Think back on all the messages you’ve been told about anger, all the little quips and remarks thrown your way when you were feeling angry. When I polled groups of people about this, I usually filled a whiteboard with messages like:
I’ve been told about anger
Control your temper
Just calm down
Keep it inside
But when I polled those same groups of people on how they saw their parents and caregivers cope with anger for themselves, the whiteboard filled with a range of things that often looked like:
How I saw my caregivers cope with their own anger
They walked away (*Note that leaving means the child doesn’t then get to witness how the parent then copes with anger after they leave. It remains a mystery.)
Yelling, swearing, arguments
Sleep it off
From these polls we see that most kids were told to keep their own anger down, but many of us observed the opposite from adults around us. Many people saw how self destructive our caregiver’s attempts to avoid anger ended up being for them, and for others, in the long run. The same adult who chided, “Control your temper,” may have also been the one who boiled over at times and yelled or threw things. It’s no wonder anger is so confusing and frustrating for people. In fact, it’s one of the more common emotions that people come to therapy to try to get rid of. Many people associate real danger and fear with memories of anger, so when they feel it themselves they can be overcome with shame. Unfortunately, the more shame we have about feeling anger, the MORE likely it is for that anger to become even more unpredictable next time.
If we don’t dive into the discomfort and pain of this topic we will all be hopeless to find a better way with anger.
I’m going to pose a What if that may seem absolutely absurd given what we just talked about. Hear me out.
What if anger is not a bad or negative emotion like we’ve been taught? What if anger is more like a misunderstood, stubborn messenger? It keeps trying to deliver its messages, but when the messages are not received, it gets louder and louder to try to get its points across. If we’ve never been shown the way to translate the messages of anger, it will forever feel like someone yelling at you in a language you don’t understand.
Consider the pivotal scene from the movie, Moana (spoiler alert for the following paragraph). Moana is battling Te Ka, the lava monstress, and is finding that the more she battles the monstress, the more viciously the monstress battles back. But when she finally stops and realizes who Te Ka is, when she states, “I know who you are,” and approaches Te Ka from a place of understanding rather than frantic attempts to control her, this is where something magical happens. Te Ka transforms back into her true form, Te Fiti, who is actually a lush green island. Was this terrifying for Moana? Yes. Was it necessary? Yes. That is, if she wanted to bring healing to her people then, yes, it was necessary. This scene was a goosebumps moment for so many viewers because it tapped into a deep truth: Anger is like a volcano – ignore it long enough, fight it, and it will explode. Call it a monster long enough and it will act like one.
But also, like a volcano, anger can create fertile soil for healing when embraced with curiosity. This is the wisdom in the story of Moana. We will almost always resist hearing this messenger of anger if we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s a monster. We have to bring it back to basics – to “know who you are,” when speaking with anger.
You may be skeptical still – that’s okay. You may be asking, how do I even begin to establish any relationship with anger if it’s acting like a thrashing lava monster right now? There is a way. To do this, we must be able to listen and translate its messages rather than taking them at face value, or bottling the messages up. Noticing anger while it’s small helps immensely with preventing the volcano from overflowing in the long run. Even better, noticing anger while it’s small means we can turn this opponent into one of our strongest allies.
Below is a translator guide for anger.
The Misunderstood Messenger: Decoding its messages
When we listen to Anger’s translated messages, it gives the anger permission to pass on rather than getting stuck and building up like the lava in a volcano. Writer, Selene Kinder, tapped into the wisdom of a therapeutic approach to anger known as ACT when she wrote that anger is the messenger of 3 things: Boundaries, Passions, and Protecting our other emotions (Kinder, S. 2018). Let’s dig in to how to recognize and decode each of those messages.
1. Boundaries – We need anger in order to tell what and where our boundaries are. There’s no way around it: Anger is DOING ITS JOB if it speaks up when someone is crossing a boundary. It also speaks up when we are crossing our own boundaries.
Ways to keep it stuck:
- Ignore the boundary crossings, or dismiss them such as saying, “It’s fine…I’m not mad about it,” when you really are.
- Avoid tense situations altogether rather than discussing them
- Losing sight of your sense of who you are, what’s deeply important to you, and sacrificing those things for the sake of harmony in a relationship.
Think of a relationship right now, actually pause for 20 seconds, and think of a relationship in your life where you feel some bitterness or chronic annoyance when you think of being around them. Got one? This is a relationship where anger is trying to get your attention, like a referee waving a red flag, to let you know that there is a boundary being crossed. It may be you crossing a boundary, or them, or a combination of both.
Keep in mind that setting a boundary as an attempt to control someone else will almost always backfire and leave you fuming. For example, saying, “I need you to do the dishes without me having to ask,” is a veiled attempt to control that person and will therefore backfire. This is not a strong boundary and will leave you frustrated in the end, not to mention the other person may be even more likely to want to rebel against your attempts to control them. A strong boundary is a boundary you set for yourself – “If you don’t do the dishes, I will not be doing them for you. I am willing to communicate that I do feel _____ when the dishes are not done. I am willing to endure the mess in the short run while you adjust, and practice releasing the illusion of control I am clinging to here.”
Let’s say the dish example is an argument you’ve had not once, but many times. Dr. Harriet Lerner, psychologist and expert on the topics of anger and apologies, writes that the majority of repetitive arguments are fueled by one or both people forgetting who they are deep down, getting lost in the relationship. This ties into Boundary-Anger because if you don’t know where you end and another person begins, then you will inevitably miss the boundary setting signals of anger. This leads to bitterness over time. Repetitive arguments may be a sign that you have compromised your “sense of I for the sake of the we,” in the relationship, and that you need to consider where you are losing sight of your own values (Lerner, “The Dance of Anger”). Your values are the core ways of living life that you find deeply important, such as living life generously, lovingly, respectfully to animals, honestly – the list goes on, and each person has a set of core values that matter deeply to them. Anger and guilt can let us know when we’re straying from our own core values. Whenever a repeating argument is occurring, Dr. Lerner advises asking yourself to own where you are de-selfing if you actually want the pattern to change. With the dishes example, the de-selfing could be the ways that you are sacrificing your desires and values due to your own internal pressure to clean the house. What activities am I giving up due to the amount of time and energy I’m putting into cleaning? Why do I feel drawn into cleaning up other people’s messes rather than trusting them and focusing on my own? This is a part of the pattern you and only you can ultimately own, and a therapist can be a helpful support as you sort these deeper questions out. When you focus on owning your part in it, and only your part, you liberate yourself from the repetitive cycle over time.
In short, you keep Boundary-Anger stuck when you avoid boundary setting, when you let your sense of self & core values get lost in the relationship, and when you’re trying to use boundaries to control something that is not in your control rather than addressing your own de-selfing.
How to get the boundary-anger unstuck:
- Listen to anger while it’s still annoyance when you can. When you are annoyed is the ideal time to tune in to yourself and ask what boundaries are getting crossed. After you’ve cooled off, then this is a good time to let that person know that there is a boundary in your relationship that needs to be addressed. This works much better than waiting for when you’re fuming or it’s been a chronic problem to address it.
- State and re-state your boundaries. If you yourself forget to listen to your boundaries sometimes, then we can reasonably expect that the people in your life will need some kind and assertive reminders as well.
- If that person keeps crossing boundaries, decide what level of trust they currently have earned and what you will specifically need to see before increasing their level of trust little by little, if you decide to do so.
- Let go of the blame game. Take full ownership of your part, and only your part – no more, no less. Even if 99% of the issue at hand is contributed by the other person, you will ultimately stay stuck and angry until you take full ownership of your 1%. Dr. Lerner’s book, The Dance of Anger, is a great resource for finding out how to have those conversations.
2. Passions – Anger tells us what we care about and want to change in the world. When we read the news and anger starts to rise within us, it is often Passion-Anger saying, “I want to see and create a world where this injustice doesn’t happen anymore.” Passion-Anger’s message is meant to make us ask ourselves, “What little things can I do to contribute to making that better world a reality?” However, if this message gets stuck, it can turn into an attempt to gain control of situations that are outside our realm of control. Consider when you’re driving and someone cuts you off in traffic. Stuck anger may have us riding that person’s bumper, convinced that, “Now they’ll never try to cut me off again!” This is an attempt to control that person’s driving rather than your own. Stuck Passion-Anger is ultimately, “trying to change the world, but on my terms,” as therapist, Chris Johnson, LMSW, states.
Ways to keep it stuck:
- Trying to control things beyond my circle of control.
- Blaming others for things that are in my circle of control.
- Venting also keeps this anger message stuck. We know we’re venting when we start to feel more anger the longer we talk about the situation. It’s counter-intuitive, but Dr. Lerner writes that venting keeps this anger stuck because we use all our change-making-energy that anger unleashes in the venting session, and then by the time the situation rolls around again and you’re actually face to face with that person you’re angry with, all the change-making-energy has already been drained. You may roll over again, and then kick yourself afterwards, asking, “Why didn’t I say what I wanted to say?”
How to get the anger unstuck:
- Practice saying to yourself, “I can’t control ________, but I can do _______.” For example, “I can’t control a war in another country, but I can offer a free or reduced price service to a refugee.”
It’s also important to notice and address old, stuck anger from stressful times in your past that you simply could not process at the time, for whatever reason. When it comes up, stuck anger feels strong and overwhelming. A therapist can help you to practice noticing when it’s actually stuck-anger, and not that bagel you just burned, that sent you over the edge, and they can help you to hold space for that old anger in a way so it can start to release and get unstuck.
3. Partners with other emotions – Anger is unique in that it never walks alone. Each person has at least one emotion they are uncomfortable with, and this becomes like an exiled, forbidden messenger for them. Anger often partners with this forbidden emotion, acting as a bodyguard for it. For example, if someone were to jump around a corner to try to scare me, my first reaction might be to swear and reflexively punch them. What happened here? Anger instantaneously buddied up with my forbidden emotions of fear and surprise, and maybe even embarrassment. In the moment, it may feel that I am just pissed at that person for surprising me, when really those other emotions were being protected by the anger. For some people, anger itself is the ‘forbidden’ emotion. In that case, anger is often bodyguarded by another emotion such anxiety, guilt, or sadness. That person may feel overwhelmingly worried and anxious when their anger is actually trying to get their attention. At the end of the day, to help our anger get unstuck we also must process whatever emotion is walking with it.
Ways to keep it stuck:
- Only try to control the anger.
Ways to get it unstuck:
- Cope with the anger in the moment
- Notice it sooner and sooner with practice.
- After the fact, ask yourself what other emotion was there and what it might want to tell you.
- Listen with kindness and curiosity like you would listen to a child expressing this emotion. We don’t always take a child literally – we have to practice listening below the literal words to what they’re trying to say. If a child is screaming about the wrong color jello, you might take a step back and realize, “Oh! You’re tired and need a nap,” rather than trying to argue about the jello. The same goes for our emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones. The more we practice listening to the deeper messages and needs, the less they need to scream to get our attention.
Now that you’ve gotten a crash-course in how to begin translating your anger messages, please be patient with yourself in the coming weeks. You won’t be able to change this overnight. Start by narrating out loud when you are feeling angry. Then gradually practice asking yourself what your anger was trying to say after the fact. Just like working out, this will take time and practice to build this muscle. The payoff is that you get to start unloading all the stuck anger and prevent even more of it from piling on, to the point where things like traffic will no longer piss you off like they used to.
Talking to a therapist about this can be like having a personal trainer on your side when it comes to changing your engrained anger patterns. For next steps on how to respond to anger in the short and long term, as well as practical ways to cope with rage, click here.
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Covey, S. R. (2020). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.
Kinder, S. (2018, February 12). The importance of listening to your emotions. Empowering Women Now. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://empoweringwomennow.com/the-importance-of-listening-to-your-emotions/
Freund, T. K., & Johnson, C. (2022, February 11). On Anger. Personal interview.
Harris, R., & Hayes, S. (2008). The happiness trap. Robinson.
Lerner, H. G. (1989). The Dance of Anger. Harper & Row Publishers Inc.