How Anger Has Made Me More Compassionate
Viewing Anger as a Negative Emotion
Have you ever noticed how children are often labeled as one thing or another, and those labels can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies? Smart, funny, silly, serious – whatever it may be, it’s hard to disassociate yourself from the boxes people place you in. As a child, I was frequently praised for being “nice” and “sweet,” and whether due to nature, nurture, or some combination, I turned out to be a pretty nice, sweet young adult. In fact, my high school yearbook proves it, since my senior class even voted me “nicest.” My identity was tightly wound up with these labels, so you can imagine my surprise when I reached my mid-twenties and realized that I didn’t feel very nice or sweet at all. I was actually pretty angry.
Because I valued kindness and identified so strongly with the nice and sweet image, I found anger to be a very difficult emotion to deal with. I didn’t want to allow it a place in my life or even acknowledge its presence. After awhile, however, it had become so big that I couldn’t ignore it. I had to recognize my anger, but I came to regard it as a problem needing to be solved.
On my quest to rid myself of anger, I began regular meditation and tried to cultivate an attitude of mindfulness in my daily life. Through this, I learned to check in with myself and notice any feelings of anger when they arose.I read things that encouraged me to be in the presence of angry feelings without judging them, but my regard for anger as a negative emotion hung on, even without my realizing it. I was still focused primarily on making it go away as quickly as possible. I now see this as akin to distracting a crying child when you haven’t bothered to figure out why they are crying in the first place. Trying to push emotions away instead of examining their cause creates a sense that our strong feelings are somehow inappropriate.
Anger was still a topic that weighed heavily on my mind when I was invited to join a discussion group for the book Nonviolent Communication. I eagerly accepted the opportunity. I was looking forward to the book and the discussion, and I hoped that it would help me become a better communicator, with more understanding and less conflict. I never dreamed that it would so transform my feelings toward, and my use of, anger.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) views all feelings as arising from needs, with pleasant feelings usually resulting from needs that are being met and less pleasant ones, like frustration and anger, arising from unmet needs. When we’re needing rest and take a vacation, for example, we may feel relief and calm afterward. When we’re needing rest and a telemarketer calls far too early in the morning, we’re more likely to feel frustrated or angry than relieved or calm.
NVC also points out that there is a difference between the stimulus for our anger and the cause. This sounds simple enough, but as the author points out, blaming others for our feelings is deeply embedded in our culture. Just think about how many times you have heard the phrase: he/she/it “makes me so angry!” It’s very common to confuse the stimulus, or the thing that triggers our anger, with its actual cause: needs that are not being met.
Just think about that vacation example again: if you’re needing rest and relaxation, the vacation leaves you feeling relieved and calm. What if you’re needing to finish up a very important work-related project, but end up agreeing to a vacation right before the deadline? In this case, the same stimulus that might stir up positive feelings under different circumstances can leave you feeling anxious, frustrated, or stressed. So we see that it’s not the vacation that has made you feel anything – it’s the way the vacation meets or fails to meet your needs. When we understand that no one else can make us angry and learn to take full responsibility for our own feelings and reactions, we can truly take control of our feelings.
We Have Four Choices for Responding to Our Anger
NVC teaches that we have four choices for how to respond when we feel angry. We can blame ourselves, blame others, focus on our own feelings and needs, or focus on the feelings and needs of the person we’re interacting with. Personally, and I know I’m not alone in this, I tend to deal with a lot of angry feelings while I’m driving. Looking at the four options highlighted in NVC, there are several ways I can respond to the sort of behavior that leads to my angry-driver feelings.
Where I live, it’s very common for drivers to pull out onto the roadway right in front of another driver – cutting them off. When this happens to me, I tend to grumpily mutter things, complete with hand-waving, like, “Sure, go right ahead there, buddy!” Coming from the place of viewing anger as a negative thing, I may notice the tense, angry state I’ve arrived at and blame myself, thinking: “There you go again, letting yourself get all worked up! When will you learn to just relax and go with the flow!?” Alternatively, I can (and usually do) blame the other driver: “What a jerk! Do these people even pay attention to what they’re doing?!” I may even blame the driver and then myself in succession, but neither of these options is constructive or helpful in any way.
Instead of blaming ourselves or others, NVC encourages the use anger as a sort of “alarm clock,” alerting us when we, or someone we’re interacting with, has a need that is not being met. When we truly get in touch with these needs and pay attention to the feelings behind them, we can “fully express” our anger as we connect with the things going on inside of us, or with another person.
Going back to the car and examining my remaining two options when I feel myself getting angry at the driver in front of me: Instead of laying blame, I have the choice to stop and focus on the needs and feelings I’m having. I may be in a hurry to meet a friend, and it’s important to me that I arrive on time. Because I need to get someplace quickly, I’m naturally frustrated when something slows me down. Focusing on my feelings in this way may not get me where I’m going any more quickly, but it helps me to connect with myself in a way that blaming myself, or simply blowing steam never could. I have learned so much about myself by listening to the sometimes complex feelings that lead to my becoming angry.
Where I would have otherwise felt frustration and a lack of confidence in my ability to control anger, when I take the option of choosing to focus on my needs, I can instead notice positive things about myself that I may not have otherwise paid attention to. “I’m really frustrated that these cars are driving so slowly, because I told Sarah I would meet her at 11 and now I’m running late. It’s important to me that I meet my friends on time, because it shows that I care about them and value their time.” Realizing that I’m actually motivated by things like care and consideration for others allows me to give myself a bit more compassion when things get in the way and I become angry. Coming from this place of self-reflection and self respect, I’m much more inclined to make positive changes in my life.
When I take the fourth option and focus on the feelings and needs the person I’m dealing with might be having, I not only defuse my anger, but I can learn more about and develop a deeper connection with the other person. This is not as effective in the car, since I don’t usually know the driver whose behavior stimulates my anger, but it still works. I can imagine a scenario that helps me feel compassion instead of anger, “Wow, he just pulled right out there! He must really be in a hurry to get someplace. With all of that equipment in the back of his truck, I’d bet he’s headed to work.”
Applying NVC Principles on Anger to Parenting
I find this last option for dealing with anger to be especially valuable in parenting. When my daughter, a busy toddler who deals with the strong emotions characteristic of her age group, screams and bats at my face with her hand, scratching my skin, I tend to feel a bit of anger. Choosing to focus on her needs, however, not only helps me to remain calm, but it also gives me the insight I need to support her as she calms down. When she gets worked up enough to lash out at me, I know that she’s really feeling frustrated about something. By taking the time to explore what her feelings and needs are, I am not only problem-solving, but I’m learning more about my child and her personality. I’m also modeling care and compassion instead of frustration.
The last time this happened, I was putting my daughter into her car seat after a long morning of errands, and she simply did not want to go. She flailed her arms about and ended up scratching me just below the eye. I felt myself becoming angry, but managed to take a deep breath and consciously choose to focus on her needs rather than simply her behavior. This brought me back to the place of love and respect for my child that I parent best from. “She really loves to spend her mornings outside, and it’s hard for her to be indoors following an adult agenda all morning. She’s frustrated because she wanted to explore the parking lot, but I put her in the car instead.” This doesn’t mean ignoring negative behavior, but focusing on the root cause rather than simply reacting to what is seen.
Instead of ignoring or trying to push my anger away, I am learning to recognize it and treat it as a welcome signal of what’s going on inside me and inside of others. By using tools from Nonviolent Communication, I’m finding that I can actually use my anger for good. I can let go of blame and search inside myself for the source of my feelings. I also have the option of focusing on the needs of the person I’m dealing with, which brings me to a place of deeper compassion for those around me. I no longer feel the need to push my anger away, but am instead learning to welcome it as a tool for deeper connection with myself, my child, or anyone else I encounter.
I’m honored today to host a guest post from friend and fellow Natural Parents Network volunteer Melissa. Melissa started blogging at The New Mommy Files when her firstborn was just three months old, but she has found that no matter how familiar the mommy label becomes, there is always something new to discover. She shares stories, thoughts, ideas, and inspiration from her journey on facebook and twitter as well as on her blog. In addition to mothering, topics that come up often include Montessori philosophy, elimination communication and cloth diapering, veganism, and finding a rhythm and balance in everyday life.
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"How Anger Has Made Me More Compassionate"
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