We all know that feeling. Someone has done something or something has happened that has angered you and the rage is real! Your body tenses, your heart races, your temperature rises and a vicious tirade comes spilling out your mouth before you even realise it!
Understand Your Anger
Anger itself is not bad.
It’s not wrong or even unnatural.
However, we have been taught to believe that it is an undesirable, shameful feeling that needs to be stifled or hidden. Unfortunately repressing or misdirecting our anger only leads to further problems.
In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg offers us a very different approach. He believes that we think ourselves angry.
Anger is caused when we think that someone else is at fault or has wronged us. By blaming others, we imply that someone or something is responsible for our anger. The truth is, someone else can’t “make” you angry, as much as you may want to believe that.
“We are never angry because of what others say or do,” explains Rosenberg. Their action may be the stimulus (an event that evokes a reaction) but it is not the cause.
Rosenberg illustrates this clearly in the following story from his time working with inmates at a Swedish prison. He was there to teach prisoners who had a history of violent behaviour how to understand and express their anger, rather than to harm others.
‘During an exercise calling on participants to identify the stimulus anger, one prisoner, John, wrote:
“Three weeks ago I made a request to the prison officials for training and they still haven’t responded to it.” His statement was a clear observation of a stimulus, describing what other people had done.
I then asked him to state the cause of his anger. “When this happened, you felt angry because what?”
“I just told you,” he exclaimed. “I felt angry because they didn’t respond to my request!”
Be equating stimulus and cause, he had tricked himself into thinking that it was the behaviour of the prison officials that was making him angry.’
Listen To Your Anger
So what does cause our anger?
Simply put, anger is an alarm going off, alerting us that we have unmet needs.
The stories we tell ourselves about a situation and the meaning we give to them cause our feelings of anger. Dropping from our heads into our hearts and understanding that those unmet needs are causing our frustration allow us to accept responsibility for our reactions and take action to connect with our needs. (If you struggle to connect with your needs, here is a list that can help you recognise them.)
The more we focus our attention on our own consciousness, the anger, blame, and retribution that was focused on others dissolves and we are able to use our energy to meet our needs in a healing way.
This is exactly what happened as the conversation continued between Michael Rosenberg and the Swedish prisoner, John, when he addressed the cause of his anger at prison officials.
‘Marshall: So, when this happened, you felt angry because what
John: I just told you. They didn’t respond to my request!
Marshall: Hold it. Instead of saying “I felt angry because they…”, stop and become
conscious of what you’re telling yourself that’s making you so angry.
John: I’m not telling myself anything.
Marshall: Stop, slow down, just listen to what’s going on inside.
John: (after silently reflecting) I’m telling myself that they have no respect for human
beings; they are a bunch of cold, faceless bureaucrats who don’t give a damn about anybody but themselves! They’re a real bunch of...
Marshall: Thanks, that’s enough. Now you know why you’re angry - it’s that kind of
John: But what’s wrong with thinking that way?
Marshall: I’m not saying there is anything wrong with thinking that way. However, it’s that kind of thinking on your part that makes you feel very angry. Focus your attention on your needs: what are your needs in this situation?
John: (after a long silence) Marshall, I need the training I was requesting. If I don’t get
that training, as sure as I’m sitting here, I’m gonna end up back in this prison
when I get out.
Marshall: Now that your attention is on your needs, how do you feel?
Marshall: Now put yourself in the shoes of a prison official. If I’m an inmate, am I more
likely to get my needs met if I come to you saying, “Hey, I really need that
training and I’m scared of what’s going to happen if I don’t get it,” or if I approach while seeing you as a faceless bureaucrat?
(John stares at the floor and remains silent)
Marshall: Hey, buddy, what’s going on?
John: Can’t talk about it.
Three hours later, John approached Marshall and said: “Marshall, I wish you had taught me two years ago what you taught me this morning. I wouldn’t have had to kill my best friend.”’
Your situation might not be that drastic, but learning to understand your anger and connecting with your underlying needs can change your life. You don't have to stay stuck in the cycle of anger and regret any longer.
We have helped many people understand the cause of their anger and learn new, healthy ways to express their emotions. We want to help you too!
(excerpts taken from Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg which is available on our website here)