotherapist, I find that giving advice is a bit like giving my children junk food. While it is initially satisfying for them and certainly easier for me, ultimately advice does not provide my clients with real nurturance and the opportunity for growth.
With that said, I do feel there is a place for a therapist to share what they have learned through their training and experience. We as psychotherapists have a potentially important role in helping our clients understand what is happening and why. As we have all undoubtedly seen, it often with understanding that we are able to change. So as is true in my role as a therapist, the purpose of my new column is not to answer the question of “what do I do?”, but rather “what is happening and/or why does this happen?” I would like to formally invite the readers of this column to submit questions in attempt to better understand emotional and relational issues. In the coming months I hope to attempt to answer these questions and point to resources that can help the reader.
Q: Why do I get so angry with my boss?
A: It goes without saying that without knowing you, your boss, or your work environment, I cannot accurately answer your question. But I may be able to talk about the emotion of anger in such a way that you can start to figure the answer out for yourself.
When we therapists engage in psychobabble with one another, we often refer to primary vs. secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the deepest layer of feeling. They are typically related to our core emotional self. Examples of more vulnerable (and painful) primary emotions might be shame, emptiness, fear, and abandonment. Secondary emotions are typically the emotions that rise up in reaction to our primary emotions. For example, if we are feeling afraid, we might react on the surface by exhibiting anxiety, distractibility, tearfulness, or hyper vigilance.
Anger is most often considered a secondary emotion. When someone is angry, very often there is a more vulnerable emotion that gives rise to this reaction. So when you ask the question, “why am I angry at my boss”, my first thought relates to how your boss or work environment might make you feel vulnerable. Do you feel disrespected/missed? Do you feel insecure? Might you feel overly pressured, cheated, or even infatuated (after all, anger can be an emotion you have in reaction to your desire to not have a primary emotion!)? In other words, the answer to your question is most likely connected in to a deeper level of feeling. If you can identify this primary emotion, you are likely going to be much more able to find the answer for yourself.
Ben Elfant-Rea has been a psychotherapist for 10 years. He specializes in addiction, anxiety, and relationship issues, including couples therapy. His office is located in downtown
San Luis Obispo. Ben’s new website is www.centralcoastpsychotherapy.com