What’s your personal relationship with anger?
For a lot of us, we are socialized to look at anger in a very narrow way.
We learn to see it as destructive, bad, and at times, manipulative.
We are also socialized to resist feeling or expressing anger because it’s perceived as not becoming.
A particularly disturbing reaction to the expression of anger is that it’s dismissed because the reason doesn’t seem to be legitimate.
These subtle and blatant ways of suppressing anger ensure the current power dynamics, that contribute to the existence of #AidToo, the colonization of aid and multiple forms of discrimination, stay intact.
Anger is misunderstood and, as such, is an under-utilized resource to make meaningful, positive change.
We need to learn more about anger to make it constructive.
So, first we’re going to learn more about anger and then, I’ll guide you on how to use it constructively.
To use anger constructively we need to accept – not resist – its existence and review the definitions.
First, anger is normal. It’s an emotion not a big scary beast!
In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Dr. Brené Brown’s shares her definition of anger based on her research: “[A]nger is an emotion that we feel when something gets in the way of a desired outcome or when we believe there’s a violation of the way things should be.”
It’s okay and understandable to feel angry when you don’t get a desired outcome or you feel there’s been a violation of the way things should be done.
How we express anger – that’s where we need to do some work.
In her book, Fierce Self-Compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff defines 2 types of anger: Destructive and Constructive Anger.
According to Dr. Neff, “[d]estructive anger is self-righteous and doesn’t care about the potential fallout for its recipients … It’s reactive and mindless and leads to poor decision-making.“ Constructive anger, “is the process by which a person stands up for herself and defends her rights without the hostility or aggression. It focuses on protection against harm and unfairness.”
With anger defined we’re still missing something: How exactly do we stand up for ourselves and defend our rights without hostility or aggression?
As Audre Lorde, writer and American civil rights activist, stated in her essay, Uses of Anger, you do so by expressing anger and translating it into action to gain the outcome you want.
The next question is: Are you clear about what you want as the outcome?
This is where guidance is required. Anger can be transformative when expressed in a constructive way. I’ve witnessed it after years of facilitating inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. I’ve also seen it coaching people who have been harassed and bullied in the workplace. For anger to be constructive, the following steps need to be taken.
Guidelines for Taking These Steps
Anger raises uncomfortable, strong feelings to the surface. You need to build your capacity to be with them. For best results:
- Practice these steps with someone you feel safe with and who you trust.
- Apply the the steps in low-stakes situations.
- Do not practice this in high-stakes situations.
By taking the actions below, you will learn how to safely express your anger. They will also help you build clarity to identify the actions required to transform anger. With clarity, you can implement these actions for a meaningful outcome.
With practice you will build the skill of expressing your anger constructively.
Using Anger Constructively: Building Clarity & Identifying Next Steps.
Step 1: Take a Time-Out
Find a safe space to really let it out by yourself.
There are 2 functions to this. The first is related to your health. Sucking it up or holding it down will result in negative impacts to your health including high blood pressure, increased anxiety, insomnia, digestive problems and much more. Whatever you are angry about, it’s not worth keeping it in.
The second function is allowing yourself to feel the full extent of your emotions and expressing it how you want to without having to worry about anyone else’s feelings. It’s powerful because you bear witness to your pain and experience. It’s also self-compassionate because it creates the space to acknowledge how you feel and reminds you that you are a human-being.
The consequence to skipping this step is that you risk negative impacts to your health. You also risk doing what others are likely doing to you – not acknowledging you and your experience. The final consequence is that you risk nurturing a lack of self-awareness. This can result in saying or doing something that upset others.
Step 2: Get Curious
Take the time to ask yourself the questions below. To really build yourself awareness, take the time to write out your answers on a notepad or e-document versus answering them in your head. Doing so will help you realize that some of what you thought made sense in your head actually requires further clarification.
Do this as a solo activity to support writing honest answers. Try to avoid the critic in you that may judge or shame you. Resist editing your answers.
Questions to Respond To:
- What are you upset about and why?
- What do you need?
- How can you meet this need?
- What do you need from others?
- What need does the person you’re in conflict have and how does it connect to your need? In other words, what is the shared interest?
Be specific when you answer the questions so you can identify the next steps to get what you need.
A final question to answer is: What are actions and behaviours you expect or want from the person you’re in conflict with that would make you feel safe, included, accepted and/or acknowledged?
Step 3: Prepare to Ask for What You Need
Asking for what you need can be really hard to do because it requires courage and resilience. To support you in having both, be clear about your ask before you ask it.
Ask yourself: What result do I want from the conversation? A commitment to changing certain behaviours in specific ways? An apology followed by specific actions that demonstrate accountability? An acknowledgment that feels meaningful? If so, what specifically would make it meaningful?
This clarity will ground you and help you determine whether you’ve achieved your goal or not.
Step 4: Set-Up the Conversation for Accountability and A Dialogue
The steps above help by preparing you to process your anger and get clear on what you need.
This next step raises to the surface the issue of accountability and creates space to check assumptions as well as have a dialogue.
When you prepare to speak to the person you are angry with, use the following prompt to build awareness and accountability by making it clear what they did and how it impacted you.
Example: “When you did ___, the impact to me was ___.”
Then ask the question: What was your experience of the situation?
Asking this question helps check your assumptions or confirms them. The way you perceive the situation can change drastically if the answer shared is unexpected. As a result of the information you gain, you can take the next step from a greater place of clarity. The transformation of conflict takes place here as you begin to dialogue with the person, ask more questions and share what you need.
Guidance Note: This is another preparation step. When you finally implement it, exercise caution. Try the step in a low-stakes situation with someone you trust first. Do not do this step in a high-stakes situation because it takes practice and the resilience to hold your ground. This is because the person you’re in conflict with will react without the opportunity, like you have had, to process their emotions ahead of time. Bearing witness to their reaction requires resilience and compassion. Understandably, this can be hard in high-stakes situations so help yourself by starting in low-stakes ones.
Step 5: Practice
Role-playing the conversation with someone you feel safe with is a good way to prepare safely. Notice where there is pushback. Ask yourself: How would I respond to it? and then try it.
If you don’t have someone to practice with, try it in front of a mirror. Get used to expressing yourself, asking questions and naming your needs in a place that feels safe first. Notice how you feel. Ask yourself what you can do to feel grounded. Embody how you want to show-up.
As you prepare, be clear of the behaviour you won’t accept and be ready to name it. Also be clear of what next steps are needed for you to feel the issue is resolved.
These are the first steps in using anger constructively.
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