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Emotional skillfulness: Anger! part 2

Anger can get a bad rap. Especially if you grew up in a household where it was mishandled, dismissed, or hidden. It’s true that anger without skill can cause injury to others, disconnection, or resentment in your relationship. Sometimes stereotypes clog a person’s ability to express anger ie: a woman’s anger being belittled so she turns to crying instead or a black person’s anger taken way out of proportion so they become a pacifist. For others, anger is the only acceptable expression when feeling vulnerable or insecure.

However, anger is a core emotion for humans and it has an important role to play. Anger can help determine and establish boundaries, morality, social justice, self-defense, protection, and cause destruction to things that need to end. Learning to skillfully harness this potent energy takes intentional and attentive practice over time. It’s worth putting the effort and self-reflection to your experience of anger to improve the quality of your relationships. Discuss with your partner(s) how you all would like to handle and express anger and how it can be received. 

Notice how the energy of anger rises and moves in you. It can often feel big, overwhelming, and chaotic, like you just want to yell and scream. However, if you do this it can evoke swords and defenses being drawn on the other side and no one is hearing each other. Now the fight is about power, control, and ball-passing pain rather than being heard, understood, and cared for. My basic rule for anger in partnership is, you can be angry, but you can’t be mean. Below are a few strategies for how to start working with anger better.


How To Wield The Dragon Sword

First, let’s meet anger. Get to know its different flavors. Notice how the energy of anger rises and moves in you. What evokes it? What are the qualities of it? Ie: big, chaotic, hot, all-consuming, red, intense, focused, etc. What are impulses that come with it? Ie: punch, verbal tear-downs, scream, run, etc. How old is this anger for you? If it could take a personified form what might it look like?

1) Ground yourself: feel your feet pressed against the floor or the weight of yourself even on your seat. Allow your breath to deepen so that your chest and abdomen move. Inhale for 4. Hold. Exhale for 4. Hold. Repeat 3-5x. Clench and unclench muscular tension 5x then let it go (anger tension is often in the jaw, hands, or chest). 

2) Watch the wave of anger crescendo and pass: Anger energy can come in hot and intense and become uncomfortable with a strong impulse to do something to relieve the discomfort. But, check your environment and what may be about to come out. If you evaluate it isn’t helpful, it may be best to just let it rise and pass through. Some people like to visualize the energy going into the earth to be recycled. 

3) Take a break and remove yourself from the environment: Distract or engage yourself in an activity unrelated to the stressor to calm down. If you’re arguing with an intimate partner, it’s recommended to give yourself at least a 20 minute break, but no more than 24 hours. It’s helpful to give your partner a time estimate of when you’ll be back to avoid triggering abandonment fears and then having even more to repair when you return. You can always extend the time after checking in.

2) Validate yourself with your anger: You might say to yourself, “It makes sense that you’re angry about xyz.” This is particularly important for people who’ve often been dismissed or have repressed their anger and now are trying to get in touch with it. This small act can tone it down even 10%. Balance validation with perspective taking and empathizing with the person or the situation. This is particularly important for people who tend to become overwhelmed or quick to anger. View the situation from their eyes and what you know of their background. There doesn’t always need to be an object of blame aka a person to blame.

4) Express or exert the energy without harming someone: Go for a walk, run, bike ride, shake your whole body, hit your chest, scream in your car or from the top of a mountain, listen to rage music, beat something with a pillow (if a person, ask for permission first!), draw, paint, or write down your unfiltered thoughts (let the fucks out!). Then switch to a soothing activity to calm the nervous system or counter your writing with positive, empathetic perspective taking. Too much raging activity can get you stuck so it’s important to then counter it with calming activity/thinking.

6) Check your general stress levels. Is something out of balance in your life? Check your basic needs: food, rest, sleep, breath, movement, water, hugs, skin contact, sunlight, fresh air, etc.

5) When you are ready, express your feelings, impact, and needs to someone. Here is a basic script as a guideline:

“I felt x about y situation/behavior, and I need z.”

A more robust script might add in how your need relates to a value of yours, why the situation or behavior is a trigger for you, taking responsibility for your response, understanding their perspective (and checking to see if you got it right!), and checking in if your request is something the other is willing and able to do.

Want more support and practice with anger? Check out my services for individual and relationship therapy.

Extra credit resources: 

  • Gottman Institute's The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse of Relationship video

  • Gottman Institute's Antidotes to the Four Horsemen article

  • Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger by Soraya Chemaly

  • Love and Rage by Lama Rods Owens

  • Anger: Wisdom For Cooling The Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh

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