5 Steps for Working with Anger Nonviolently

by | May 2, 2016 | Feelings

The second time I got expelled, it was for my defiant noncompliance with “hazing” rituals at a boarding school in South Africa. I was 13 and taking on the world.

I would not wear the winter uniform in the height of an African summer. I would not carry seniors’ book bags between my own classes. I would not spend my lunch weeding school flowerbeds under the hot African sun.

No, no, and NO.

I wanted to be treated with dignity and when that didn’t happen, I felt angry and dug in my heels.

My relationship with anger has been ever-evolving:
I’ve used anger as fuel to fight injustice.
I’ve cowered in the face of anger turned into violence.
I’ve internalized anger into deep depression

I imagine that you may have had a similar journey with anger.

I’ve learned that indiscriminate “venting” of my anger and spewing it around like scattershot, or alternatively censoring how I really feel and what I really think, are both forms of violence and do harm to others and myself.

I’ve learned to do things differently. These days, I try to:

  • Move anger through my whole system when it arises;

  • Harvest the good information it carries about my values and what matters to me;

  • Follow it faithfully into grief, hurt, sadness, or despair; and

  • Watch it transform into clarity, energy, and lightness that it gifts us with when effectively metabolized and released.

Below are some principles and practices that I have found invaluable in my own journey.

First, what is anger?

Marshall Rosenberg taught that anger is the result of a combination of two key factors:

  1. An important, deeply held need that is not being met, combined with…
  2. A whole lot of judgmental thinking, interpretation and story thrown on top of that unmet need.

Focusing exclusively on judgments and stories keeps you stuck in self-righteousness, depression, rage, and entitlement and often feeds a victim-perpetrator consciousness. This kind of “venting” can be absolutely toxic.

When we share our anger with others with the intention of forming alliances, getting sympathy, feeding our story and our “rightness,” we harm ourselves and others by staying stuck in dualistic, power over/under consciousness.

However, focusing on the unmet need(s) often leads you more deeply into yourself, unearthing more layers of needs, memories, pain, hurt, and grief. This exploration can be healing and freeing.

When we’re able to feel and acknowledge our anger and then transform it by focusing on the life-serving message carried to us through the anger, we move with it and release it, transformed and liberated.

“Anger is a very valuable feeling in NVC. It’s a wake-up call. It tells us that I’m thinking in ways almost guaranteed not to meet my needs. Why? Because my energy is not connected to my needs, and I’m not even aware of what my needs are when I’m angry.”  –Marshall Rosenberg

5 Steps for Working with Anger Nonviolently

1.  Neutral observation: Watch when anger arises, practice noticing it without acting it out and without repressing it. Are you more of a repressor or a rager? Do you feed your anger with judgmental thinking, entitlement, or self-blame? If so, stop It.

2.  Feel it to heal it: Allow yourself to actually feel angry. Emotions rise and fall in about 90 seconds; they live in your body and they ebb and flow. They want to be metabolized. Where do you feel anger in your body? Is there a hot flush? Constriction of muscles? Surge of energy?  Feel Angry and become aware of the thinking associated with this anger.

3.  Work WITH your judgments: Identifying and expressing judgments and stories is a critical step to meeting your own needs for awareness, presence to yourself, self-understanding, and self-compassion. Do it alone (out loud or in a journal), or with a therapist or a good friend. Embrace and express your judgments: this is part of the process of metabolizing and integrating them with awareness. They want to be seen, heard, considered and valued. Do not resist them.

Thinking something doesn’t mean: that this is “who you are,” or that you even believe any of the stuff coming out. So, go with it. (Without taking it out on anyone! Including yourself.)

Nonviolence is about working with whatever arises, not censoring anything. The more I embrace all (judgmental) aspects of myself, the less powerful they become. The more I metabolize angry energy through movement and self-expression, the more clarity and tenderness I have to offer myself and others on the other side.

4.  Identify unmet needs: Anger brings your attention sharply to what you deeply value and need, so reflect intentionally:   What deeply valued and unmet needs of yours are being activated? Make a list of all your unmet needs.

5.  Go with the shift: As you place your attention on the unmet needs, you’re likely to feel a shift to sadness, grief, mourning, pain … Go. There. Surrender to it.

An example:

Last Friday, I spent an hour on my treadmill, screaming judgmental and horrible thoughts at my four walls. I imagined various people and situations that recently irked me and gave myself permission to say all the things I would normally censor and repress in the service of being compassionate and nice.

Near the end of my run, I had a sore throat, a lot of insight into what was really bothering me, and a lot more grief surfacing. Venting and running turned into crying and running. And relief and clarity: it was wonderful.

The key to this exercise lies in using awareness, felt-sense experiencing, and a deep connection with needs to metabolize and transform the energies of anger.

Anger tells you about what is precious and valuable to you.

It also tells you about your limits and capacity. Harvest that information instead of repressing it. But do it in a way that stays committed to coming out on the other end with no enemies, and instead, with an expanded sense of shared humanity with others.

6 Comments

  1. Suzanne Long

    “the more clarity and tenderness i have to offer myself and others” I know immediately now practicing nvc that my anger is telling me something about my needs. I can’t always figure out which ones as quickly as i would like but i am so grateful to have the “metabolizing” tools to transform the rage and confusion and blaming into the compassion that can lead to clarity and tenderness for my self and others. Thanks to you i know the process and trust that with the knowing there will be more doing; and with more doing i may be able to add a modicum of relief to the suffering of the world, as you say. Thank you

    Reply
  2. Laura Hedlund

    Anger. If do not want to offer empathy – does this mean I am denying myself compassion? And yet, I feel wronged. It is freeing to know I can choose to stay away from feels wrong. Not a victim. Not a perpetrator. Not a thing. I am a being who knows where to go. I trust myself. Or in reality – I trust myself?

    Reply
  3. Debra

    Yvette,Thank you for your Tuesday message and I’m glad for your wisdom/sorry for your pain. Please feel free to cancel Wednesday’s class if you need to. Or perhaps you could assign a substitute….?

    Reply
  4. Sally

    I have read and noted this article many times since you posted it. when working with my anger that is intense at times, I have realized that I am terrified of it. So, I take an anti anxiety pill to keep it under control…I am getting ready to try once again to identify the source of this anger. Thank you for your words of wisdom. I am lucky to be surrounded by a supportive group of friends and therapists that understand. But, still I am terrified to let it come to the surface of my person. Perhaps that is what being vulnerable is all about.

    Reply
  5. Joel

    Grateful.

    Reply
  6. mathew

    If part of anger is a way bodies numb themselves in anticipation of pain, that would explain why it’s hard to stay connected with feelings and needs.

    Reply

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