ANGER: an emotion with the power to destroy — learn how to harness that power for good
“At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled” Marshall B Rosenburg
As someone with a highly sensitive trait, that shows up for me as an intuitive ability to feel what others are feeling, I have spent a lifetime ‘people-pleasing’ and ‘creating harmony’ to ensure that I avoid any form of conflict. In the past, the intense emotions that arose in conflict lead me to retreat into a ‘safe’ space where at a superficial level I appeared to function well — continuing to ‘do’ everything and fulfil my everyday commitments. However, when in that space I was unable to connect with others, communicate effectively or fulfil my own needs resulting in long periods of depression and feelings of hopelessness.
During a period of self-reflection, I realised that there were several people in my life who showed ‘anger’ as a default behaviour, many of whom used this anger to control and achieve certain outcomes — admittedly, often with positive intent, but without compassionate consideration for the impact their anger might be having on the person at the receiving end of it.
I learned that to stop being ‘floored’ by angry behaviour I had to dissociate from being the receiver of the anger and become an observer of the interaction, allowing the anger to be an expression of the other person’s needs rather than a tool to control my response.
To say this was a turning point in my life is an understatement. The days of being in that space that whilst ‘safe’ was incredibly lonely and dark are behind me. I no longer either attract, or possibly notice, as much angry behaviour and if I do, I don’t allow it to impact me personally. I am also more able to support those that show anger to try a different approach that will yield better results.
If this is something that resonates with you, read on…
What is anger?
Anger is a powerful emotion taking many forms depending on the intensity of the anger. It can range from irritation or annoyance to frustration, anger, rage or even fury. For the purpose of this article we will refer to anger to mean all emotions on the anger continuum.
All emotions have a purpose — to fulfil an unmet need — and anger is no different. However, anger is often misdirected and it can trigger incredibly destructive behaviours. With other emotions the unmet need that triggers the emotion is evident so we are more likely to take actions that will fulfil that unmet need. For example, sadness is linked to missing or losing something you value so if we analyse sadness we can explore what we have lost and find something ‘similar’ to fill the gap. Excitement is linked to a future reward and if we follow the energy we will seek out that reward and do all that we need to attain it.
What about anger, how does anger work?
Anger tells us that we have an unmet need and that something is blocking us from getting that need met. The trigger or stimulus for the anger tends to be the blockage. As such, the most common target for anger is the perceived blockage rather than focussing on getting our needs met.
The key point to note here is that the trigger or stimulus is NOT the cause, so directing your energy at it is largely a waste of time, particularly if the blockage is unmovable.
So how can you support someone who is angry?
This can be difficult for a number of reasons:
Emotions are contagious
When someone is feeling an emotion we experience a similar feeling in ourselves. Whilst this is largely unconscious, being a function of our mirror neurons, when someone else is experiencing anger we can feel angry too. This is not conducive to connecting or collaborating and can result in a battle of wills!
Anger can be threatening
When we are facing someone that is angry, our instinct is to protect ourselves as it can feel threatening. In turn, it triggers our threat response and our instinctive fight, flight, freeze reactions (my response was the flight response, retreating into a safe space).
Emotions can trigger memories from the past
This can be a challenge for the person who is angry as well as for the person supporting that individual. Any past experiences can re-surface increasing the emotional response to the present situation — similar to when a tuning fork resonates at the same frequency.
Marshall Rosenburg, author of the quote at the start, provides a wealth of wisdom and techniques in his book Living Nonviolent Communication. He recommends the following four step process for handling anger in yourself and others. I have added an additional first step to fuel connection with the other person:
Step 1 Be compassionate
Someone’s emotions and behaviours inform you about what they are experiencing — it’s not about you. Be kind and compassionate in the first instance — they have an unmet need that is causing them pain.
Step 2 Acknowledge that the trigger of anger is NOT the cause
It is not what someone has done, or said, that is the cause of the anger. This is borne out by the fact that someone else may interpret the situation differently. (This is the most difficult step for a person that is angry to grasp because they believe that if the trigger had not happened then they wouldn’t be angry).
Step 3 Acknowledge that it is the EVALUATION of the trigger that is the cause
There are ways to re-evaluate a trigger:
- Think differently
- Focus on possible unmet needs instead of the trigger
- See it from a different perspective
Step 4 Look for the need that is at the root of the anger
When we are directly connected to the need we never feel anger as it has been transformed. For example, if our need is to be loved, valued or respected, we may feel sadness when we acknowledge this as we have identified what is missing. Or, if our need is to achieve some sort of reward when we connect with the vision of the reward, we may feel excitement or anticipation for what it may give us.
By connecting with the need we can start to define what actions and steps will move us to toward meeting it. In other words, emotion ‘mobilises’ us to meet our needs.
In the example where ‘love’ is the need, anger disconnects us from this need. Furthermore, if we respond with anger, being aggressive or pushing back we are less likely to meet our need met as it is hard to show love to someone who is displaying anger.
Step 5 Communicate with the other person involved
- Reveal the stimulus as facts — X happened, Y was said — without judgement or interpretation. For example, avoid language such as ‘You criticised me’ or ‘You ignored me’. Instead use the facts ‘You gave me feedback about a mistake’ or ‘You did not say hello this morning.’
- Express the feeling — when the stimulus happened I felt …. Again this is not a judgement, it is fact.
- Articulate the need that is not being fulfilled. For example, I need to feel valued or I need to have security.
- Make a request Ask for what you would like from the other person to fulfil the need
Compassion is the antidote to anger. When we empathise with someone, listen and support them to get what they need, anger subsides.
So whenever you are faced with anger be kind, be understanding and be compassionate. Understand what is driving these behaviours and work on the best actions for the best possible outcome in the current situation.
Create a habit of being kind as your first response and notice what happens.
For more inspiration please connect with me or get in touch at email@example.com Take care and stay well.