We have been exploring the emotion of anger in this series of blog posts. Over the past few weeks, we have looked at anger as a messenger, presenting us with vital wisdom and information, and as a catalyst, prompting us to create change when needed. Last week we looked at the unhelpful defensive strategies that anger can create including the pattern of “othering” the cheating partner which dehumanizes them, and the pattern of offending from the victim position. This week and next we want to focus on what it means to express our anger well.
Betrayal creates anger because it violates our trust and vulnerability. We may feel levels of anger after experiencing betrayal that we have never felt any other time in our lives. This is not uncommon and if you have found yourself befuddled by the rage and anger pouring out of you in the aftermath of discovery you are not alone.
Here is an interesting question for you. Who in your life taught you to handle the emotion of anger well? Is expressing anger in healthy ways a skill that someone discussed with you? How about modeling? Did you see anger expressed in healthy ways in your family?
If you are like me the answer to these questions is a string of nos. Most of us are taught (either overtly or covertly) that anger is an emotion to be avoided, repressed, or ashamed of when it leaks out. Very few of us have had our anger affirmed or validated or been taught how to feel and express our anger in helpful ways.
A few months ago, I came across a new term used by the author, Soraya Chemaly in her book Rage Becomes Her. The term is “anger competency”.
I know. Take a minute. I needed one too.
Learning this term has provided me with language to describe the process of growing my skills around feeling and expressing anger well. And, what I like even more, is that the idea that we can become competent with our anger directly opposes the belief that anger is somehow shameful.
Anger competency means that we can learn how to create space for, feel and express our anger in ways that are helpful both to ourselves and to our relationships. Rather than thinking of anger as a destructive emotion, anger competency allows us to value our anger for what it is: a response to violation, injustice or powerlessness that can create needed change.
Thinking about the idea of anger competency made me curious about my growth process around anger. My relationship with anger has changed over time and there are some key learnings that have helped to shift how I feel and express anger.
Before I share some of what I’ve learned with you, let me first disclaim as vehemently as possible that I am in no way finished or woke or arrived or whatever other term you want to come up with when it comes to anger. Anger competency is an aspiration and a growth process, not just for me but for all of us and I am on the journey with everybody else.
However, I have learned some things through the process of my own recovery as a betrayed partner and through adulting that have helped me grow my anger competency. We are going to look at three of these lessons this week and the rest next week.
Lesson 1: Validate Anger First
Because so many of us have been taught to feel shame when we get angry, we don’t stop to create space for our anger. If emotions are neutral (and they are, it is what we do with them and how we express them that matters), then our anger is a neutral emotion that is showing up in response to some real or perceived infringement.
When anger shows up, one of the most powerful things we can do to hone our anger competence is to validate our anger. We don’t need to judge or justify our anger. Instead, we can simply acknowledge that something has sparked our anger and that we are feeling angry. When we do this, it creates space for our anger to be processed and to move through us.
Lesson 2: Claim Our Right to Anger
When anger is in response to a true violation of our boundaries (emotional, physical, or sexual boundaries), we have a right to our anger. Anger is a normal response to injustice, violation, or harm. When we can own our anger by saying, “I am angry and I have a right to be angry,” it often helps us manage our anger better.
It may seem strange that claiming our right to be angry can help us better express and manage this volatile emotion. However, I want you to think about a time when you have felt angry about someone violating your boundaries and then felt ashamed about being angry (most of us have had this experience at some point). Did the shame make your anger bigger or smaller? Easier to deal with or harder to deal with? Did the shame help you express your anger well or exacerbate expressing it poorly? For most of us, shame about anger makes the anger worse and expressing it well harder.
Claiming our right to be angry gives us permission to feel our emotions and helps us move toward expressing our anger in more relational ways.
Lesson #3: Get Curious
Now that we have validated our anger and asserted our right to be angry, it is time to get curious. Anger can arise for many many reasons and when it comes knocking at our emotional door, we need to get curious about why it is there.
For example, perhaps we are angry because our partner said something to us that felt hurtful. We may want to step back and ask ourselves, was what was said hurtful in and of itself and that’s why I’m angry? Or am I angry because I gave the words my partner said a negative meaning and now, I’m feeling angry in response.
We can be angry about what we perceive or make up about a situation just as easily as we can be angry about something clearly hurtful or violating. It is always helpful to get curious about which one is happening. If it is our perception or the meaning we are giving things then we can adjust that and see how that impacts our emotions. If it is something directly hurtful, we can confront that to help resolve our anger.
Another way to get curious about our anger is to ask ourselves whether it is the result of something we did or did not do rather than something someone else is doing to us.
One of the best examples of this happens around our boundaries. For example, let’s say our partner asks us to help them with something and we say yes, sure, we can do that, even though we don’t actually have either the time or energy to help.
As we lend a hand, we notice that we are resentful, impatient, and angry. As the project goes on our anger and resentment grow. However, if we were to pause and get curious, we would realize that we did not hold our own emotional boundaries well. We said yes, when we should have said no and now, we are angry.
The same dynamic can happen around using our voice. A situation unfolds and we do not say what we really think or ask for what we really need. Instead, we are silent or acquiescent. Later, we can find ourselves angry because we did not use our voice to express our thoughts, needs or opinions.
Getting curious about why we are angry opens the door to understanding much more about ourselves and our relationships. It helps us move out of reactivity into responsiveness where we are better able to choose our words and actions.
In next week’s post we are going to look at three more lessons that can help us grow our anger competency. Stay tuned…