I’ve noticed that often when clients tell me about situations which generate anxiety in them, I feel angry. Not at them, of course: I’m experiencing the anger they’d be feeling if they weren’t so anxious. Sound puzzling? Read on and I promise it will make sense.

To understand this dynamic, let me explain one way that therapists work. We use ourselves as conduits of people’s feelings, that is, when someone would naturally be feeling an emotion, say, anger, and instead intellectualizes it or feels hurt or sad, we end up feeling the unacknowledged, unexpressed feeling. Even if we can’t completely explain the ins and outs of this dynamic, my 30+ years of experience validates it.

Of note, many anxiety-filled clients seethe with underlying anger—even if they don’t realize it. Misunderstood and mistreated, they’ve swallowed their needs and authentic emotions and are left with just about the only feeling they find acceptable and familiar: anxiety. For example, a wife becomes anxious about her husband’s love for her because he regularly denies her emotional needs. More appropriately, she’d feel angry that he ignores and belittles her. Or, a father worries himself sick over an unemployed adult child who lives with him to avoid growing up and measuring up in the greater world. Rather than feeling anxious about his adult child, that father would do better to acknowledge his anger at being used and manipulated by him.

How often does anxiety cover your anger? Why is it easier to experience anxiety than rage? Perhaps because anxiety is more comfortable, familiar, and less interpersonally threatening. Because when you’re anxious rather than angry, the only person you generally end up hurting is yourself, but if you were to experience and express anger, who knows whose feelings would get hurt. Transforming anger into anxiety is a common psychic defense, but it doesn’t help you become authentic or emotionally healthy.

Moreover, this kind of chronic anger disguised as anxiety can drive you to eat because turning to food is yet another way of shoving away your true feelings. Until you can accept that your ire is just and necessary, you may not be able to stop unwanted eating. Consider if underneath your food abuse, frequent anxiety, and mega fears, there’s a feeling lurking that is more frightening: anger that you’ve been mistreated and won’t stand for it any more. Acknowledging this anger and directing it where it should be directed will free you up from much of the constant tension you feel inside that drives you to abuse food and obsess about weight. It is a must-take step in your recovery.