By Ernest Isaacs
Anger is an emotion that arises naturally in the course of being human. The problem is not with the feeling itself but how we respond to it, not acting out by being violent nor acting in by denying it. We need to be mindful of ourselves, take ownership of it, and discover more skillful ways of expressing ourselves when we get angry.
The first part of the management process, step zero, is to accept the need for change. Some of us believe that violent expression of anger is inevitable. Some believe that without whooping and hollering we won’t be heard or we won’t get our way or that we are weaklings. We need to start by seeing that these are not true. Often it is through acknowledging the suffering we inflict on others and ourselves that we realize that we need to do it differently.
Step one is learning to become aware of our angry feelings, shifting from “being angry” to “knowing I am angry”. To be angry is to be caught up and identified with the emotion, while knowing anger is to have enough space and awareness around it to acknowledge that it is present along with the rest of our experience. Being conscious of our body sensations, whatever they are, that go along with anger is one good way to get some distance around the feeling.
Step two is to take ownership of our anger, starting with a radical shift in our understanding. Other people don’t make us angry, they do what they do and we have our individual response. In Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication training, he points out the fact that we all have basic human needs – safety, respect, love, etc. – and when these needs are not met, we experience negative emotions. Our feelings arise from our own needs in the moment, not what the other person has done. They are the stimulus for our reactions, not the cause. The common expression “she made me angry” doesn’t hold any truth.
Suppose person A was supposed to pick up B at 6 pm and didn’t arrive until 6:25. B might feel scared because he had a need for A’s safety that wasn’t being met. B might feel angry because her need for respect wasn’t being met. B might feel relieved because his need for time to relax was being met. Same situation, different feelings emerge depending on the need.
Once we get control of ourselves from step one, we can take time to ask ourselves what is our basic need that wasn’t met, what is the story we are telling ourselves about what is going on. We make the fundamental shift from “I am angry because you…” to “I am angry because I…”.
This moves into step three, which is finding a better way to handle our emotion rather than yelling, slamming doors, or even becoming violent. There are many options available. We can express our unmet need to the other person and formulate requests to them that would satisfy it, speaking in a kindly way. We can remember that the other people are also human beings acting out of their own needs. Taking a few calming breaths into our bellies can help.
We can leave the scene for a while, saying “I can’t talk with you right now, I’ll be back in 10 minutes (or an hour or tomorrow)”. If nothing else, this gives our system a break that allows the adrenaline level in our blood stream to come down.
This process of becoming mindful, looking at ourselves rather than the other, and making better choices can be difficult. The payoffs are our inner peacefulness and the better relationships that result.