Lately, I’m hearing and seeing expressions of anger – among friends, in public places, on the news. Mostly, I support the expression but wonder at times about the manner. When it takes the form of violence, physical or verbal, with words or with a weapon, it seems to obliterate the capacity of the recipient to hear or understand it. When it takes the form of an electronic message (texting, email, IM, BBM…………..uh, I don’t know the full list of such tech options), it is bereft of nuance which would accompany face to face communication. It may also be bereft of editing and second thought! But I also know that it can be downright scary to confront another person with feelings that can create a reaction in them, which might be redirected back. So I’d like to talk about some things to consider when you feel angry, and some factors to consider about communicating it.
I think of anger as an emotion of action, or at least a call to action……the “fight” part of “fight, flight, freeze”. That response is pretty primal; some call it a “lizard brain” reaction. It’s part of our instinct to survive and, as such, has very little connection to the parts of the brain that have to do with reason, thought and judgement. However, as a primitive response, it usually doesn’t have much to do in today’s world with an actual threat to survival. Today, it has more to do with a perception of threat to identity, way of life, freedom and personal boundaries. As such, it may be important, unless an actual physical threat is imminent, to try and create a moment to question what makes you feel threatened. Easier said than done, I know, when your heart’s pounding, your vision narrows, you feel like all your blood is rushing to your head and all the muscles in your body seem ready for action.
I’ve talked before about breathing, with focus on your breath as it comes deeply into your lungs then is released, as a tool to slow down impulsive thought and physiological reaction to strong emotional states. I will keep talking about it………..it’s the easiest and most convenient way to pause and get back the ability to use the part of your brain that can assess and reflect. Now that you’ve got that, let’s talk about some things to reflect on.
How close and important is this person to me? In a close relationship, there’s often a lot of safety and room to be thoroughly p***ed off and say it without hurting the relationship or the person. The genuine love and appreciation inherent in the relationship can contain and handle strong emotions. Having said that, reflection on this question may also help to temper the assumptions which fuel anger or the in-the-moment belief that they’re trying to harm me. Might even create pause to be less adamant and more curious in finding out more about what’s going on that created the situation in the first place. If it’s not a close personal relationship, with the trust and safety that engenders, I might want to reflect on whether the relationship is meaningful enough for me to threaten it’s capacity to tolerate a high level of expression of anger, or whether it’s worth it to me to put myself on the line. That might be the case, for example, with a work colleague or boss. If it’s not a personal relationship at all, say a driver in another car, does that person matter enough to me to spend the energy it requires to be mad at them?
What is my intent and desire in expressing anger? Do I want to be understood or do I want to impact the other’s behaviour? If I want to be understood, I can do a quick intuitive assessment about whether this person would ordinarily be interested in understanding me. If my gut says no, then to give them the full force of my personal, emotional self, is like, well………..you know………p***ing in the wind. If my gut say yes, the question is how to best accomplish being understood. The wish to impact another’s behaviour is most often a way of saying “Stop!”, and halting another’s infringement of your boundaries, and anger expressed can be really helpful in that.
Am I angry at the behaviour or at the person? Yes, I know, it often feels like both, but considering this can narrow down the focus of my expression to how I feel betrayed or hurt, rather than just hurling out an attack on the other as a human being. Yes, even focussing on the behaviour rather than the person doesn’t guarantee that they won’t feel hurt and react angrily themselves. But that isn’t within my control. Providing the best opportunity to be heard and understood is.
Having asked you to consider these questions, I do recognize that anger is powerful and not always pretty. It is an emotion of strength trying to protect the more tender and painful feelings we can have when we feel hurt, diminished or betrayed. No matter how mindful we try to be, the expression of anger hurts us and it hurts the ones who receive it. Humanity is messy, and it has been the aim of philosophers and wise ones throughout our history to find ways to improve and heal the injuries. My small stock of accumulated wisdom tells me that we have a ways to go, but that it’s worth the effort to keep trying. Remember that now that you’ve expressed some anger and maybe trampled a bit on someone else’s feelings, you’re now responsible to recognize and hear how they feel.