Anger is not wrong, it’s a valid and healthy emotion. Feeling anger is a normal part of being human. The positive power of anger is often seen when we are propelled into action because we or someone we love is gravely wronged—righting wrongs by changing world views.
What we do with our anger is what can cause harm or be toxic to both ourselves and those around us. Our actions, resulting from our anger, or any emotional state, mirror our inner capacity. Our actions reflect the state of our inner well-being; if we treat others cruelly because we are angry we are lacking empathy in this moment.
Empathy does not mean we always say what we think the other person wants to hear—this is inauthentic. Empathy does not mean we are soft or a push over. Assertive speech or clear and direct communication is healthy and compassionate. Empathy has to do with how we deliver the information that needs to be said. Empathy is about ensuring that we have self-checks in place to determine our emotional state so that we can stay in-line and in control even though we are feeling up regulated or angered. We are all capable, if we learn effective tools, to communicate difficult content with kind word choices and gentle deliveries. Our goal is to be authentic in speaking our truth and at the same time consider what it feels like to receive what we are saying.
If we are reacting with anger and hurting others because of it, in these moments we are most likely choosing to be ineffective and un-empathetic towards the person whom our anger is directed. These reactions usually do not feel like a choice—more like an overpowering command from inside. This type of reactive behavior is harmful, it may end some relationships, and stifle the growth and opportunity for more depth in other’s, but it is not abusive. If you are crossing the line to physical or verbal abuse, it is paramount to seek professional help from a therapist or similar professional. If your partner or loved one crosses the line and hurts you with physical or verbal abuse it is imperative for you to take care of yourself and seek counsel from a professional therapist whether your partner chooses to seek help or not. There is never a situation where abuse is warranted or ok.
Questions to ask ourselves as we gauge if we are in the reactive zone with our anger: Did I cause harm to anyone? Did I lose my control with my speech or actions? Did I raise my voice? Did I interrupt the person I was speaking with? Did I listen to them at the appropriate time? Did I speak my truth with direct and clear communication? Does it seem like I was I understood? Do I also understand their experience and/or needs? Was my speech reactive or did I wait until I calmed down to communicate my needs? Do I feel badly for my behavior or for what I said? Was a resolution decided on; do we feel the air has been cleared? We are not looking for, “I did not interrupt Jessica ever.” We are looking for gentle improvement, “I did listen well. It seems like I interrupted Jessica a couple times. One time I caught myself and apologized and asked her to continue with her point. That is better than it’s been in the past.”
Anger is a secondary emotion, which means there is another emotion underneath. Often the primary emotion or the emotion propelling the anger is fear. If we are experiencing reactions to our emotions, it is helpful to gain some awareness of what is triggering the anger; what is the underlying cause that creates a strong reaction in you.
During the process of growing and learning new tools it is important to be gentile with ourselves as we test them out. It’s important to focus on our improvement rather than striving to be perfect. A gauge that works well for some, is using the personal excellence approach—I am a better version of myself this week than I was last week. I listed better this week to my partner than I did last time we had this conversation.
There are many tools to help calm our reactions and gain deeper self-awareness. Two very effective tools that have worked for many are pairing meditation and writing in a self-reflective journal. Meditation, over time, help us to slow down our mind so we have time to see that fork in the road where we can either react like we normal do or choose a different more effective response. Meditation also helps to increase the activity in the left prefrontal cortex which is where compassion and empathy fire in our brains. If you are up for the challenge, I invite you to find a meditation technique that works for you or choose from the guided meditations on my web site and practice every day for 30 days. Do this with the self-reflection journal. At the end of the 30 days evaluate how you feel incorporating this practice into your life.
When we write with the intention for self-reflection our goal is to gently uncover unconscious motives that may live in the darkness of our shadow. We want to shine light on this darkness, so we may, in part, unravel the unconscious pushes and pulls of our psyche (our reactions). We want to make the trigger points conscious, so we have awareness when it is happening, and we begin to understand what situations tend to set off those triggers. This slows down the process of our reactions; when we see it unfolding we learn to recognize the opportunity to choose a different more effective response. When we are unconscious of the process that goes on behind the scenes, in our unconscious mind, it feels as if the emotional reaction has a mind of its own and just happened to us without our choosing.
It is helpful to write about each experience where you feel upregulated, each situation is an opportunity to understand why. Remember, your journal is intended only for you. It is important for you to feel safe as you write which means your journal will not be read by anyone else. Begin by writing about the situation that triggered your reaction, relatively soon after it happens—who did what and who said what. Write about how you feel and how you feel wronged, hurt, or betrayed? Write about your anger: what does it feel like, what do you want to do with it? What is the action, word, or phrase that made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end or set you over the edge? Did their behavior remind you of your father, mother, a sibling, or some other person who hurt you deeply as a child? Did a phrase remind you of a parent or sibling? Did their behavior remind you of anyone who has betrayed or harmed you? Did a sound feel uncomfortably familiar?
When you can see where the conversation or situation took a turn and increased your reactivity pin point your trigger and ask yourself: What am I afraid of? How does it feel to be afraid of that? Are you afraid of being weak? Are you afraid of being vulnerable—can someone hurt you? Do you feel afraid of being abandoned? Do you feel unworthy? Do you feel afraid of being wrong or being a mistake? Are you afraid of being like the person who angered you? Are you triggered by their behavior so that you are distracted from needing to look at the same behavior in yourself? Do you feel afraid of being unworthy? Do you feel afraid of not having control of a situation, a future event, or your finances? Are you afraid of never being enough? Are you afraid of never being able to please your parents? If you feel like there is a deeper answer, keep digging, “What am I really afraid of?” These questions may bring up sadness, fear, or a cascade of other strong emotions. Do your best to stay with it.
Remember, we must feel it to heal it. Do your best to be gentile with yourself as fear or sadness or other emotions rise to the surface. Try to feel them for what they are without attaching a story or a meaning. It helps sometimes to look at your emotion with a curious and observing eye, “Oh look, sadness is back. I am feeling totally out of control about my finances. This is painful to face because I feel like a failure. I am afraid the world sees me as a middle-aged woman who hasn’t done anything with her life. I am afraid that the world sees me as pathetic, and I am very sad.”
Now we want to look at the truth in these statements, “Is my fear true?” Is it true that the world sees me as pathetic? I have a good job, I work hard, I have a handful of good friends. I have a partner who loves me. I have a family that supports me and expresses their excitement for my future career. Answer these questions or similar questions that come to mind as you think about the truth of your fear: Does my fear still serve me? Is this fear limiting me from accomplishing what I want out of life? Do I want to keep believing in this fear? What are two things that I can do right now to be the best version of me yet?
At this point it is helpful to restate the fear in more accurate terms. It might look something like, “Being pathetic is a victim role that no longer serves me. I am clearly taking responsibility for my career and I am a better version of me today than I was a year ago. I have a great job, while there is no room for upward movement, I am looking for new opportunities and I have applied for two other jobs. A year from now I expect I will be in position that has growth potential.”
Working through real life issues will be much more difficult than the simple example I have used here. This article is simply a brush stroke to help stimulate your move towards a more self-aware way of handling anger or heightened states of emotions and to begin considering options to provide more effective responses when we are triggered.
As we accept our darkness and the difficult emotions that come with being human we will begin to be less trapped by the triggers that anger us. It is difficult to stop our default behaviors, but it is very doable; it takes diligence and hard work. In time we will develop the tools that will help us self-check as we struggle with the inevitable upregulated states that come with being human and interacting in the world. Our goal is to speak our truth effectively after we have come back to center and reflect a more equanimous inner state even when conflict or anger arises.
If you are struggling or have experience with overcoming triggers due to anger or other strong emotions I would love to hear about your experiences. Please email me or reply to this blog.
May you feel peace and ease in life. May your path be brightened with light. May you become all you are intended to be.