Hair-Trigger Emotions? Blame Your Iceberg Beliefs

Emotions can hit like a storm—out of the clear blue. And the raw intensity can be upsetting and leave you wondering what’s wrong with you. You think, “Oh I must be stressed.” That may be true, but here may be another reason why your emotions get so out of whack.

That reason is likely Iceberg Belief. It’s a thought or belief you have—about the world, yourself, the way people should act—that even you may not be aware of. Its sits just below the surface and looms large enough that it gets in your way without you realizing it.

They’re called Icebergs because only the tip is in our conscious awareness. The rest lies under water, below the level of awareness. Like a real iceberg, these thoughts can be difficult to steer around, and can even sink the ship.

They’re developed in childhood, before you’re even aware of them. And for the most part you take them for granted, and don’t realize they’re causing stress. But they are.

How to Spot an Iceberg Belief

One easy way to know one is that it includes “must” or “should,” as in, “I must be the perfect parent,” or “if someone loves me, he should let me do whatever I want.”

There are three different categories of Iceberg Beliefs, representing the different worlds or areas you occupy in your life:

The Achievement World includes school, work/career, official or unofficial roles at our church, your kid’s school, community boards. The people in this world are your teachers, bosses, colleagues, and others involved in community activities.

“Failure is a sign of weakness.”
“I must never give up.”
“I should get everything right.”
“If it’s not done perfectly, it’s a failure.”
“If I can’t do it well, I won’t do it at all.”

The Social World encompasses the world of relationships, intimate partners, our children, our in-laws, family members, friends, or our social acquaintances.

“It’s my job to make sure people are happy.”
“Avoid conflict at all costs.”
“Avoid embarrassment at all costs.”
“Sacrificing for others is the right thing to do.”
“You can’t trust people.”

The World of Control involves how you deal with an erratic world, gain mastery over your life, keep to a regimen and a schedule, have things turn out the way you want them to, or feel safe and secure.

“I must always be in charge.”
“I must never show my feelings.”

“Good things happen to good people, bad things to bad people.”
“If you want it done right, do it yourself.”
“The world should be fair.”

To the extent that Icebergs reflect our values and worldview, they can be extremely valuable. You probably have several you operate by.

You can see how conflicting Icebergs can cause problems—say, for instance, if you believe that “you must do everything right” and also “you must be a perfect parent.” It just takes one major professional obligation to run up against a parental one to cause you to come apart at the seams—because you can’t make both “fit.” And that’s when emotions erupt.

Your emotional response to situations offers one of the biggest clues to discovering what Iceberg Belief is at play. Once you can identify it and navigate around it, you have a powerful skill for sailing through stressful situations.

How to Cope with Your Icebergs

There are three different strategies for dealing with your Iceberg Belief, and each depends on the kind you’re dealing with:

If your Iceberg aligns with one of your core values, and reflects something you like about yourself, embrace it while trimming away some of the emotional pain it creates. And that means being able to acknowledge that value, while coming up with a way to compromise it without violating it.

If you’re proud that you’re a hard worker but your long hours are affecting your ability to focus, you have to redefine that belief to mean that being a hard worker means taking measures to tend to your personal needs so you can work more effectively.

Some Icebergs were helpful when you were a kid, but you’ve outgrown its usefulness. It’s time to melt them down. If you find yourself thinking, “I must earn a perfect score,” stop yourself and say, Here I go again, treating my life like a spelling test. I can’t hold myself to that rule anymore. It doesn’t make sense in my life, nor is it as important as it once was. Perfection isn’t the goal.

The best way to handle unrealistic Icebergs that you only run into in a very specific situations is to steer around them. For instance, if your Iceberg is that “I should be respected and supported by my loved ones at all times,” you’re going to be very upset when your teenager doesn’t do what you ask. That will create ongoing upset for you (and her). Be prepared to steer around it the next time it comes up. Tell yourself, Yelling at her now is not going to help anything, and will only create more tension. This is a phase she’s in, and she’s testing her limits. I’m going to wait and speak to her when I’m not upset.