In our culture, when we get angry, we say that someone or something “made” us angry. Unfortunately, this phrase, “Jillian made me angry,” gives us the wrong idea about this very big, intense feeling.
That wrong idea is that someone or something else “makes” us feel anything. The truth is, our feelings are our own. They are within us. They come from us. They are of us. To say that we are “made” to feel something takes away our ownership for our feelings and tells us that we are powerless victims of our circumstances. We are, in fact, powerless over many things (other people, places, and things), but the one we have absolute control over is our inner experience. This can be hard to wrap our brains around, so let’s take a closer look.
Anger is a natural, primal emotion that serves and important purpose. It tells us that we have some big important feelings that want our attention. Those feelings may be fear or sadness or both. These feelings of fear and sadness are vulnerable feelings and feeling them requires that we be open-hearted. When we are hurt, it feels scary to be open-hearted, so we need a way to protect our vulnerable heart.
Anger is an aggressive feeling. Its purpose is to protect us from vulnerability. The problem is that if we stay in anger without attending to the deeper, vulnerable feelings, we get stuck. Often becoming angry at the same situations, or even creating those situations in order to discharge anger, over and over. Anger can become addictive as we act it out on others or ourselves. When we believe we are powerless over our anger, that we are a victim of it and our circumstances, we are blocked from experiencing our anger in a healthy way. The outcome of this is often damaged lives and relationships.
How do we experience anger in a healthy way?
1. Own it. Know that the anger you are feeling is of you and from you and only you can resolve it. "Jillian is late and I am angry."
2. Pause and breathe into it. Sense inward and be curious about what your anger feels like in that moment. What is happening in your body? Without taking any action, sense the intensity, the energy of the anger in your body. Breathe into it. "My breathing is fast, I feel burning in my chest. It's like fire is in my arms."
3. Give yourself a time-in. In a safe space, offer acceptance for this energy. Can you use breathing to tolerate the intensity until it settles? "As I breathe into the anger, the energy in my body slows down a little bit. Welcome, anger. I know you are here to protect me."
4. Be curious about your vulnerable feelings underneath the anger. Can you connect with those feelings? What do they need from you in this moment? "Jillian is often late. I feel anger when I believe my time is not respected. I am angry at her for not respecting my time, but I am responsible for respecting my time. I did not do that in this situation by agreeing to meet with Jillian without being clear about my time boundaries. I am sad that I did not take care of myself."
5. Once you have connected with those vulnerable feelings, is there a request you need to make in order to take care of yourself in the situation that triggered the feelings? "I can now be practical and simply decide if I will wait or leave and let her know what my needs are. I do not need to act out of anger."
We may need to go through these steps several times before taking step 5. Especially early on, this practice is outside our habitual way of being. It may feel foreign and difficult. Offer gentleness to the part of you that struggles. Over time, with practice, this way of responding will become easier and you will likely find it preferable.
We are responsible for our own feelings. They are within us, of us, and from us. Only we have the power to address them. When our language fuels the belief that others cause us to be angry, we are denied our ability to cope in a healthy way. The child within us might cry out at the idea of self-responsibility, but our adult self longs for the competence and empowerment of self-responsibility.
Be gentle with yourself,
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...