It is safe to say emotions are running high right now. After all, a lot is going on in the world. To paraphrase psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein, often when dealing with emotions, people are either indulgent in their expression or operate from a place of fear, doing their best to push the undesirable feelings away.
One emotion, in particular, that keeps showing up in our society is anger. We all have been conditioned and acculturated to deal with anger differently. One could argue that most of us have long lived with the message that our anger is unacceptable, unattractive, or even dangerous, relegated to the halls of things expressed in private, if at all. However, as legendary New York psychoanalyst Michael Eigen said in his book Feeling Matters, "As long as feelings are second class citizens in public dialogue, people will be second class citizens."
I agree. We are human. We have feelings. We must allow for the expression of them to engage with life as our fullest selves. Furthermore, I am of the firm belief that every emotion shows up for a reason. Emotions, including anger, can be a tool of self-discovery and action. In fact, you might say emotions are superpowers because they teach us so much.
Before I launch more into the upside of anger, I want to define what we are talking about here. Anger is a social emotion; it always has a target, even if the target is yourself. Personal assessments, assumptions, evaluations, or interpretations of situations that make you think someone is attempting (consciously or not) to hurt you all accompany anger.
Physiologically, when we experience anger, our nervous system gets aroused, our heart rate goes up, and our skin temperature changes. However, the same is true when you feel afraid, so it's important to notice the thoughts running through your mind to determine if you're angry or scared. Again, typically anger has a target, so if you are thinking to yourself something along the lines of, "I can't believe that stupid jerk did ____," chances are you are feeling angry.
Anger can be an energizing emotion; it is powerful and filled with life force. It's also why people are often afraid of anger— both in themselves and others. It's big and fiery and cannot be banished no matter how hard we try.
Eigen said in an interview published in Psychology Today, "No individual or group, in any part of the Earth or at any time in history, has ever figured out what to do with the destructive side of human nature. But we can realize that from the Big Bang to cataclysms, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, this destructive force is part of nature itself. And because humans are part of the universe, it is not a big surprise that this is part of our nature. For example, we have sunny days and stormy days. We have benevolent and peaceful moments, and we have emotionally turbulent and uncontrollable moments."
So then, how do we live with these turbulent and uncontrollable moments? How do we handle them? Two things: We accept that we feel angry, and we use it. As you likely know, that is easier said than done. We are hardwired to react to stressful situations by either fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Unless you are intentional with how you use anger, you will continue to have a knee-jerk reaction when it arises.
Dr. Harriet Lerner talks about this in her book The Dance of Anger. During an interview with Joan Herrmann on the radio show "Change Your Attitude, Change Your Life" she said, "It's not just that we're lazy and selfish and have bad habits. We're wired in this way for stress, so it takes a lot of maturity to stop and do something different."
When you are angry, if your knee-jerk reaction is to fight, it's likely you'll want to express your anger to or at someone else. That impulse is a wonderful thing because anger inspires us to say, "Enough." It shows us what we value, it illuminates the ground we stand on and demonstrates what we're willing to do and not do. Because anger is so often associated with violence, it is common for people to avoid anger as they might avoid conflict out of their need for safety.
However, being violent with someone or verbally assaulting them outside the context of self-defense can be devastating. At its core, managing our anger involves learning to rewire our responses so we can identify in the moment what the underlying needs and values are of ourselves and others. This can be challenging as it is likely that this was never modeled to us growing up nor practiced consistently throughout our lives.
Our underlying needs and values may often be exquisitely vulnerable ones, which makes attuning to them even harder work. Furthermore, those deeply held vulnerable needs and values, when expressed historically, may have been shamed, condemned as "weak," or painfully ignored, in which case, thwarting any clear path to healthy and safe expression. For instance, in the case of parental misattunement: if your parents said, "Stop yelling!" or "Lower your voice!" you likely got the message that expressing your anger was not allowed. In such a setting, you may have learned more contracted or reactive ways to manage your more vulnerable feelings, which would include becoming angry with yourself or others in unconstructive ways.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., had revolutionary insight on the relationship between nonviolent communication (NVC) and anger. According to Dr. Rosenberg, anger means we are disconnected from our needs. He taught us that anger is one of the four emotions disconnected from needs because of what we are telling ourselves. (The other three are shame, guilt, and depression.)
In a practical context, the following are the types of questions we can ask ourselves to see if we are making progress when it comes to following the NVC model for anger. I've pulled these from Rosenberg's book NVC: A Language of Life:
- When someone speaks to me in anger, do I stay self-connected? Can I give myself self-empathy rather than judge them back or blame myself?
- When someone speaks to me in anger, how soon does my attention go to what their needs might be? Am I able to give them empathic presence (perhaps after giving myself self-empathy) rather than judge them back or blame myself?
- When someone speaks to me in anger, to what degree am I able to hang in there with the conversation? Am I able to express my honesty from the heart, my feelings, and my needs — perhaps in addition to empathic presence, possibly with moments of self-empathy throughout — rather than judge them, blame myself, lash out, disconnect, or rush to a solution for short term relief?
- To what extent can I hang in there in a tough conversation for the possibility of a deeper connection and a mutually satisfying outcome?
- If I notice we're both angry, and both want to be heard at the same time, can I call a time-out in a way that we can get support in order to come back to the conversation?
With NVC for anger, we also learn how to own the causes and express anger fully. This means deconstructing the story we have and getting to the underlying needs. When we do this, we can express what we value and cherish — rather than focusing on our judgments of others or becoming entrenched in who was right or wrong. In this way, NVC for anger helps us shift the feeling of anger to other, more life-connected feelings.
As you are communicating your needs and boundaries, become aware of what your bottom lines are. What are the things you cannot abide by? What about the behaviors you cannot tolerate? Once you know that, you will also understand when you can yield. When you can give in to someone else and go along. However, if you perpetually go along with someone else and negate your own boundaries, that is a recipe for resentment. Honor yourself and your anger. It has a message for you.
If you want help and support navigating anger, reach out to us. We provide compassionate mental health care that can help equip, empower, guide, and support you in cultivating the life you want.