There is nuance to anger that gets lost in discussions of the topic.
The nuance makes sense if I listen to what angry feelings convey to me about the situation and myself.
Alas, often I’m not listening.
Instead, I rushed to judgemental stories and opinions.
However, as a culture that admires competitive hotheads, idolizes narcissistic politicians, or cheers for vengeful action heroes, I’m not sure we have constructive role models for anger management.
Many of my peers with traumas associated with adverse childhood experiences don’t respond well to other people’s anger. We often don’t respond well to our own.
We may externalize anger and ragefully direct it towards things or people. We may internalize anger, driving it inward into shame and self-harm. In either situation, how we respond is often simply shifting blame and pain and avoiding responsibility for the experience.
Here is another truth I have learned: no one makes me feel angry.
“Anger is,” as Tara Brach writes, “natural, intelligent, & necessary.” Anger is a coping mechanism to a conflict I don’t yet understand. Anger is a neurological prop necessary to create awareness and focus emotional, physical, and mental resources on something that may need attention.
Anger is neither good nor bad, right or wrong.
Anger is a trumpet waking me up to a pain that needs focus. It is announcing the arrival of information, opening the door to choices that didn’t exist before.
Anger is only a feeling. Feelings are data, not directives.
Right now, it seems the Holy Grail of my feeling growth is to develop enough awareness to take a breath before I respond. Through the breath, I am creating moments of separation between the thought and the thinker, the feeling and the feeler.
It is a practice.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I fell short of my ideal, but I am getting more conscious of what I am experiencing. Each failure presents an opportunity to apply something new the next time.
I am learning to listen to what anger is saying and discern intentions. Then I can separate what is happening from what I imagine something is happening. By listening I can practice changing my approach to anger and the suffering often attached to the pain.
I recognize self-control is not about avoiding feeling angry or not expressing anger but using it constructively. Self-control is about learning to speak emotions mindfully. Despite mentally treating anger as an adversary in a boxing ring, anger doesn’t need overpowering. Anger needs boundaries and to know we are listening.
For example, betraying my wife is not a mindful approach to anger. It reflected a lack of boundaries and a mistake in how I approach feelings I find difficult.
For myself, the emotional hangover of feeling angry can also set off bouts of shame. I chastise myself for “letting it get to me.” Afterward, I minimize my feelings, make excuses for others, and end up apologizing for my anger. As a result, I ignore the data and fail to adjust my approach to the situation.
I’ve done this a great deal following the end of my marriage and the last relationship.
There are reasons, of course. For one, we do what we are taught. I was taught how and what I feel isn’t meaningful. Anger was someone else’s luxury.
For this reason, I grew to emotionally admire Spock’s detachment from feelings while envying the freedom of Kirk’s emotional enthusiasms. However, I recognize that I ended up having more in common with the Enterprise’s redshirt security detail than her command crew in my family. I was the family’s emotional redshirt.
However, once I am aware, I am also responsible. Going from awareness to accountability is a resource-demanding practice.
First, I had to see it’s okay to be angry. Anger is not a feeling to fear or be ashamed about experiencing. Shaming angry people doesn’t stop people from being angry. It merely stops the conversation.
Then I had to learn what anger feels like by talking to a therapist and friends. I read articles and stories to understand the nuances better. I wrote about what I thought I felt until I could get to what I am feeling. I worked to separate the story of the feels from the feels.
Then I had to be curious enough about myself to recognize my anger. Often I didn’t realize the anger until well after the anger happened. Slowly over time, I backed into the anger as I sought to stay in the moment.
Once I could recognize the moment, I could dig into the nuances of anger and see how it fit into the moment.
Was I making something personal? Was I hungry, tired, or lonely? Was someone acting maliciously and with cruel intent? Am I mildly annoyed, irritated, afraid, or furious? What was anger telling me? What was anger covering? Is it a foil to vulnerability and intimacy or responsibility and accountability?
And even after I heard what anger is trying to teach me, am I willing to separate my ego from the offense?
Am I ready to listen and act?
Only when I finally recognized anger’s impermanence can I establish the boundaries necessary to respond appropriately in proportion to the situation.
This is the process of anger transformation Dr. Buck discusses with Dr. Brene Brown. I have to be willing to transform the conflict internally before it can be transformed externally. I have to recognize what is happening within me before I can recognize what is happening outside of me and not simply what my anger is telling me is happening. Feelings are true to us but often wrong about the situation.
When I act from this perspective, anger no longer needs management because it has been transformed into opportunity.
I don’t do it perfectly but I am committed to learning and getting better. That will require practice which requires being willing to experience anger.
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Wanders, Ah. 2019. “Thoughts on Conflict Transformation: The Pattern (Part 1),” Love Letters to a Healing Heart <https://cadconfessional.com/2019/01/21/thoughts-on-conflict-transformation/> [accessed 5 March 2021]
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