I’ve been reflecting on the pain of separation from people we love, on loneliness and on how much it hurts when we feel alienated from others in social gatherings.
I’ve been remembering moments from my childhood when I felt existentially lonely, and how much of my life I’ve searched for the sense of belonging and safety with other people.
Many things contributed to these feelings for me, but the one I want to focus on briefly today is the role that my evolving relationship with anger has played a surprising but important role in my feelings of belonging and safety in relationships with others.
When I was younger, little, and dependent upon others, I found anger frightening.
It was jarring and scary.
It meant I had done something wrong.
It was big, scary and loud, while I was small, silent and scared.
I learned to cover up my very vulnerable responses to anger by closing down my tender heart.
By becoming more stoic.
By becoming more dismissive of others.
By avoiding them.
By resolving to be “good.”
(Which, let’s be honest, just meant: Compliant, and then rebellious.)
What I know now, is that someone else’s anger is not a report card on my worthiness.
When someone else is angry, it tells me as much about them as it does about me.
It tells me about their unmet needs, the way they are interpreting a situation, their values, their wishes and their desires.
I’ve learned that I am not responsible for other people’s anger.
While something I might say or do could stimulate it, I am not the cause of it.
My anger is about me.
Your anger is about you.
As adults, we can change our childhood coping strategies and develop a more empowered relationship with anger.
We can consciously regulate our nervous systems.
We can cultivate courage and self-connection.
We can even foster deeper connections with others by being present to and learning from the wisdom of intense emotions.
So, the next time someone is angry with you (and you’re not in physical danger) here are four things that you can do to enjoy surfing the waves of anger like an empowered adult:
- Stay choiceful.
Remind yourself you can leave the situation at any time. Trust yourself to keep yourself safe. You can take a break whenever you need. You are not a child, frozen in fear, or forced to stay put. You can stay or leave, as you like, whenever you want.
- Receive and mirror.
This will help with de-escalating intense emotions. Reflect back what you’re hearing to the angry person in their words. When we are activated, it’s soothing to hear our own words said back to us accurately and with presence. Interpretations and questions tend to be escalating in the early stages. Just work on being fully present to whatever is alive in this moment, and focus on connecting with the pain, the hurt and the deep longings emerging from the human you’re with.
- It’s not personal.
You might try the mantra: “It’s not about me, it’s all about needs.” I remind myself that even though I am personally fielding the anger, or that it may be directed at me in this moment, that it’s not mine to take on. By not identifying with the anger, I am able to stay more compassionate, present and skilled at fielding it.
- What’s important and what will help?
Anger is the result of an unmet need getting activated, combined with judgmental thinking about the situation. When you keep your attention on connecting to people’s needs and getting touch with what would help, anger will subside and new emotions might emerge. There is nothing to fix: just help yourself and others connect to the deeply unmet needs and to then align new strategies to those needs.
Marshall Rosenberg reminds us that, “To fully express anger means getting our full consciousness tuned in to the need that isn’t getting met.” Helping others connect to their own needs can de-escalate an intense situation, and remembering not to get fixated on their judgments of you will help!
If you find yourself getting hooked by someone’s angry accusation and attacks on you, here’s a clip that can help take the sting out of someone’s judgments of you.
Have a comment? I’d love to know. Please leave a comment below.