Taps, floods, and anger

One of the analogies that I invented years ago and use extensively to explain unwelcome or ‘negative’ emotions is The Bathroom Tap.

Let’s say that you share your house with a friend, friends, or family.  After your day’s work you arrive home, open the front door and discover water running down the stairs and into the hallway.  The hallway is already flooded with a few inches/centimetres of water.

What do you do?

Do you rush into the kitchen, find a bucket and a mop and start furiously mopping up the hallway?  That’s pretty unlikely. Because the water is still running down the stairs – because somebody has left a bathroom tap running upstairs!

So your first sensible step is to turn off the tap.  Unless you do that you will be mopping up for ever!

Anger: the mop or the tap?

Unuseful emotions such as anger don’t just occur without reason.  We don’t inhale them.  We don’t pick them up as a virus. We don’t have broken brains. Nor broken nerves.

They occur because of how our brain is working.  In this analogy ‘how our brain is working’ is the bathroom tap.

And the angry emotions and the behaviour that emanates as a result of this brain-activity is the symptom.  That’s the water that is flooding the hallway.

I recently was asked by a parent what to do about their nine-year-old child’s anger.  Naturally, like any loving parent, they wanted a method to make the child ‘not angry’.

Good intention, yes.  But wrong strategy.  The child’s anger is occurring because of what’s going on in their mind.  Unless the parent can get to know what the child is thinking that is resulting in the angry emotions then they will always be looking for mops and buckets. They need to gradually draw the child out and get to know what the world is like from their view point.

No ‘negative’ emotions

Incidentally, anger isn’t always negative or unuseful – in fact no unpleasant emotion will inevitably be negative.

The key is to find out what the emotion doing for you/them. What role is it playing in the person’s life? Then by taking action on this you will remove the need for the emotion.

By the way, there is a series of articles dealing with anger in our Mind-Body Health website : http://www.pe2000.com/anger.html



  1. Alice on 23rd January 2012 at 12:18 AM

    The poor child has a lousy role model. I think we must work on anger together.
    It is fascinating that many of these behaviours are to do with control, be it anger, depression or being late (to take the 3 posts I read this morning). Anger often being about controlling others, or not letting them control you, depression about not having enough control and things being pointless, and lateness being about who is most important. (I risk sweeping generalisations.)
    I have become more aware of how I use power at work, and how it spills over to everyday life inappropriately, and messes up informal relationships. Isn’t life fascinating?! Always something else to think about.

  2. Margaret Johnson on 23rd January 2012 at 12:28 AM

    Hi Reg, I had read The Anger Habit and was fairly busy at the time so did not take time to respond.
    I have an anger response when I think that I am being treated badly or with disrespect. I don’t remember having tantrums, when I was a child, about things that I could not have. Maybe that’s because when we asked for things the answer was more often no than yes so we, meaning people of my generation were used to having little and appreciated early in life that treats were occasional and not everyday incidentals. Today’s parents of course have the problem of supermarket shopping to overcome, with all the temptation that offers, and the tantrums of tired and hungry children to deal with. I find the tap can be easily turned off by confronting the child with what they look and sound like.

    I have to say the bathroom tap analogy you used above pretty well sums up how anger can overflow, if the source is kept flowing. The fermentation analogy is another. suppressed anger is like a fermentation vessel with an airlock or a cork. The airlock version has small outbursts of the volatile gas produced and the one with the cork will eventually either explode or fire the cork with possible dramatic and perhaps dangerous effects.
    I used an NLP technique (to turn off the tap) a few years ago when I felt I had been used and disrespected. I found that I was dwelling on the incident and that it was not healthy. As it was within a personal relationship I used a technique where I replaced the angry feelings with previous feelings of pleasure. That turned off the tap, not immediately but after several mini sessions. I found that I had not had the invasive thoughts and anger for a while. I was then able to look at the relationship without emotion, accepting that the person has a skills gap, had not been shown what respect was as a child and failed to acquire it as an adult. Though able to master methods which mimic consideration and respect on the surface to get what they want, I find that the deeper respect for fellow human beings is lacking in many people in Britain, perhaps this is due to our divisive socio-economic positions that developed from being invaded and becoming an invading nation. Just realised that I mounted my personal hobby horse, so I will stop there, except to say that there is a great case for introducing NLP in our schools education system.

  3. Russell Bee on 23rd January 2012 at 12:56 AM

    Interesting analogy Reg, a sound one with a more meanignful look into it.

    Simply dealing with the anger & re-framing in an NLP way has merit of course (a mop up), however looking at the thought patterns behind the anger, & learning why we get angry (our tap is running) and how to avoid getting angry in the first place (turning off our tap) is a much deeper level of understanding and helpfulness

    Great blog to start the year 🙂

  4. Reg on 23rd January 2012 at 9:35 AM

    Hi Russell:

    Yes, mopping up is what most traditional and NLP approaches focus on. Which amazes me.

    But it shouldn’t. The traditional approaches tend to be largely developmental (let’s talk about what happened in your childhood?) or cognitive (let’s create positive and calming things to think about when you get angry.)

    So is NLP the wonderful answer? As you’ve suggested in your comment, the answer is ‘NO’. Because as it is widely used, NLP is another bunch of techniques – another set of mops and buckets. That’s not how NLP began – but it’s how it is generally taught. Which is a pity.


  5. Reg on 23rd January 2012 at 9:45 AM

    Hi Margaret:

    Good to hear from you again. Yes, it’s been a busy month and a half for me, too, which is why there was an unintended gap in the blog postings.

    One thing, out of many, that’s worth commenting on in your message: the way you used an NLP technique to deal with a specific trigger. Which can be very successful – if it is not something that has been fermenting for years, and if it is dealt with in the thorough way you did.

    This seems to contradict what I’ve just said in my message to Russell. Yet it’s not. There is a difference between one-off triggers and the habit or attitude of anger.


  6. Reg on 23rd January 2012 at 9:51 AM

    Hi Alice:

    Using the Fight or Flight concept, as I see it anger as ‘fight’ and therefore wanting to be in charge, to master things etc. Anxiety and panic are in the ‘flight’ category and are about avoiding, escaping, hiding.

    Oversimplifying things, I agree. But it’s a starting point for thinking about solutions.

    (Thanks for reminding me yesterday that comments on previous articles had closed. I have now changed the setting so that comments can be made up to 56 days after the posting.)


  7. Margaret Johnson on 24th January 2012 at 10:13 PM

    Yes fight or flight are very common responses to stress situations. I see these as self preserver techniques. of course they don’t always work, nothing does, but as Reg points out they can become a habit/reaction.
    I readily admit to having the “Hell hath no fury” reaction. I can also see how self destructive this can be if not controlled and used wisely rather than allowed to control and wildly destroy others or oneself. As Reg says there is a place for anger, it can be a real stimulant for social and personal reform. Knowing when and how to use anger, having the language skills, self confidence and control to put across a valid point in a convincing manner is a valuable force for change. We should encourage more people to have these skills by encouraging reasoned debate in young people.

  8. Alice on 26th January 2012 at 2:16 PM

    Hi Reg
    Just read your blog entry again. I think said child is now able to get angry then take himself off to cool down without risking getting suspended from school. Funnily enough, once he realised quite how much trouble he was in, he said he would stop throwing things, however cross he got.

    He still maintains the possibility of getting so angry he cannot control himself, and I haven’t worked out whether that is a confidence issue or not.
    I remember as a child getting so cross about the burning injustice of other people’s behaviour and how unfair it all was. Funnily enough, I remember the feeling but few incidents. I do remember at I threw a welly out of the classroom and it went through a window! I felt awful! After a while I just let people’s behaviour wash over me more, but I am not sure when, and if it is still that sense of injustice that can lead to my feeling miserable about lack of control at work, with dictats from above that simply mean you don’t have enough time to do the job properly, rather than adding anything.

    Like having to do pointless training days.

    With trying to sort out my road rage, usually bicycle rage, I usually think it has worked, doing a swish or something, but then there is another situation that I react badly to. I am finding it difficult to generalise, so I must be swishing the wrong thing, or not getting at the underlying beliefs. The swishes thus far have just mopped up after, which is no good for next time.

    So, does this help the 9 year old? Perhaps talking about what does it for me might help him think about what does it for him. The language of exploring his feelings is not really there yet.
    Now I have to help the 7 year old to stop getting herself into grumps – I can see her developing ongoing problems with mood unless she has the skills to choose to do something else.

    Children are funny!

  9. Reg on 26th January 2012 at 4:15 PM

    Hi Alice

    Anger, to me, can be like the final retreat point – the ‘thus far and no further’ point.

    It can motivate us to take action to put the situation or the world right. If we have the skills to use it rather than be a victim of it.

    Few young people of 7 or 9 are likely to have these skills – they are still functioning at a highly Kinaesthetic level, in which they are driven by their emotions

    It’s quite possible that conversational questions, from an adult with whom they are in rapport, can be an opportunity for them to discover and develop by themselves the skill of being able to redirect the inclination to be angry into a constructive direction.

    Worth giving it a go, perhaps