(Note: we’re continuing with the theme of anger, this time how it has the power to connect–with yourself and with others–with new communication skills.)
If you’re anything like the old me, you’re probably confused at the notion that anger can be anything but disconnecting.
I grew up with the belief that anger wasn’t o.k. As a result, if I ever felt and showed my anger, shame and guilt tagged right along with it. It was indeed a very disconnecting process in which I experienced double conflict: self-blame for allowing anger to arise and blame toward the person who did or said something that triggered me. Now I know there is a different way to see and experience anger—one which brings far more understanding, compassion and connection.
Anger is a natural human emotion
Sadness, fear, insecurity, despair . . . these emotions let you know that you have needs that aren’t currently being met. They ask for attention and acceptance, and when given they help you understand what’s going on—what you care about and long for—and can transform quite quickly. Anger arrives to warn you, like a red flag (or perhaps an erupting volcano) to say, “THERE’S SOMETHING REALLY VERY, VERY IMPORTANT GOING ON RIGHT NOW!” The way to access the message anger is trying to bring you is to be far less engaged with your head and far more with your heart. Now if that strikes you as vague spiritual speak, read on for more specifics . . .
Anger when you’re on automatic pilot ⇒ disconnection
When you are feeling highly stressed or angry, like all animals, you go into your own form of survival mode. In this state, you function out of your “reptile brain” (where emotions reside) OR your “mammal brain” (where you are concerned with human bonding / group belonging). Either way underlying the anger is often fear, determining a subconscious fight, flight or freeze reaction. In such moments it can be very difficult to access your rational “human brain” that enables you to consider the different ways you can consciously choose to react in such situations. While on automatic pilot, you are more likely to say things and act in ways that can be very hurtful to yourself, to others, and to your relationships. This is why we think of anger as contributing to disconnection, disengagement, and draining win/lose scenarios.
You can take care of your anger and responsibility for your behavior
by taking its red warning flag seriously and going inward with it.
Anger when you’re aware ⇒ connection
Anger is an emotion, separate from our behavior that results from feeling angry. The former is a natural state; the latter we can control. You can take care of your anger and responsibility for your behavior by taking its red warning flag seriously and going inward with it. In most cases, it means taking some distance first and engaging later. In other words, if your anger is directed toward someone you’re with, and you care about the connection, it can help tremendously if you explain why you need some space and estimate when you will return to complete the dialogue. Once you have the space to go inward, self-connect and gain full awareness, try to follow the SELF model (based on Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication). . .
See: thoughts vs. facts
Be aware of what is actually causing your anger. It is very important for you to know that the triggering event—likely something someone did or said—is NOT the cause of your anger! The trigger first goes through a filter in your head where there is a framework of good vs. bad; right vs. wrong thinking. We’ve all been raised with that framework, which gives us a kind of “moral compass” with which we make decision. Yet it also leads us to make all kinds of judgments, assumptions, beliefs, evaluation, blame that lead to anger instead of understanding and connection. Get a handle on what actually happened versus what you think about those facts.
Embrace: which underlying feelings want acceptance?
Anger is an upper layer emotion, meaning there are always underlying emotions that are more substantive, bringing you closer to yourself. When you can separate the trigger (facts) from the story you’re telling yourself (thoughts), ask yourself, “What’s my anger really about: am I scared for something? Am I deeply sad about something?” Allow the deeper feeling(s) you uncover to be, without wanting to change it—feelings are not right nor wrong; good nor bad, simply informants.
The intensity of the longing does all the work.
-Kabir (15th century Indian mystic & poet)
Longing: what’s missing that I deeply value?
What are your underlying feelings trying to tell you? Ask yourself, “What’s missing? What do I value deeply and long to have fulfilled?” When you can tune in at this level—the actual root cause of your anger—then you can own your feelings and needs, realize you have choices, and can better determine what you do next (as opposed to letting your automatic pilot speak or act in disconnecting ways).
Fulfill: what’s my next doable step?
Once you’ve fully connected to your longing(s), you can bring a creative focus on what you can do to fulfill it. Ask yourself, “What’s my next doable step? What can I request of myself, and/or to another? Do I first want dialogue for mutual understanding? Do I want myself/him/her to complete an action? It is important that this isn’t a demand, or that you can hear a “no” and continue an open dialogue with curiosity about each other’s longings.
The SELF model in action
I’ll be the first to admit that what I describe here isn’t always within my reach. If I’m deep in fear, or survival mode, I’m as likely as anyone to speak or act before I have time to go inward and take care for my anger. In these situations, I use the SELF model afterwards and make a strong attempt to re-connect. Here’s a recent situation in which I used the model on the spot . . .
I was having a hard day, feeling like a total foreigner—which of course I am as an American living in Haarlem, the Netherlands, but it’s been six years now and sometimes I’m just tired of all the effort it takes.
I was biking with my dog and stopped at a red light. An older woman on her bike stopped next to me, and immediately informed me that my dog’s leash was far too long.
My first nano-second filter-thoughts were, “Who are you to tell me what I should be doing with my dog?!” You should be friendlier than that to a stranger!” I was very resistant to shorten the leash, as she expected me to do.
My first step was to SEE the difference between my thoughts and what actually happened: a woman just informed me of something she likely thinks I don’t yet know. If on automatic pilot, I might snap back with a few choice words, if in a fight-mode, OR shrink and go into freeze/flight mode and ignore her while feeling infuriated and powerless.
Step two was going inward in order to EMBRACE my underlying feelings. “Why am I all hot and bothered by this? Am I fearing something here?” I couldn’t answer that. “Am I sad about something?” Deep down, yes, I felt down and out. Actually, TIRED of it being so difficult to just fit in and enjoy a sense of belonging to the Dutch culture.
Ahh, so my LONGING (third step) is about belonging, but not just that . . . I quickly realized that I wanted a sense of EASE and comfort, like I feel when I return home where I know all the rules and expectations at least, and can choose my actions knowing about the possible consequences.
My last step, was to consider how to FULFILL my need for ease and comfort in that very moment. It was quite easy for me to see that getting into an argumentative debate with this woman about biking-with-dog policy wasn’t going to do it for me. So to “go easy” on me and her both, I turned to a few empathic guesses. Maybe she’s concerned about my safety or perhaps she loves animals and wants to help look out for them. Either way, as I focused on my longing for ease in those few moments, I went from anger to softness, and felt self-empowered to say the least.