I've noticed a consistent pattern among myself and my coaching clients: we all have a history of not standing up for ourselves when other people behave in ways that we don't feel good to us. Most of us had parents who weren't willing or able to teach us how to deal with our emotions, to self-soothe our nervous system when we were in distress, or to stand up for ourselves when our emotional or physical boundaries were being violated. Often the person we most needed to stand up to was one or both of our parents themselves, and that rarely goes well when you're a distressed child trying to stand up to an adult who is being unreasonable because their wounded inner child is running the show.
All of this is a recipe for ever-increasing anger, resentment and frustration. We end up overcompensating in a desperate attempt to get our needs met. Internalise that toxic cocktail and it's no wonder we end up anxious, depressed and lacking self-confidence.
Behavior patterns learned as a child tend to stick even if they never really worked well, and coping strategies learned as a child rarely work well in the adult world. If nobody shows us a better way, we tend to continue behaving in ways that increase our internal store of resentment and frustration long into adulthood with no way of releasing the emotional pressure cooker.
After a while we end up bitter and resentful towards a hostile world that just won't seem to give us what we need or want.
Most of my clients and I were systematically trained to disregard our intuition, emotions and bodily signals in order to suit parents, teachers or caregivers. At the same time we were taught to unconditionally respect these authority figures in our lives; even though we knew deep down that the way they are behaving was damaging to us. No wonder we ended up so angry.
I believe this effect is compounded by the belief that anger is somehow bad, evil or wrong, and by repressive efforts that leave us dissociated from the feeling altogether.
A red flag for me now is when I offer someone empathy for their anger, and they start yelling at me something like "I'm not angry!!! You're wrong!!!" I avoid these people wherever possible now because they tend to dump their anger unconsciously on any sensitive person who happens to be around. I don't take them on as clients and I won't keep them as friends. I don't want that kind of stress in my life.
The ultimate solution to our anger is to channel the angry energy into assertive communication that gets our needs met. That can be easier said than done, so here's my suggested four steps towards healthy anger management:
The first step is to realize that we're angry in the first place, and this can take some therapeutic work if we're in the habit of repressing our feelings.
The second step is to communicate our anger in a constructive way to a safe third party where we can feel heard and validated, such as a therapist or emotional intelligence coach.
The third step is to communicate the anger to the person who stimulated it, in a manner that they're able to hear. This has been a huge challenge for me since the people I historically tend to feel most angry with are often very triggered when I express my feelings cleanly. They tend to go into shame, blame, criticism and justification. They make out that I'm somehow bad, evil or wrong for the way I feel.
Even though I haven't done anything wrong, their pain body gets triggered and their default pattern of shutting me down to avoid their own feelings gets activated. That leaves me feeling unheard, leading to even more anger and resentment in me. Just like when I was a kid.
So now I've come up with a fourth step for times when step three fails: Channel the energy of the anger into assertively getting the underlying need met; not necessarily by the person who triggered my anger. For example, if I'm angry with my sister for not making time to meet my need for connection, I might call a friend to connect with or write a blog article like this one in order to recruit a new coaching client who I can connect with.
Since the energy now has an outlet, it doesn't have to fester in my nervous system and make my head spin. Plus a new client would help ease my financial stress, so it's a double win.
My approach to assertiveness has been heavily influenced by Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication. I believe it's the best model to channel the energy of anger into assertive communication that gets our needs met. When we do this, the anger dissolves naturally because we've responded to what it's telling us. We no longer suppress it, internalize it or stew on it because it's really gone.
I found practicing NVC in the real world a challenge, and am grateful for the many teachers, mentors, therapists, coaches and empathy buddies who I was able to practice with in a safe environment before applying it in real world emotionally charged situations. If you are interested in finding and practicing better ways of dealing with your anger and would like to talk more about how best to handle it, drop me a line.