What do I mean by “the gift of anger?” Isn’t anger something to be avoided, or better yet, transcended? Maybe, but I can’t seem to avoid getting angry, and I suspect transcendence will take me several lifetimes. In the meantime, though, I have a powerful option. I can see my anger as a gift…and learn to unpack it.
As the Christmas season approaches this year, I’ve been thinking about a different kind of gift: anger. Yes, I do think of anger as a gift….and given my tendency to get angry every time I read the news, you could say Christmas started weeks ago for me.
I haven’t always valued my anger. On the contrary. I vaguely sensed that expressing it seemed to make things worse for me, not better. This was generally true, but it wasn’t until I went to a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) workshop and heard Marshall Rosenberg talk about anger that I understood why.
Marshall explained that anger is “a suicidal expression of an unmet need.” I had intuited the suicidal part. I understood exactly what Marshall meant when he said that expressing my needs in an angry way would virtually guarantee that others would resist helping me meet those needs.
But the idea of anger as an expression of an unmet need came as a revelation to me. Before that day, I knew nothing about needs, let alone unmet ones. I was indescribably relieved to learn that my anger wasn’t a horrible trait to be stamped out of myself, but a red flag signaling me to get in touch with my deeper needs.
Now I felt hopeful. If I had unmet needs, and those needs were the true source of my anger, I could let go of shame and focus on unpacking the needs underneath the anger. Like any gift, anger arrives boxed and wrapped. You have to unpack it to access the valuable information it contains.
This is easier said than done, though. It takes practice to unpack your anger without blowing anything (or anyone) up. That practice begins with addressing any shame you may be carrying about your anger. If you can’t accept it’s OK to be angry, you can’t unpack your anger, and you’ll keep stuffing it down.
Why do we try so hard to repress our anger?
Anger is a tough one for many of us who are highly sensitive. For one thing, we fear others’ anger. It’s overwhelmingly overarousing and unpleasant. And because we are conscientious and empathetic, the last thing we want is to inflict anger on others, considering how much we dislike being on the receiving end of it ourselves.
So we try to repress and control our anger. Have you ever told yourself that if you were a kinder person, you wouldn’t get angry? Or you may have said to yourself, “I must be deficient as a Buddhist/Christian/Muslim/Jew, or I wouldn’t get so angry.” You are using shame to try to keep your anger in check. I’ve done this to myself, and I’ve seen many clients do it.
But as we’ve seen, anger is an expression of unmet needs, and shaming yourself for getting angry doesn’t make those needs magically disappear. Shame just pushes the anger underground. There, it builds. Eventually, you explode. Then surveying the wreckage in an agony of regret, you redouble your efforts to control your anger.
This painful cycle of anger and shame plays out in our relationships, too. If I judge myself as spiritually deficient because I get angry, I will judge you the same way if you get angry. If I don’t understand there are legitimate needs underneath my anger, I won’t be able to imagine the legitimate needs underneath yours. Compassion goes out the window.
Thank goodness, then, for the concept of universal human needs. Needs (you can print a list of them here) lift us out of the no-win game of angry judgment and set us gently down in the poet Rumi’s famous field:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Outrage vs wounded anger
Once you’ve let go of shame about your anger, you are free to observe it more dispassionately. This is important because there are two kinds of anger. Elaine Aron writes that
Anger is the “moral emotion” because it causes us to set boundaries so that the other person will not cross ours and in so doing violate an ethical or moral value. Most ethics, after all, are about boundaries. You can’t have what’s mine. You can’t cut in front of me. You can’t take up my rightful space. You must play fair so that I also get a chance. You can’t say things about me that are not true.
Dr. Aron is describing the outrage we feel when our values are violated. I agree. It can be healthy to speak up indignantly if you have experienced an indignity. But when is it healthy to express your anger, and when is it suicidal? To tell the difference, you need to be aware of another force at play that Dr. Aron doesn’t mention here: your intent.
Inner Bonding® teaches that we can choose our intent. We have only two choices: the intent to learn, or the intent to control. If I’m in the intent to control, I’ll express my anger in exactly the sort of way Marshall described as suicidal. I’ll convey to you—directly or by implication—that our problems are your fault. If only you weren’t so bad, stupid, slow, loud, fast…if only you hadn’t done “x” or had done “y”…we wouldn’t have this problem.
At that point, you’d probably flip me the bird. Who could blame you? To avoid this, when I get angry, I must ask myself two crucial questions: “What is my intent right now? Am I trying to control someone or something?”
The difference between “power over” and “power with”
In reality, I am powerless to control other people. But when I’m in the intent to control, I refuse to accept this. Anger appeals to me at these moments. It gives me the illusion I’m doing something. Unfortunately, though, that “something” I’m doing—attacking, blaming, shaming, criticizing—is ultimately suicidal.
Remember Marshall’s comment that anger is a suicidal expression of an unmet need? Getting angry at you may temporarily make me feel like I have power over you, but that power is illusory. In fact, if you sense I’m trying to control you with my anger, you will likely resist doing what I want you to do, even when doing so creates hardship for you.
As human beings, we value autonomy nearly as much as air, water, and light. Accordingly, I am most effective when I express myself in a way that respects your autonomy. In other words, If I want to find my power with you, I must first accept that in truth, I have no power over you.
Accepting your essential powerlessness is extremely difficult. You have to be willing to feel the powerlessness in your body, rather than covering it up with anger. Then you realize why anger is so popular. Powerlessness is tough to feel. It can show up as an awful, insides-crawling, “get-me-out-of-here” sensation in the body, or a maddening swirl of “want-to-lash-out-but-can’t-lash-out” futility.
How do you enable yourself to feel powerlessness? You have to develop what Inner Bonding calls a strong Loving Adult. Focusing has a different name for this way of being: Presence. From this “bigger you,” you can sit with all the stages and presentations of anger—the shame about your anger, the anger itself, and the powerlessness—until you can discern the unmet needs causing your anger.
Practical strategies for unpacking anger
Here are eight strategies I’ve found helpful to unpack the gift of anger:
- Notice if you feel ashamed of your anger. If you do, get to know the part of you that feels ashamed. It has its good reasons, and once you’ve heard them, it will gradually relax and step aside.
- In a safe, private space, let your anger out. Marshall called this “letting the jackal show fly.” Don’t edit. Just enjoy the fireworks.
- As you start to calm down a bit, notice your intent. Are you in the intent to learn, or the intent to control?
- Play “queen for a day:” imagine you have royal resources, wise men, endless willing subjects, and supreme authority. What would you like (or have liked) to see happen?
- Use your list of needs to sense what needs of yours would be met by your royal vision.
- Come up with a “Plan B” for any part of your vision that requires any specific person to do any specific thing. (When there’s only one person we think can meet our need, it’s hard not to try to control them.)
- Make space to hold the powerlessness that comes up when you cannot find a Plan B, or when someone has acted in a way that has left you with unmet needs.
- Express your needs to the person you were angry at, and try to hear their needs. If you get triggered again, put yourself in “time out” and go back to step 1 above.
Notice that the first seven steps have something in common: you could do them with the support of a friend or therapist, but they are essentially solitary. Unlike blowing up, which happens in an instant, unpacking the gift of anger takes effort, commitment, and time. But as you learn to do it, you receive two gifts.
The first is a clear sense of your needs. The clearer you are about your needs, the more you open to an abundance of ways to meet those needs. In addition, as you learn to honor and unpack the gift of your own anger, you will find you are less overwhelmed by others’ anger. You will empathize more easily with others, feel more compassionate towards them, and feel more inclined to respect their autonomy.
Empathy, compassion, and respect: these are gifts we can give and receive all year, if we take time to unpack our anger.