Have you ever wondered why you “can´t stand it” when someone says something that is contrary to your opinion? Have you noticed yourself trying to avoid certain conversations or certain people in your life that trigger discomfort? Have you experienced times where you felt angry and chose to repress it as it seemed a scary and an “impolite” thing to do? Have you ever wondered why we label children as “badly-behaved” or “naughty” when they shout loudly or become aggressive with another child?
Why does expressing anger seem to have such a negative connotation in our societies?
Last weekend, I finished a course on process coaching with CTI; a training on learning to process the whole range of emotions that we can experience as human beings, not just the ones we “easily” have access to – this spectrum varies depending on the individual´s life experiences – but also the emotions we keep avoiding and not expressing over and over throughout our lives.
Interestingly enough, I barely cried – I am damn good at it! – but found myself sensing an extremely uncomfortable bitter energy during the first and second day of the course, that would spread throughout my entire trunk, like a boiling lava lake. This energy would flow upwards and downwards from my stomach to my throat, where it would stop and form a very dense lump of fire, waiting impatiently for the right signal to blow up. My palms would sweat and my fists would be clenched as if they were ready to attack.
The whole experience felt as if a dragon was punished by not being allowed under any circumstance to let its fire out, for the sake of his companions. He had been strictly instructed to control it, even though this was not his real essence; who he was meant to be.
But, why wouldn´t a dragon be a dragon?
Wouldn´t it be strange if a dragon did not breathe fire out of his mouth and instead kept it inside? Wouldn´t he get sick by doing so?
It sounds “unnatural”, right? So, following the metaphor, why as human beings do we tend to repress our anger – and other emotions – inside, until they become a lump of fire ready to explode and potentially create chaos and violence? Why do we let repressed emotions become headaches and stomach aches, stress, or even grave illnesses such as some sort of cancer and heart attacks? Why as a society do we let our inner fire cause violence, war conflicts and human disconnection?
My vision of this, and the major learning I took away from the weekend, is that feeling comfortable is overrated. As humans, we tend to avoid situations, people and emotions that make us feel uneasy and that may trigger shame, as we have a natural tendency to “put ourselves out of danger” in places where we feel safe. A very comfy place, in which, by the way, expansion and growth rarely happen.
We grow when we expose ourselves to situations, conversations, people, emotions and other “ways of being and doing things” that we find uneasy. When we walk towards what we normally would avoid, we amplify “the spectrum of colours we can see”, or in other words, “the range of emotions” we can manage.
So, in order to live life at its fullest, we need to jump out the fence of what´s stopping us from being who we really are and doing what we really want to do. When we stretch ourselves towards the “unknown territory”, we find the magical place where human expansion happens. And for expansion and magic to happen in our lives, we need to find ways to release, express and heal our emotions, as individuals, and as a society.
Emotional Intelligence professor and international speaker Daniel Goleman, explains in his work the importance of providing spaces in educational and business settings where people can learn to manage and express their emotions in a healthy way.
Releasing, expressing and healing anger
One thing that I find important to be aware of it is that releasing the energy of anger – or any other emotion – does not mean we are directly healing it. Sometimes it may seem that we are freeing our anger when we do things like doing exercise, telling the “story” of what made us feel angry to a colleague, going for some drinks or even having sex.
Of course these things can make us feel better, as they release emotional tension and stress, but often they are just a “short term” patch, and that does not necessarily mean we are healed. If we keep using patching throughout our life, sooner or later – when we face another uneasy, similar situation – we will notice that the emotional charge of anger will also show up again, maybe in a more intense wave.
So In order to heal our anger we need to look for ways and spaces to express it in a healthy way. These are some ways that I´ve come up with and that may help:
1. Acknowledging that anger does not mean you are “less human”
Acknowledging that feeling and expressing anger does NOT mean you are “less human” can help us to see anger as just another part of ourselves that we can appreciate and take care of.
Anger is an emotion as valid and acceptable as any other ones – joy, sadness, excitement, tiredness, etc. – Emotions aren´t “positive” or “negative” by themselves, it is what we choose to do with them that has an impact on our beings.
2. Recognising the situations in which you are being triggered.
Awareness is a choice.
The first step is to be aware of which situations “call” the emotion to manifest in your body. A question that may help here is: What do you find unfair and/or uncomfortable? These can be things such as when you hear certain words, when you are in the presence of certain people, have certain conversations or avoid conflicts by not speaking up. By doing this exercise, you may find a pattern that will help you understand how your emotions work and identify more easily what situations trigger you, so you can learn to self-manage the situation better.
I invite you also to see what happens to you physically when you are feeling anger: Where does it manifest? Does it have a shape or a colour? How do you feel about sensing that anger in your body? Or, in other words, what´s the emotion behind the emotion?
3. Practising self- compassion as a way to appreciate that there´s “more” beyond anger.
One of the things I´ve learnt from expressing my own anger is that Anger and sadness ARE almost always interlinked emotions, and that usually manifests differently in men and women.
Over the years, I´ve been attending courses about emotional management where I generally have seen men finding it more difficult to go deeper and express sadness than women. Also, as it is definitely in my case, I´ve seen many women finding anger the most difficult emotion for them to express. A pattern seems to constantly appear: men tend to “hide” unexpressed sadness behind anger, and in contrary, women tend to experience grief and depression, which seems to be a signal of unspoken anger.
The feminine energy is generally understood as the “soft and smooth” energy, so women are generally seen as the ones who come together to resolve conflicts through loving communication. On the other hand, the masculine energy tends to be more direct and aggressive, so men in general are “more allowed” than woman to express their anger, as it is a natural instinct to “protect their family from danger”. This of course may change from one individual to another, depending on “how balanced” we are – with the masculine and feminine energies present in every human being.
This is a great example of how anger and sadness are interconnected, and how there´s always something “more” beyond the emotion we see in others and we experience in ourselves (shame in speaking up and being seen, anxiety, paralysis, etc.). So it seems worthwhile to learn to scratch behind the surface for our own sake and for the sake of others that live around us.
Martha Beck describes general fear to express anger this way:
“The natural response to being abused is anger, but people learn that action on anger will get them punished, so all they feel is fear – false fear. Real fear is easy to distinguish from the phony variety, because it has a clear source and motivates clear action. Fake fear is a blanket anxiety or worry that does not mobilize, on the contrary, it paralyzes.”
This fear she talks about is a great example of why, since we are little children, we are told we are “naughty” and punished severely when we become aggressive with others – instead of being taught how to manage this emotion and what´s happening beyond it.
4. Use anger as a wake-up call to unmet needs and create connection with others.
That is one of the most famous quotes of Marshal Rosenberg, founder of the International organization for Non Violence Communication. Anger is usually a way to protect ourselves from something we think is unfair or that we disagree with. And when this happens we can find ourselves “breathing our fire out” at people who may not deserve it. Martha Beck also talks about unmet needs behind the emotion of anger in her book “Finding Your North Star” like this:
“Identifying what you need that you are not getting or what is presence that you can´t tolerate will give you the clue, to change it.”
For instance, some days ago I was triggered by one of my friend´s behaviour – something got in the way and she did not deliver something that I needed. When I started feeling the bitter fire inside again, I allowed myself to stop, went inside and “read” my anger. After taking some conscious breaths, I realised my need for trust in others hadn´t been met. This helped me to practise self-compassion towards myself and express what her behaviour had triggered in me.
I might have not expressed my anger as best as I could, yet, this was a step towards using anger as an invitation to deal with conflict and create a deeper connection with others.
By learning to love our anger, we become practitioners of self compassion and empathy towards others, and we learn to live a more fulfilling life, as we allow ourselves to “live it all as it is”.
5. Practising Directness as a way to speak up Anger and move towards healing.
The second most important learning that I take from the last weekend is this: MY VOICE MATTERS
I have felt really scared to express my anger for so long, that I have chosen many times to repress it, as I was EXTREMELY afraid other people´s reactions, judgements or punishment. Almost as if I was going to lose them if I did so, or they “weren´t going to love me” anymore. So to avoid this happening, I unconsciously learnt to create a very narrow range of things I could and I could not say to others. This fake fear would paralyse me, freeze my voice, and restrict my right to be heard and speak up with directness.
So now that I am aware of what I was avoiding, I choose to practise directness. To practise directness means to say things as they are, with no ornaments.
This is the structure I use to put directness into practise:
“This behaviour/word/situation triggered anger because my need/value for peace/creativity/autonomy was not met in that moment.”
Saying it this way I do not link the value of a person to what they´ve done that has triggered anger in me, but instead I separate the person from the action, pointing to it as more of an observation than a judgement.
So in my communication I practise treating people as humans that do things that trigger emotions in other people, and I take the role of the observer – not the critic – as a way to together explore ways forward that evoke growth and transformation in the relationship.
I imagine this structure may sound a bit weird and an unnatural thing to say, and I invite you to look for ways that will work better for you. It may be just something very simple, like: “Hey, I felt frustrated when I waited 30 minutes for you to arrive in the station today. I´ve noticed this has happened a few times already, so I would like to find ways to avoid this to happen!”
Practising compassionate communication has helped me to develop my skills on this.
Healing our anger as individuals will help us to build a compassionate society
You heal yourself. You heal the world. As simple as that.
Not so long ago, I remember reading a story about a woman who had a terminal disease, and she wrote a list of things to accomplish before she died. One of them was: “to fall in love with myself”. So every day, she would wake up and spend one hour speaking to and stroking with love each part of her body, as a self-loving practice to get her goal.
It is common sense that all the things that are projected in the world are a reflection of who we feel internally, so by consciously choosing to heal ourselves and practise self-love as this courageous woman did, we are giving already our best to the world.
Author Jeff Brown puts it this way:
I know we often want it all happy and positive, but that’s just not where much of humanity is. Many of us are overwhelmed with pain, undigested sadness, unexpressed anger, unseen truths. This is where we are at, as a collective. So we have two choices. We can continue to pretend it’s not there, shame and shun it in ourselves and others, distract and detach whenever possible. Or we can face it heart-on, own it within ourselves, look for it in others with compassion, create a culture that is focused on authenticity and healthy emotional release. If we continue to push it all down, we are both creating illness and delaying our collective expansion. But if we can just own the shadow, express it, release it, love each other through it, we can finally graduate from the School of Heart Knocks and begin to enjoy this magnificent life as we were intended. Pretending the pain isn’t there just embeds it further. Let’s illuminate it instead
The bottom line is very simple here: When we learn to take care of our anger compassionately, we naturally project this compassion towards others and the world.
I would love you to SPEAK UP! BLURT IT! SAY IT! What drives you crazy? What are you avoiding? Or, on the other hand, how do you express your anger compassionately? How do you think anger can help spread compassion in our societies? I am really looking forward to starting a dialogue below!
Founder of Circles for Dialogue Laura Martínez has a B.A. in Marketing from ESIC Business and Marketing School (Spain). She is an ethical marketer graduated on the 7 Graces Foundations of Ethical Marketing programme, a member of the New Story of Marketing project, and a co-active coach in training. She is passionate about providing educational spaces about mindful and compassionate ways to be on business and life.Contact her on Twitter.