“What does Anger have to do with Boredom?”

        “What’s gotten into Derek lately? He really doesn’t seem to care about anything anymore. He dropped out of soccer and now he says he doesn’t want to play baseball.”, complained Barbara. “I don’t get it. He used to love sports! His grades are worse than last year and all he does is waste time playing video games.”, said Jack in response. “He seems bored and apathetic all the time”, he added. Although his parents didn’t know it, Derek was also getting into more and more fights with Kristen, his girlfriend. At least she used to be his girlfriend. Derek was worried that she didn’t like him anymore, because lately she was always busy and never came over anymore.

“You should have told me you were going to be late to the party. And, why didn’t you organize the drinks?”, he found himself yelling at her after the birthday party he had organized for her. The next day, Derek regretted exploding at her again. At the time, all he was thinking about was how she was lazy, that he couldn’t trust her and she had let him down again. Now, he questioned it all and reminded himself that Kristen was only trying to have a good time. He couldn’t figure it out! Why was he either feeling bad hanging out with nothing to do or getting all upset about nothing with Kristen?

Derek finally talked to his mom about losing interest in just about everything and how he was feeling a bit hopeless. He was worried about not getting a scholarship and he knew he was shutting everybody out and slacking at school. After talking awhile, Barbara finally came to understand that Derek was being bullied at school by two guys who were trying to blackmail him into not telling anyone that they were stealing his stuff with threats that they would beat him up. And they were two big football dudes! He was intimated and was avoiding confronting them. He knew other kids were in the same situation, but he didn’t want to be the first to say anything.

The Connection Between Boredom and Anger

“Apathy or boredom point to a lack of boundaries” suggests Karla McLaren in her book, “The Language of Emotion”. She calls apathy the “Mask for Anger”. What does anger have to do with boredom, you may ask? McLaren describes how when we don’t stand up for ourselves, we are easy targets for bullies and people who try to take advantage of us. We can feel bored and apathetic, rather than face the truth and express healthy boundaries when our boundaries have been disrespected or violated. Some people, for various reasons, don’t easily feel and become aware of anger they are experiencing. Avoiding things we are irritated or angry about has it’s consequences. Unexpressed or bottled up anger can get frozen in us, which can lead to low energy, apathy, depression and not caring about much of anything. When we notice that we are feeling anger, it is good to question whether a boundary has been violated or threatened. Expressing our anger can give us energy to appropriately set healthy boundaries.

In their book, “When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within”, Matthew McKay, Peter D. Rogers and Judith McKay state that “Stress is the fuel of anger, because it creates high levels of physiological arousal that must be discharged. But stress does not, by itself, create anger. Each combatant must bring a set of “trigger thoughts” that act as psychological flint to ignite the anger and aggression.”, p. 44. They describe two types of common “trigger thoughts”, one are “should” thoughts and the other are “blame” thoughts. While I was working as a Psychotherapist and Life Coach with Derek, I mentioned the idea of “trigger thoughts” that intensify our anger when under stress. Once he realized he could think about his thoughts, Derek began to see how he had “should” thoughts about his girlfriend, and these thoughts only made things worse. With a bit of time, he usually saw things differently. “Why should she help me out?”, he thought, “She only wants to enjoy the party. She never signed up to be a bartender”. He also saw that he had “blame” thoughts about his dad and his advice to stay with soccer and baseball. These “blame” and “should” thoughts somehow seemed so different when he wasn’t under stress and all was calm.

Stress, Trigger Thoughts and Anger seen as an Iceberg

I shared a concept commonly called the “Anger Iceberg” with Derek. He began to visualize anger as the top of an iceberg with various feelings underneath the surface in the water. Combining this image with the “trigger thought” idea, Derek had some insights. His stress was the fact that two mean guys at school were bullying him. He was also worried that he might not get into college and that his girlfriend was going to break up with him. When he was angry, along with these stressors there were his “trigger thoughts” hidden under the surface. He was actually also feeling afraid, frustrated, lonely, helpless, nervous, ashamed, disappointed and hurt. Most of the iceberg is hidden and floating below the surface. However, it’s what he needed to look at. When using this image, he began to be aware that underneath there is something different than what appears on the angry surface. Then, he saw what he could do to melt the anger iceberg!

Eventually, Derek came to see that if he didn’t start standing up for himself with these bullies, he was going to flunk out of school and not get a scholarship. After Derek started to intentionally express his anger appropriately, he started to feel more alive and motivated. At the same time, Derek’s anger was piling up and he found himself getting excessively angry at Kristen (instead of fighting back at the bullies). Anger is a good motivator when it leads us to set healthy boundaries where needed or to say “no” to things we do not feel are right, but it can also ruin relationships. Derek was planning on being cautious with it and to explore what he was actually angry about (if he was even actually angry at all), before he expressed it. His main take away, Derek said, was that “combining the Anger Iceberg and the ‘trigger thought’ idea help me sort out what I’m angry about and what I‘m disappointed or worried about and see these as different things”. “My goal”, he added, “is to express anger in a ‘not too little and not too much way’.

© 2019 Sharon Sanborn

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More information about the author, Sharon Sanborn, a Psychotherapist, Life and Relationship Coach and On-Line Educator living in Seattle, Washington at www.SharonSanborn.com