Alarm Feelings: Anger, Guilt, Shame, and Shut down

Anger, guilt, shame, and shut down are important alarms. They let you know three things: 1) you are disconnected from your needs, 2) You have a perception that your needs are or will be unmet, 3) A specific and predictable kind of thinking is present.

These alarms feelings aren't "bad" or invalid. It's important to identify them and feel them. It's equally important not to take action or make decisions based on them because they are a sign of reactivity. That means if you take action from one of these feelings your view will be narrow and likely distorted. You will create more suffering. This can be avoided by getting to know these alarms better. You can start by asking what thoughts, feelings, and needs are behind each of the alarm feelings?

Anger Behind anger the most basic thought is that things should be different than they are or someone should act different than they are. The word ‘should' can lead you quickly to a disconnected state. In the context of recovering from a relationship in which you experienced trauma or lack of consideration for your needs, anger can also indicate progress. Anger can be an important indicator that you are beginning to honor yourself and recognize that your needs were not met. You are saying, "This should not have happened to me!"  Unfortunately many get stuck here in the healing process and don't take the next step which is to mourn what happened.

Guilt & Shame The voice of guilt says some version of, "I shouldn't have done that, it was bad." Shame is often more painful because it is about who you are and your sense of worth or acceptance. Shame contains some version of: "I shouldn't have done that, I am bad." Taking action out of guilt and shame can land you in the violent concept of punishing yourself to restore goodness in which someone else decides how bad you are and doles out that punishment. Guilt and shame are only useful when they lead you to connect with unmet needs in someone else or yourself rather than judgments about good and bad.

Shut down The voice or belief of shut down denies your existence in some way. Specific phrases might include:  "I shouldn't feel sad (or substitute any other emotion)", "I shouldn't have those needs," "I shouldn't take up space or ask for what I want."

So, how can you handle these emotions in a way that leads to connection and honor of all involved?

Acceptance, Clarity and Mourning

First, there is to accept the way things are. I don't mean submit or accept in a hopeless way, but rather acknowledge what is or what was without resistance. You are having these painful feelings related to something you or someone else did. Let yourself feel that. Resistance can take many forms - tensing the body, telling stories to excuse or justify what happened, or engaging the voices of anger, guilt, shame or depression as described above. The simplicity of acknowledging what is without resisting it is a powerful practice.

Second, there is to recognize that anger, guilt, shame, and shut down don't arise because of another's words or behavior. They can only arise if you are having the thoughts and/or beliefs mentioned above. Listen for those thoughts in your consciousness. What are the exact words? Writing them down can help. Once they are outside your head, they lose a little power and it is easier for you to suspend your belief in them.

Third, there is to feel the feelings below anger, guilt, shame, and shut down. Sadness or regret for needs unmet is usually underneath. Feeling sadness or regret requires a level of vulnerability and responsibility that isn't present with anger, guilt, shame, & shut down. From this place of connection to more vulnerable feelings you can move to the needs unmet in yourself and others. Responsible action comes from connecting to these needs and acting to meet them.


Take a moment now to reflect on the last time you experienced one of the four alarms.  With a journal, friend, or counselor, follow these steps when you notice an alarm feeling:

1)  Name what happened in neutral observational terms.

2)  Identify what you are telling yourself about what happened.

3)  Connect with the feelings and needs underneath the alarm feeling.

4)  Let yourself mourn the needs that went or are still unmet.

5)  Decide what action you would like to take to begin to meet needs.