Building Your Resiliency: Part IV – Iceberg Ahead!

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 2, 2010 · 26 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

Image from 10 Ninja Steves

This is the fourth part in a series designed to help you boost your resiliency. For the previous entries, see Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Have you ever reacted to something with an intensity of emotion that didn’t seem to match the circumstances of the event? The logical part of your mind is telling you that’s it’s not that big of deal, but you still feel really angry/hurt/depressed/anxious, and you can’t seem to turn off the emotion.

These kind of “overreactions” can leave us feeling pretty frustrated. They hurt our relationships and keep us from making progress in our lives. Not only do they lead us to dwell on things longer than we should, but we end up making poor decisions in this emotional state. These kinds of incongruous reactions keep us from responding resiliently to our problems.

So what causes these mismatched reactions? A collision with an iceberg, an iceberg belief to be precise. Water is pouring in your hull, but atop the deck you don’t really understand what has happened. All you know is that you’re sinking-fast.

What Is an Iceberg Belief?

According to the authors of The Resilience Factor, this experience of a mismatched stimulus/reaction is “a sign you are being affected by an underlying belief-a deeply held belief about how the world ought to operate and how you feel you ought to operate within that world. …These deeper motivations and values often drive us and determine how we respond to adversity…these underlying beliefs-or icebergs, as we call them- are usually outside our awareness, deep beneath the surface of our consciousness.”

So iceberg beliefs are fixed and frozen ideas about the world that we hold deep within us. Drs. Reivich and Shatte offer these examples of iceberg beliefs:

“I should succeed at everything I put my mind to.”
“People must respect me at all times.”
“Women should be kind and supportive.”
“A man doesn’t let his emotions show.”
“Failure is a sign of weakness.”
“I must never give up.”
“Only weak people can’t solve their own problems.”

Here are some others I thought of:

“I never want to end up like my father.”
“The most important thing is to be well-liked.”
“Men are always competent in whatever they do.”
“A man never quits what he starts.”

Examples of Iceberg Scenarios

Let’s explore how these icebergs can affect you in real life by looking at some hypothetical scenarios:

Dan’s iceberg belief is, “People must respect me at all times.” As he’s driving to work, someone cuts him off. He spends the rest of the commute riding the guy’s ass, cursing, and flashing his high beams.

Jeff’s iceberg belief is “Manliness can be judged by how good you are with the ladies.” He approaches an attractive woman, and she totally blows him off. James feels deeply hurt and spends the rest of the week replaying the moment and feeling angry and depressed.

Joe’s iceberg belief is that “A man never quits what he starts.” His son Jeremy comes to him one night and tells him that he’s quitting the hockey team because he doesn’t enjoy it anymore. Joe becomes enraged at his son, telling him he’s a loser for giving up, and he’ll never amount to anything in life.

Where Do Icebergs Come From?

Iceberg beliefs can almost all be traced to the way you were brought up. If your dad was a super stoic guy, “Men don’t show emotion,” might be one of your icebergs. If your mom was Miss Manners, one of your iceberg beliefs might be: “People who are impolite are not worth knowing.”

Icebergs in Your Relationships

Icebergs can shipwreck our relationships. This is particularly true because we often have iceberg beliefs about gender roles, even ones we’re not conscious of. Have you have been beaten by a woman you were competing with in a game? Maybe you felt extra crappy about it, crappier than you’d feel if you had been beaten by a dude. You know it’s stupid to feel that way, but that emotional reaction is caused by an iceberg belief about how these encounters should go down.

We all have iceberg beliefs about how a man and how a woman should act, and when these beliefs are violated, we can have a very strong visceral reaction, and we can’t quite understand the intensity of our emotions.

Let’s say you just worked on a handyman project around the house. Or maybe you’re in charge of the finances in your relationship. And you do something wrong, even a little thing. Your wife sees the mistake, tries to pretend like it’s fine, but disappointment is written all over her face. You might feel really angry or defensive or really sulky and humiliated. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but your iceberg belief was that men always know what they’re doing, and so you feel way crappier than you should. And you probably take it out on your wife, becoming uber defensive and angry.

Note-this kind of thing can work both ways. The woman in your life may become really upset when you don’t live up to one of her icebergs beliefs. A lot of women have icebergs beliefs about men being strong and competent with everything. When you fail at something or otherwise come off as weak to them, it can create quite a visceral reaction in them. For example, my wife thinks that the man should take care of haggling deals and be awesome at it. Unfortunately, I’m not. And when I fail to get us a bargain, she gets really angry with me.

The Problems Icebergs Can Cause

“Iceberg beliefs cause you to overexperience certain emotions and underexperience others. Emotionally resilient people feel it all…but they feel those emotions at the appropriate time and to the appropriate degree. Less resilient people tend to get stuck in one emotion, and that comprises their ability to respond productively to adversity.” -The Resilience Factor

There are 4 problems that the Drs. Reivich and Shatte believe can be caused by iceberg beliefs:

1. Iceberg beliefs can become activated at unexpected times, which leads to out-of-proportion emotions and reactions.
2. Their activation might lead to emotions and behaviors that, although not extreme, are mismatched to the situation.
3. Iceberg beliefs can become too rigid, which causes you to fall into the same emotional patterns over and over.
4. Contradictory iceberg beliefs can make it hard to make a decision.

The first 3 points are pretty self-explanatory, but let’s take look at number 4. We can experience contradictory iceberg beliefs that confuse us and make decision-making difficult. You might have two iceberg beliefs: “A man should always follow his passion in life.” and “A man takes care of his family.” You’re called into your boss’ office and offered a promotion. You know you’ll hate the job but it will be a lot more money to support your family. The colliding of these icebergs can make you feel paralyzed and anxious.

It’s important to note that icebergs are not by necessity bad or good-they can be either, or both. “Integrity is the most important thing in life” is obviously a positive iceberg.” “I will never quit at anything,” has some definite positives for your life, but can be taken too far if you’re not careful. “People cannot be trusted” is a mostly negative belief. So you have to do a cost/benefit analysis of which icebergs you want to keep and make work for you and which you want to work on melting away.

Why It’s Hard to Melt Your Icebergs

You may say, well, this is good to know, I’ll just snap out of my negative icebergs and melt them away. But it’s not so easy, as we are all susceptible to a confirmation bias or what RF calls the Velcro/Teflon Effect. As you go about your life, you tend to filter out and ignore whatever doesn’t support your iceberg beliefs while honing in on everything that does.

So Gary believes, “All women are untrustworthy and manipulative.” At the start of his relationship with Sarah, she tells him that she isn’t looking to date anyone seriously. After a few weeks Gary tells Sarah that he wants to become more serious, and she tells him that they shouldn’t see each other anymore because that’s not what’s she’s looking for. Gary will seize on this snub, while ignoring what Sarah told him at the beginning of their relationship, and will declare that women are all a bunch of liars and Sarah just wanted him to take her out and pay for her meals. He may even seek out women who are untrustworthy and manipulative, to unconsciously confirm his bias. The mind can be a tricky thing.

Spotting Your Icebergs to Build Your Resilience

So it’s hard to simply shut off your iceberg beliefs. But it’s possible to stop yourself from colliding with them by spotting them before impact. By standing in your crow’s nest and being vigilant, but you can steer a smoother course for yourself. The more you become aware of your icebergs, the more you can understand why you react the way you do, and the more power you will have to react to things appropriately and resiliently.

To start spotting your icebergs, think back to the last time you felt your reaction wasn’t commensurate with the event that elicited it. Then start asking yourself some questions to get to the heart of why you felt the way you did. It helps to do this exercise in a journal or with some you deeply trust.

The Resilience Factor recommends asking the following “what” questions (why questions tend tn make you defensive) to figure out the iceberg you hit:

What does that mean to me?
What is the most upsetting part of that for me?
What is the worst part of that for me?
What does that say about me?
What’s so bad about that?

Use whichever questions make sense, in any order that makes sense.

Let’s say Jason’s wife Amanda says to him one night, “You know you seem to be drinking a lot after work lately. Maybe you should cut back some.” Jason blows up at her, yelling about how she’s a controlling bitch and it’s none of her damn business how much he drinks. James is taken aback my his reaction and works through what happened like this:

Question: So Amanda suggested you cut down on your drinking some, what’s so bad about that?
Jason: I’m a grown man and I know how much alcohol I can handle. I don’t need her watching over what I’m doing.
Question: What’s so upseting about her watching over what you’re doing?
Jason: I feel like it means she doesn’t trust me and doesn’t think I have it under control.
Question: What’s so bad about her not thinking that you’re in control?
Jason: I felt like she was insinuating that I’m turning into an alcoholic.
Question: Why is that so upsetting to you?
Jason: Because my dad was an alcoholic bastard and I’m not like that. I’m not like him.

So Jason realized that his wife’s comment had made him defensive because it touched on his fear of and commitment to, never turning out like his dad.

When you do this exercise, you’ll first come up with more visceral reasons for why you’re feeling the way you are. You have to keep digging to get to the heart of the matter and spot your iceberg.

So quit rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and start steering a course to more resiliency.

Source: The Resilience Factor by Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatte

Building Your Resiliency: Part I – An Introduction
Building Your Resiliency: Part II – Avoiding Learned Helplessness and Changing Your Explanatory Style
Building Your Resiliency: Part III – Taking Control of Your Life
Building Your Resiliency: Part IV – Iceberg Ahead!
Building Your Resiliency: Part V – Recognizing and Utilizing Your Signature Strengths
Building Your Resiliency: Part VI – Quit Catastrophizing
Building Your Resiliency: Part VII – Building Your Children’s Resiliency

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael March 2, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Good post on an important topic. How can we make good decisions when we don’t know why we’re making them? And how can we channel our anger and our protectiveness away from pointless conflict and into necessary conflict, while acknowledging our limitations and fears? So key to being a good person.

2 Sunil Setlur March 2, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Excellent Post! Touched a nerve or two there :)

3 Joe D. March 2, 2010 at 10:59 pm

This happens to me in my job all the time. Being in sales, I think I should be able to sell most of the prospects I call on, but in reality that never happens. That’s my iceberg. My perceived “lack of success”, especially compared to other reps, can bring about feelings of anger and frustration when things don’t go my way.

It’s a complete over reaction. This post just magnifies the iceberg I can usually spot in the distance.

4 NK March 2, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I’d say this is true, but I wonder if these are one of those Catch 22s. Mainly because of your 6th point (Why It’s Hard to Melt Your Icebergs). You do have to make some assumptions in order to use your time wisely and avoid potential rough patches. Given the time and opportunity, I’d love to give everyone and everything my undue, unbiased, and unabashed attention without making assumptions. In reality, we have to make them on the spot everyday. I like this series, by the way.

This commenting system is giving me all kinds of heck, by the way. Keep getting told I’m not getting a second chance…

5 SagarB March 3, 2010 at 3:52 am

I liked this analysis. What I am wondering is if there is an iceberg involved every time there is an exaggerated emotional reaction. I have personally felt a rational/emotional divide in myself, especially when dealing with rejections by women. The rational part sees the picture perfectly and enables me to take the proper actions, while the emotional part is still hurting. I always base actions on the rational part, because I know it is right and the emotions will eventually catch up. (Rational part is on page 100 of the book, while emotional part is on page 2.)

Is the gap be because of an iceberg? I am not so sure.. I would like to sync up the two parts, or at least minimize the distance. The question is “How?” Perhaps you could do an article on the rational/emotional divide? I am sure I’m not the only man facing this. (The more personal it is, the more universal it is!)

6 Hans Hageman March 3, 2010 at 7:47 am

I’m enjoying this continuing series. Professor Carol Dweck studied the “fixed mindset” vs. the “growth mindset” and found how limiting the fixed mindset could be in business, education, and personal relationships. The iceberg often takes away the power of our behaviors to influence outcomes.

7 Justin McNeil March 3, 2010 at 9:31 am

Good stuff! I lead men’s conferences that deal with emotional issues like this. Over 3 years, 15+ conferences, and working with hundreds of men, it is abundantly clear to me that the values (or in this case, icebergs) we have can make or break us. I’ve seen the inner vows ” I am never going to be like Dad” and “I won’t ever let anyone hurt me like that again” absolutely consume men’s lives with obsession for that vow. But I’ve also seen that through determination, lots of prayer, and commitment, we can all melt the icebergs that are blocking us. I believe in God and that His plan for us includes emotional resilience. Frankly, this blog has done a better job of laying it out than some sermons I have heard. Thanks again!

8 Derek D. March 3, 2010 at 9:39 am

Often, the iceberg belief occurs as part of an unconscious decision made as a reaction to some trauma. And when I say trauma, it doesn’t have to be some big thing like being shot. It often occurs in childhood. For instance, when I was eight, I was involved in an incident (normal kid stuff) where I felt really stupid and was VERY embarrassed by it. I resolved to never be made look stupid again. That’s my iceberg. It doesn’t just drive reactive behaviors. I went to Engineering School to ensure that I would never look stupid instead of pursuing my dreams.

9 Tanner@ Art of Citizenship March 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Of all the series on this site, this has been my favorite. The timing of this post is perfect as well, considering I just hit an emotional iceberg with my wife yesterday morning. Ten seconds after I couldn’t believe how I’d responded, and I was extremely embarassed to have acted that why. The exercise to recognize my icebergs is going to be more than helpfull. Thanks Brett.

10 Sophia March 3, 2010 at 1:09 pm

This post resonated with me as a woman. When my husband shows me weakness, when he wimps out of something or fails at something, I tend to get so angry at him and say, “What is wrong with you?” I hate reacting that way because I know I wouldn’t want him to treat me that way when I fail. But I have this iceberg that men are always confident, competent, and strong, and it’s so hard to overcome that and allow him space to be human.

11 bostonhud March 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm

I’m very much enjoying this series. Its given me a lot to think about, and has offered some good advice.
However, I’m sometimes a bit conflicted with it. The perspective seems to come from the Stoic way of life- that all emotions are bad (I could be completely wrong when it comes to analyzing the Stoics, so be kind with your criticism). This Stoic attitude is pretty popular nowadays, especially among young adult men. Its the “I have no emotion- therefore I am manly” persona I see in beer commercials, on TV, and in the movies. I think the movie Fight Club (which is one of my favorites) was what really set this type of thinking into motion for this generation of young adult males. I remember the scene where Brad Pitt pours the acid on Edward Norton’s hand- dont go to your fantasy ice tunnel escape, face this pain head on. But if you face the pain enough, there is no pain….there is nothing.
I do see the value in not over-emotionalizing everyday life. We need to be able to bounce back from things like getting rejected from a date, losing our job, etc…
The problem I have is that if you block out all these “negative” emotions- sadness, fear, anger…how can you enjoy “positive” emotions like love, happiness, etc…
Maybe blocking out emotions isnt the correct way to put it. Controlling our emotions probably is a better way.
Maybe I’ve been so focused on being led by my emotions, I dont know how to handle things in this new way.
I guess I’m afraid that if I try to control my emotions, I’ll completely deviod myself of any feeling in the future.
Thats my rant/counseling session.

12 Trevor March 3, 2010 at 10:06 pm

I think that many of the scenarios discussed in the article are more likely to be a matter of transference. Transference is a distorted and inappropriate response derived from unresolved, unconscious conflicts in a person’s past. This often causes reactions that don’t match the circumstances because you transfer an old relationship onto a new one.

13 CB March 4, 2010 at 10:43 am

@bostonhud: I think there’s a difference between stoicism and resilience and in this case between stoicism and dealing with icebergs. Iceberg beliefs trigger an emotional response that isn’t justified for this given situation, like Jason blowing up at Amanda. It’s ok to be upset or hurt if Jason felt that Amanda did not trust him. It’s not ok to blow up because deep down he feels like she’s comparing him to his dad.
I have stoic characteristics. (Also, I probably have an iceberg of my own that relates to showing emotion is unmanly.) I actually have somewhat of a sense of pride at being able to keep my head and react somewhat logically during an emotional event. That’s not necessarily a good thing always. On the other hand, my wife reacts emotionally to many things (and ironically enough, sometimes the things that trigger a sense of being overwhelmed in me, are the times that she reacts logically). There are times that I do such a good job of controling my emotions that it appears to my wife and others, that I don’t have any emotional attachment to the situation whatsoever. This leads her to believe that I’m unapproachable for her on that level.
However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel emotion. It just means that I tend to bottle it up. Again this isn’t a good quality. Every situation calls for a balanced response. There’s an appropriate emotional response and an appropriate logical repsonse. Discovering your icebergs allow you to begin to respond appropriately to situations you would have not responded appropriately to before. This part of resilience allows you to not be controled solely by your emotions while not becoming an unemotional stoic. Resilience allows you to maintain this balance.
This may not address your rant/counseling session like you wanted. I’d love to hear more from you on the subject though.

14 islandtime March 4, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Fascinating — I’ve been proactively working on slowing down my own emotional reactions to events/people, part of a general desire to slow down lots of stuff in my life (we all live too fast, too off the cuff, too reactively, I think, but that’s another topic) and I sure can see a positive change in stress and anxiety in my life.

After reading this, I can also see when I’ve hit an iceberg belief in someone else. Realizing where that “belief” comes from makes it easier to walk away — to shrug it off and realize their reaction isn’t about me, it’s about something else entirely.

We can help the people closest to us in overcoming these subconscious mindsets, but it’s harder to work with those we don’t really know that well who hold such ingrained beliefs about the world around them. In those cases, sometimes the best thing to do — the kindest thing — is to disengage.

15 dave March 5, 2010 at 9:02 am

“Transference is a distorted and inappropriate response derived from unresolved, unconscious conflicts in a person’s past.”

That’s just a flat assertion of what is in actuality just one idea from one of the many competing and contradictory traditions of psychology. Why do you think it’s helpful to present it as if it “just is so”? Does it reaffirm your control over your life to put things into such neat boxes, perhaps? If it works for you, have you considered that it might not work for other people?

16 Rick G March 6, 2010 at 8:26 am

I’ve been reading this website for a few months now. I had to join to comment on this series. It has been an eye opener for me personally. Thank you, now all I have to do is implement some of these ideas…. the work begins.

17 S Rodriq March 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Just as this post came out I had an ‘iceberg’ moment at work. I have to say this article really focused in on a primal fright within which did not have a name. I could have wallowed and given in to fear. Instead I got back up and continued the fight.

After reading the post and reflecting on what I am doing, I worked out the following:

I have a plan
I have backup plan
I can only do my best and there is no shame in that.
I must always move forward.
Integrity above all.

In previous posts, there were discussions of being in charge of your own destiny. I took that to heart because I had been on cruise control for a couple of years. Only after being awaken by events beyond my control did I finally act on the moment. I know now that I can weather the storm. I can only control my reactions and make positive outcomes from inputs. It is hard to be up all the time but the choices I make, keep me sharp, keep me alert, keep me resilient.

18 Trevor March 9, 2010 at 12:49 am


What I hear you saying is that you feel I presented Transference as a universal truth. My intent was to provide an explanation for a theory I believe can be applied to many situations, though not all.

“Does it reaffirm your control over your life to put things into such neat boxes, perhaps? If it works for you, have you considered that it might not work for other people?”

I’d appreciate it if we could keep the discussion based on the issue, rather than personal attacks on my character. However, I would be very interested in hearing more on your take on transference and any information you have against it.

19 Tyler Logan March 9, 2010 at 4:19 am

Excellent post. Expectations is a biggy for me personally. I tend to over-expect for certain situations or circumstances which ends up confronting with other people. I do watch them more closely these days but it’s always nice to learn new things in the area – especially this iceberg example – very clear,

20 Daniel March 10, 2010 at 1:25 am

I’ve been reading the series on resiliency, and I just want to say “Thanks”. It is so timely. My wife and I both received pink slips last month (we’re teachers in California, so we are in good company) and are having to make some tough decisions about our future. This series has been encouraging for me/us. Thanks again, Brett.

21 Foster March 12, 2010 at 12:01 am

This series of articles, and this one especially, have been a great help keeping me centred during my transition from university to the work force in this dismal economy. Great stuff!

22 Jack Emmerich March 17, 2010 at 6:23 pm


Stoicism isn’t exactly ALL emotions are bad or inappropriate.

Here is a link to help you better understand Stoicism in the philosophical sense. Its a character analyzation but it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the source material.

23 Penaroza April 23, 2010 at 4:54 am

I little bit of pain, a little bit of anger, a litte bit of fear is good, but don’t become the victim of your emotion.

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