Two Steps Behind Anger

Jocelyn was fuming. Seth had promised to come home at 6pm and it was now 7:30pm. He hadn’t called her and his cell phone only responded with a message. And it was their fourth anniversary.

Cole was frustrated and angry. He and Amber had planned to meet some new friends at 7pm at a restaurant 20 minutes from their house. It was now 7pm and Amber was not finished dressing.

Lily’s mother wanted her to come home for the holidays. On the phone, she was going on and on about how Lily wasn’t being a good daughter. Lily exploded and starting yelling at her mother.

Joyce and I sometimes get angry at one another. We’ve never met anyone who is beyond anger.

We once were having dinner with a couple. The man was a conflict resolution specialist in the corporate world. The woman was a marriage and family therapist. He admitted to us that he felt like a failure because, despite all their tools, they could still sink down to the level of two belligerent school children having a temper tantrum.

We feel that anger is part of being a human being. We can learn how to express anger in a healthy way by admitting it rather than name calling. (“I’m feeling angry,” rather than “You #&$@%.”) Most of all, we need to become aware that we are angry in the first place. Many people have difficulty knowing when they’re angry. They may know they feel frustrated, irritated, annoyed, disappointed, upset, or even sad, but are hesitant to admit to feeling anger. Most people feel ashamed of their anger. I used to feel so much shame about my anger that I had no idea when I was feeling anger. Joyce would have to point it out to me, and still I would deny it. Now I’m aware of my anger. Sometimes I even express it in healthy ways.

The real purpose of this article, however, is prevention, learning what is behind our anger, which holds the possibility of actually preventing anger. By the time you are angry, you are at step three of a three part process. I’ll call it the “anger evolution process.” Your happiness and peace depends upon your working your way back to step one.

Challenge number one is actually step three: becoming fully aware of when you feel angry. No denial (“Who me angry?”). No projection (“You’re a jerk!”). The first challenge is actually confronting your shame about feeling anger. It’s a way to admit that you are a human being. And once again, it can be healthy to express your anger, especially to your loved ones, in non-hurtful ways by using “I” rather than “you” statements.

Challenge number two is step two in our anger evolution process: feeling what actually triggered the anger. Most of the time, it is feeling hurt. Jocelyn felt hurt by Seth’s being late on the eve of their anniversary. Most of the times you have felt angry, a loved one has said or done something, usually inadvertently, that has hurt you. There are other triggers for anger, like disappointment or fear. The mother who sees her son getting too close to the edge of a cliff may be afraid but express her fear as anger.

The real challenge here is how quickly, and I’m talking split seconds, we can move from hurt or fear to anger. Many people remain unaware of the hurt or fear behind their anger. It takes a commitment to self awareness to really pay attention to these deeper feelings. Joyce is better at this than I am. When I say or do something that hurts her, she will often express the hurt by saying, “Barry, I feel hurt by what you just said.” Do you see the difference between that statement and “Barry, you’re being insensitive,” which is a judgment.

Perhaps most important of all, challenge number three, which is the first step in the anger evolution process, is our very attachment to our loved ones. It has to do with one of the most basic human emotional needs: our need for love. In all the years of working with individuals, couples and families, we have seen the most resistance to admitting our need for love. As spiritual beings, as souls, we are complete and don’t need one another’s love because we are that love. The highest truth of our being is that there is no “other” to need or be attached to. Yet we can’t ignore our human natures, our adventure in the world of duality, of subject and object, where I, as a man, feel attached to Joyce, as a woman, and Joyce, as a human being, needs me, as a human being in which she has invested her whole heart. It is when I forget how much I need Joyce’s love that I can be less than sensitive to her. It is because of my attachment to her that I get hurt most easily by her. Is my need and attachment to Joyce a bad thing, something I should get rid of? Of course not. I am learning to accept my need and attachment as part of my humanity. I am learning to celebrate my need and attachment as part of my dance here on earth, a spiritual being having a human experience and a human being having a spiritual experience.

If you accept your own need and attachment for those you love (step one), you will be more tuned into your hurt or fear by their insensitivity or carelessness toward you (step two), and will be more able to express your anger in healthy ways (step three). Accept this challenge and you will find a deeper peace.
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