When we can channel our anger into compassionate communication, it can help us cultivate a stronger sense of self along with even more intimate and satisfying relationships.
Rage! We all feel it. We don’t necessarily talk about it. Anger and rage are uncomfortable emotions, partly because they are so physical and energetic, they demand action. We can’t go around throwing things at the ones we love or smashing the TV when certain politicians come on the screen, of course, but when we can work with them, anger and rage can be powerful forces for change.
Anger feels most dangerous in our intimate relationships, but that’s also usually where it shows up. When we can channel our anger into compassionate communication rather than simply venting, it can actually help us cultivate a stronger sense of self along with even more intimate and satisfying relationships.
One way to think about anger is as the bodyguard of the self. Anger almost always indicates that a boundary has been crossed or that a need is not being met. Anger can also act as an inhibitory emotion, protecting us from underlying emotions like fear or grief. When we don’t feel safe enough to fully feel or express certain emotions, anger can show up to pump us up with adrenaline and help us protect ourselves.
In her brilliant 1982 book The Dance of Anger, psychologist Harriet Lerner writes,
“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. […] Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say ‘no’ to the ways in which we are defined by others and ‘yes’ to the dictates of our inner self.”
The first thing that we must do with anger is not lash out, but slow down. We must get to a place where we feel safe enough to explore our emotions. This could be alone in meditation, in movement like a yoga class, through journaling, or talking to a trusted counsellor or friend who won’t take sides. We must consider our needs, wants, and boundaries. We must think about how we can meet our own needs and what we require from other people. Anger gives us an opportunity to do this important, if challenging, work.
Sometimes introspecting is enough to satisfy the anger. A lot of the time, however, a conversation is a necessary next step. Once we know what it is we need, we can then compassionately communicate that need. It’s important that we don’t approach our loved ones with a sense of entitlement—no one is obligated to meet our needs for us. We must take responsibility for how we feel and what we want and not expect others to fix all our problems for us. We must be willing, when we do this, to acknowledge that our loved ones may not be able to meet our needs. Then we may have to take some action in our own lives. We may even have to leave the relationship. Anger wants change. Anger asks us to be brave.
When we befriend anger rather than try to ignore or suppress it, it can help us clarify who we are, take responsibility for that self, and offer it up to the ones we love. Sometimes our loved ones can meet us there, and begin to take responsibility for their own needs and boundaries too. Then we may be able to cultivate deeper, more intimate, and more mutually satisfying relationships than ever before.