Emotion Icebergs

Emotion Icebergs

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By Emily Stone

When an individual comes to see me for therapy, I often give an assessment that gives us a snapshot of what is going on for him or her internally right at that moment. People experiencing depression usually are surprised to discover that they score high on anger or aggression, or both. I’m not surprised. Emotions can be complicated. Often what is seen on the surface is an extension of what is occuring underneath. This can be called emotion icebergs, since we can see the tip of the iceberg on the surface, but much of it is actually located below.

There is a lot going on when someone is experiencing depression. In no way do I want to minimize, trivialize, or simplify the experience of depression to a single cause. It is real, complex, and hard. So often, it becomes clear as our work together unfolds that my client who is experiencing depression has a lot to be angry about. For various reasons, his or her voice has been silenced in certain parts or seasons of his or her life. The anger is there, but it is buried. Sometimes it comes out in bursts. Other times it sits in his or her body and weighs everything down. In some cases, being depressed can feel like a more socially acceptable expression of that heaviness, especially for women. It may not be socially acceptable to say that one is angry, but it might seem more acceptable to say that one is down or anxious.

The flip side is also true. An angry person is often a hurt person. Anger is like the tip of an iceberg. We only see the hostility, but underneath is a mass of emotions including things like grief, sadness, fear, boredom, inadequacy, and shame. Each of these emotions sometimes likes to hide under anger. Anger can feel safer, more powerful, and less vulnerable. In a lot of ways, anger tries to protect these other emotional sides of us from being exposed. Maybe it seems like anger is more likely to be heard or to get a response. In some situations, anger can feel like a more socially acceptable emotion to express, especially for men. It may not be socially acceptable to say they are sad or feel ashamed, but it might seem more acceptable to say they are furious or pissed off.

What about you? What would it be like to consider the emotions that might be underneath your feelings of anger and/or depression? We each are raised and exist in a family, culture, and society that is more comfortable with some emotions and less comfortable with others. How did that work for you? What emotions were/are you allowed to express? What gets heard? What gets ignored, overlooked, or criticized? What emotions feel safe to express?

Exploring what is “underneath” or “behind” our outward appearance can feel intimidating and even scary. It might seem silly. What is the point? Well, most of us have been around a little child who has been ignored. What does the child do? The child tends to act out in a variety of ways. She or he might get louder. He might shut down. She might do both. Our unacknowledged parts do the same thing in ways we may not even notice, but is affecting our relationships and daily well-being.

A good therapist can help you create a safe space for emotions to be explored, acknowledged, and expressed. Many times these unexpressed emotions are tied to past or current personal experiences that just need to be “unpacked.” The experiences, along with their associated emotions, need to be said out loud. They need to be heard and honored. This work is important. Your stories are sacred. Be choosy about where you take this journey. 

If you are someone you love is experiencing issues with depression or having a difficult time managing their emotions, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. If you would like more information prior to making a decision, you can read more about depression counseling, anxiety counseling, or personal growth counseling on our dedicated service pages.

If you liked this post, you can also read How Breathing Can Focus Your Mind, Body, and Emotions, So Much Commotion Over Emotions, and How to Control Your Anger.

Photo by Hubert Neufeld on Unsplash