We have made it to the final post in the series on anger! We began by looking at the positive functions anger plays in our lives: both as a messenger and a catalyst for change. We then explored the ways that anger can hijack our nervous systems and be expressed in unhelpful and sometimes harmful ways. Finally, we discussed the idea of anger competency – growing our ability to manage and express this volatile but important emotion.
Last week we defined anger competency, and I shared three lessons to help us grow in this area:
- Lesson 1: Validate Anger First
- Lesson 2: Claim Our Right to Anger
- Lesson 3: Get Curious
This week we are going to look at lessons four, five and six, that, when implemented, help us continue to develop our anger competency.
Lesson 4: If It’s Hysterical It’s Historical
Whenever our anger moves into rage it is tapping into a wound from our childhood. One way to think about this is to imagine a scale that goes from zero to ten. Anything over a 5 on the anger scale is almost always nudging a deeper older wound.
We may be angry about whatever is happening in the present. However, when our anger gets big, it is usually because present events are reminding us of past painful events and bringing up unresolved emotions.
When this happens, we want to get curious about what in our past is getting activated by our present. Those emotions are coming up so they can be processed and healed. We want to pay attention and take the time to understand the raw spot that is getting triggered so we can heal.
Lesson 5: Find the Message
Once we have gotten curious about our anger, we can then ask ourselves what our anger is trying to tell us.
Maybe the message is that we need to work on our boundaries or learn how to use our voice more effectively. Often anger shows up when we have experienced boundary failure or when we need to use our voice to make a request or share our thoughts but have instead remained silent. Anger is a signal that we have not honored our reality and now we are stuck in resentment.
Another message may be that our relationship is creating chronic anger because our partner does not respect us or show up for us. Anger may be trying to help us to either advocate for change within the relationship or to make some decisions about exiting.
Maybe when we get curious about our anger, we find that we are actually afraid. Anger is a great masker of fear. We can think we are angry but underneath we are afraid. Our anger is trying to protect us from our fear. When we get curious and connect to our fear, we can then help ourselves lean into our fear to resolve it rather than avoiding it through anger.
Lesson 6: Express Anger Vulnerably
I have saved the hardest lesson for last. This is the one I will be working on forever and ever, amen.
Because anger usually shows up as a defensive protective emotion, we tend to express our anger reactively. The idea that we need to tap into our vulnerability to express our anger from a place of responsiveness (instead of reactivity) can feel impossible.
There is a paradox here: when we express our anger with vulnerability, we automatically express it with more power. When we express our anger reactively, we are usually expressing it from a position of powerlessness.
When we can slow down, pause, take time to validate our anger, get curious and listen to its message, we will find out what our anger is really about. When that happens, we become equipped to express our anger in a new way. Rather than flying off the handle reactively, we can choose to express our anger more authentically and from a place of vulnerability.
For example, instead of angrily ranting the list of ways our partner has violated our boundaries and betrayed our trust, we can instead express our anger more powerfully by tapping into our vulnerability.
This could look like saying, “The continued lying is making me incredibly angry. It destroys all possibility of trust and repair in our relationship, and I am angry that you continue to lie to me. It hurts me, it hurts you, and it hurts our relationship, and I am sad about where we are at as a result.”
To say something like this requires vulnerability because you are sharing your anger, not defensively or reactively, but as an emotionally grounded response to what is happening in the relationship. You are taking a relational risk by doing this. When we express anger with vulnerability, we empower ourselves and as a result we risk more.
If we have listened to our anger, we might follow our initial statement up by saying, “I have decided that it is too costly for me to continue to live in close proximity to you while you are still lying about your behaviors. I would like you to move out of the house for the next three months and commit to working on changing this pattern. Could we talk about this with our therapists this week and make arrangements for a therapeutic separation?”
Now we have expressed our anger and we have also let our anger help us sort out what we need and set some boundaries to help ourselves. We have taken action. We are vulnerably expressing our emotional reality and risking relationally by setting boundaries.
Learning how to slow down the bullet train of anger so that we can distill its message and express our anger with vulnerability is not for the faint of heart. It takes practice, along with willingness to do it imperfectly and learn as we go.
All these lessons help us grow our anger competency and our capacity for safe emotional connection. We can practice them with grace, patience, and self-compassion as we acknowledge that we are all on the journey together.