The Gift of Communicating Anger Compassionately
Your day started with ease. You took some time for self-connection before leaving home. You did some yoga, meditation or took some conscious breaths. “Today is going to be a great day,” you say to yourself. You leave home with a sense of purpose and optimism. As you drive to your first meeting, traffic is slow. You turn the radio on and hear some disturbing news. “What’s happening to the world, you wonder. How can we be so hurtful to one another?”
The cellphone beeps reminding you the meeting is coming up soon. Given the time on the car clock; you are cutting it very close. You notice your belly is getting tight and anxiety is starting to sneak in.
A text message comes in. You are driving but you think “well, it could be my client telling me they are late. I’d better check.” You reach out for your phone and three seconds later you get startled. The driver behind you is honking impatiently at you.
In nanoseconds and without even knowing, your middle finger is up, your throat feels hot and all these words referring to body parts and the driver’s mother –whom you’ve never met, of course- come out of your mouth as your eyes shoot dirty looks through the rear-view mirror.
The driver behind you gets the message and with a snarky look starts tailgating you. You are now sweating profusely and looking for a way to change lanes.
By the time you get to work, everybody is waiting for the meeting. You try to smile at your client and offer an explanation about the traffic. A colleague whispers in your year: “you should try meditation or something relaxing before coming to work.” Your middle finger is about to get flipped again, but you catch it this time and restrain it.
You say nothing out loud. Yet, you are fuming inside. A few minutes into the meeting, you find yourself making passive aggressive remarks aimed at your colleague.
By lunchtime you are in a rotten mood.
What happened? You had such a lovely start in the morning and now you can’t stand yourself!
You feel badly about the snarky comments at the meeting. You know yourself well enough to recognize that if you don’t shift something you’ll end up having an argument with your partner when you get home, you’ll go to bed angry with yourself, your partner, your colleague, your fellow drivers and the world. Not fun, huh?
Yes, you can try to suppress the anger inside you. You can go about your day distracting yourself; convincing yourself that you are not angry; telling yourself you can manifest happiness with a positive affirmation; or you can bottle up your feelings while little bursts of them manage to come out of your mouth without control.
Is this what you want? I am pretty certain your answer is “no.”
Then, you have another option.
This option can lead you to connection with yourself and others. It has the potential of helping you create what you really want. What’s more, this option has the great added benefit of increasing the likelihood that others will listen to you and even want to support you in achieving what matters to you. These are the gifts of anger.
Want to know what this other option is? It is...
Learning the 4 Steps for Gracefully Riding the Wave of Anger
This process is the necessary ground for effectively communicating our anger and creating connection.
Successful communication occurs when those who are interacting feel connected to one another. To feel connected to another person when we experience anger, we need to first feel connected to the anger itself.
Yes, you need to feel all the messages anger has for you before you say anything to someone else. In this sense, communicating anger starts with an inside job!
Here are the 4 Steps needed to Gracefully Ride the Wave of Anger and be able to go to bed without regrets:
1. Get to know your communication habits when you feel angry.
To do this, it’s important to reflect on the communication models you were exposed to when you were young. Inquire within with compassion and without self-rejection.
Here are some questions to help you:
How did your parents/family communicate anger?
What response did you receive when you attempted to express anger?
How do you usually express yourself when you feel angry? By yelling? By name-calling? By shutting down? By leaving the room? By threatening? By punishing? By sweeping it under the rug?
For example, in my family, when people felt angry they raised their voices; sometimes they damaged objects , then they gave the silent treatment, and without any discussion, things would somehow eventually go back to “normal.” If I felt angry, I was told not to feel angry or that anger made me look ugly.
When I experienced anger as an adult, my habit was to take distance, give the silent treatment, respond passive aggressively, roll my eyes and wait until it passed without bringing it up. Can you see how my communication habits when I felt angry were learned from the models I had as a child?
2. Listen to your inner dialogue.
When you feel an intense emotion, such as anger, you very likely have some kind of internal dialogue on repeat mode in your head. You need to be aware of these internal messages. If you neglect to consciously hear them, these messages tend to direct you to behave and communicate unconsciously.
What do you usually tell yourself when you feel angry?
What’s the familiar message you hear in your head?
What’s the story you tend to believe about you or others when you experience anger?
For me, the dialogue on repeat mode was “I need to be nice, not angry.” Some messages my clients noticed are “They are out to get me.” “I must protect myself.” “If I don’t attack I will become their victim.” “I don’t matter.” “I should be better.”
3. Notice the sensations inside.
If all your attention when you feel angry goes to the stories you carry about yourselves or others, you actually get distracted from your anger and then act on the stories instead of confronting the anger and its source.
Feeling the actual sensations inside allows you to be present with the energies of anger. The more present you are with your internal landscape; the more deeply connected you are. Deeper self-connection paves the way for connection with others.
So, what’s happening inside of you as you feel angry?
Do you feel hot? Is your heart racing? Do you feel tension in your belly? Do you get the sensation that your eyes will fall out of their sockets? Do you feel more energy in your arms and legs?
My internal experiences vary in temperature, intensity and length. However, I have clients who notice the same sensation over and over: a drop of sweat in the back of the neck, eyes swelling up with tears, or a knot in the throat.
4. Consider what you value in this instance.
Underneath your anger, there is usually something that needs to be seen and heard with clarity by you. This is the gift of anger for it can connect you to something that is important for you or something valuable you need. The more precisely you know what you need or value; the closer you are to fulfilling it. If you are unaware of what you desire or cherish, how can you take the steps to bring that forth into your life?
Sometimes, anger is pointing to what your heart is yearning for, such as love, appreciation or collaboration. Other times, you’ll find that anger is clearly asking you to attend to needs such as respect, equality, consideration or safety.
I noticed that, in certain situations, when I feel angry, I am longing for reciprocity of care. Yet, in others, I need space and autonomy. And in other circumstances, I want equality, peace or an end of suffering for all. Once I become clear about my needs and values, I can make conscious decisions to take steps towards fulfilling them.
Communicating Anger Compassionately
Now that you’ve spent time connecting to yourself and riding the wave of anger gracefully, you are ready to reflect on what you want to share out loud with others.
To communicate anger to others, anchor yourself in the values and clarity you tapped into in step 4.
Then, mention your intentions and move on to the kind of experience you want to have now or moving forward.
For example, in the situation I described above with the colleague, you might say “I was flustered this morning. When I heard your comment about meditation I got upset. There is so much you don’t know about me. Then at the meeting, I was acting out my anger instead of talking to you. This is not the kind of professional relationship I want. I’d like to have mutual consideration and curiosity about each other. I want to avoid making assumptions about you and receive the same type of courtesy. Would you also want to have that kind of respectful work relationship with me?”
Communicating Rather than Acting Anger Out
When you communicate your anger directly instead of acting it out, you are very aware of your intention to treat yourself and the other person as equals.
When you act it out you usually consider your needs to be more important than those of others and you tend to view the other as someone to be made wrong or punished.
The problem with acting out your anger is that it not only prevents you from having a resolution or fulfilling your values; it also has the great likelihood of offending, hurting or harming others with aggressive and impulsive words and actions.
See, if you act out your anger you get into a deeper mess: the other is hurt, you both feel disconnected with one another, you may feel guilty or righteous and you are unable to fulfill your values.
So, what would you choose? To communicate or to act out your anger?
Anger Needs Attention
I know that what I’m suggesting here requires effort, attention, energy and a lot of courage.
It’s so much easier to communicate based on habits than to pause, reflect and then speak up.
Yet, I also know from my own experience and from the work my courageous clients do, that when you are able to communicate anger consciously, the words that come out are words of compassion.
Anger leads to clarity, strength and the gift of life-affirming actions.
Anger help us tell others how to respect what we hold dear; how to stand up with integrity for our deepest values; and how to ensure that we and others enjoy the same rights and opportunities.
Anger is very powerful. And you can harness the power of anger to be in service to your heart and to the great values we are being asked to stand for.
Whether you are longing for deeper connections with those around you or the protection of those who need us, or tending to the needs of Mother Earth and her children, may you communicate your anger with compassion, awareness and courage.