Turning Anger On Its Head — To the Heart

By Noor Alexander

Do you believe that other people cause your pain? When you feel angry, do you believe the other person deserves punishment? Anger has been an emotion that I have grappled and worked with for many years and up until recently, found myself controlled by on some level. I’ve done a lot of anger work – from release techniques like using a plastic bat on a mattress to boxing a punching bag, and using modalities ranging from primal scream therapy to EMDR.

Perhaps, the single most effective and simplest answer in helping me to transform my anger and work with it more productively has been something I discovered in the book, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. It is helping me to drop from my mind to my heart, from outer focus to inner connection, and from blame and wanting to punish others to self-understanding.

Let’s debunk the myths and shine some light on the heart of anger, using the life-changing principles and tools of NVC.

Exploring the Cause:

Most of us learn to express our anger superficially through verbal and physical attacks, mental critiques, labels, and judgments. While this allows for some discharge and release of energy, I have not found it satisfying in terms of conflict resolution and supporting connection. Thus, something is clearly missing. External blame implies that the other person is responsible for our feelings, and so often anger becomes an attack outwards. Marshall challenges this notion in this powerful insight, “We are never angry because of what others say or do”. If we accept this to be true, then it stands that “the behavior of others may be a stimulus [for our anger] but not the cause”, as he states.

Let’s take an example – I was recently expressing something important to my boyfriend, Bernie, and he responded in a way that made it hard for me to trust that he fully heard me. My immediate response was one of frustration, “You’re not hearing me!”, which triggered his defensiveness. In that moment, I was making Bernie to be the cause of my frustration, and it was his fault. In choosing differently, I can see that the situation was really a stimulus for me to connect with a sensitive wound, which is that I never felt really heard by my mother growing up and have a really important need to be heard. Understanding that my need to be heard was at the core of my frustration, and ultimately the cause, allowed me take back my power and communicate to my boyfriend about my sensitivity in a way that he could hear, such as “I’m feeling frustrated right now because I really want to be heard and understood by you.”

Understanding Anger:

If we don’t recognize the important message of anger pointing us inwards to connect with our unmet needs, anger can linger. And, when anger is alienated and disconnected from our needs, it can easily take the form of external blame and punishment. As such, it becomes like a moralistic cop, assuming the position of authority, telling others how they “should” behave and what they “deserve”. When I notice this happening for me, my belief is I need to teach someone a lesson and ensure that they learn, so that I don’t have to experience that reaction again. The reality is, however, underneath the reaction (i.e. the desire to punish and wrong) is a cry to connect with our deeper feelings and unmet needs; the real pain is the disconnection. Marshall reminds us, “At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled”.

Problem – Solution:

There is nothing essentially bad, wrong, or unnatural about anger. Letting anger overstay its welcome, however, is not useful or wise. As Marshall states, “Anger indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge”. Staying in this mental sphere of analysis and labeling “co-opts our energy by directing it toward punishing people rather than meeting our needs”. As such, it is not productive. Anger is valuable, however, when we let it wake us up to the reality that we have a need that isn’t being met and thinking in a way that makes it unlikely that it will be met. Rosenberg’s answer or recommendation is to practice the following four-step formula when noticing anger arise:

1)      Stop. Breathe.

2)      Identify judgmental thoughts.

3)      Connect with needs.

4)      Express feelings and unmet needs.

In the example given earlier, the judgmental thought I had of my boyfriend in the moment of rupture was that he’s a bad listener. My need was to be heard and loved. I felt frustrated and angry because I desperately wanted to be heard and understood. Expressing this to him allowed Bernie to understand what was going on for me, and with this awareness, he was open and wanting to support me in meeting my need, which fostered greater connection and closeness between us. Marshall’s solution, which I resonate with, is to “Shine the light of consciousness on our own feelings and needs. Rather than going up to our head to make a mental analysis of wrongness regarding somebody, we choose [instead] to connect to the life that is within us”,

I am learning to reframe blame in a whole new way outside of my former default setting, based on what was modeled to me growing up. Now, when I notice blame arising, I question what’s going on for me inside – I take a moment to slow down and check in if there is a need that is covered up and longing to be met. Once I connect with this, I notice the energy of my desire to blame, punish, and avenge another lessens, and instead, I choose to focus on compassion for myself.

I encourage you to take these insights and practice them in your life – see that others are not a cause for your anger, but the stimulus; realize that anger focused on punitive actions diverts and co-opts your energy; when anger arises, shine the light on your deeper feelings and unmet needs. In doing so, you will turn anger on its own head and let yourself drop into your heart, deepening your compassion and self-understanding. Not only is this practice more productive and effective in dealing head-on with anger, but it is also more kind and loving to self and others.