A Compassionate Approach to Anger
Sharon Werner, MA, LLPC
“Nonviolence means nonviolence towards all parts of us, including our anger. We need to take care of our anger the way we would take care of a tiny baby, with tenderness.”*
I still recall the wave of shock that washed over me so many years ago when I heard these words of Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. What? Treat my anger with tenderness? Treat myself with tenderness when I’m angry? I remained rooted in place as the full import of those words sank in. It became clear that for so many years, I had been mishandling my anger…and I had been hurting myself unnecessarily.
Like many people with a history of trauma, I had struggled with barely understood anger and rage for years. And as most women do, I primarily stuffed my anger, but there were times when, almost without my awareness, my rage exploded out of me in a flood of words that damaged or even ended relationships. I didn’t understand this anger, but I certainly blamed myself in the way that most of the people around me had blamed me. For so many years, I had treated myself harshly when I was angry…regardless of the reason for anger.
This isn’t surprising. Our culture is a particularly punitive one. The answer to mistakes and missteps is inevitably some form of punishment, from a sharp word from a parent to a penalty imposed by a court system. Most of us have not been taught how to be curious, even kind toward ourselves when we are angry. The message from our culture is: anger is wrong. It is a very stigmatized emotion, and a very misunderstood emotion as well.
Why do we get angry? Anger can be a very healing force in the right circumstances. Anger is often our first cue that our boundaries are being violated. Anger lets us know that we need to stand strong for ourselves or for someone we love. Anger can also arise due to the frustration that arises when we are blocked from achieving a goal, a feeling that we are being disrespected or treated unfairly, or even in response to physical or emotional pain. Anger can range from mild irritation to significant anger to full-blown rage. In any of its forms, it is a normal response to life that helps us adapt to our life situations…if we understand it and know how to work with it.
So, if anger isn’t the problem, what is? As you may have guessed by now, the problem is rarely the anger itself. The problem is our relationship with our anger. When we feel anger, we may feel the urge to either act out (sometimes inappropriately) or to stuff it down (which can become self-hatred, resentment, or even depression). It may have even become an ingrained part of our personality and predominant way of relating to life, influencing the way we experience the events around us. Or perhaps we have developed the habit of stuffing our anger, compromising our ability to get our needs met effectively. In any case, for many of us, due to a combination of our inherited temperament and our early life experiences – including family and cultural experiences of handling anger – the result is an anger problem.
The trick to understanding anger is this: When properly understood and emotionally regulated, anger is an important messenger conveying to us and to others around us the need to set a boundary or defend ourselves in some way. It is unregulated or out-of-control anger that creates issues in our lives. What we need, then, are ways to deeply understand, soothe and regulate our emotions.
Traditional approaches to handling problem anger, or anger management, focus primarily on interrupting the anger cycle and changing the way we think about the events of our lives. These approaches can be very helpful, but they address primarily one aspect of managing anger: modulating its expression. There are a great many ways to address problem anger in the mindfulness- and compassion-based traditions, and these methods help us to understand and begin to calm our anger in a deeper, more organic, truly compassionate way.
I would like to share with you a simple three-step technique for beginning to understand and work skillfully and compassionately with the many layers of anger. This technique will not only give you an important “tool” for your anger toolbox, but it will also help you understand the innocent, tender emotions that underly even the most severe anger.
Step One: Identify the “hard feeling.” This could be anger, frustration, rage, resentment, bitterness, or another form of anger. What are you feeling, exactly? Where is it located in your body? Can it be found in tension along your jaw or a hard, heavy pressure in your chest? Here we are nonjudgmentally identifying the feeling, getting to know it, letting it be as it is, at least for the moment.
Step Two: Identify the underlying “soft feeling.” Lurking below the anger you may find hurt, fear, a sense of vulnerability or betrayal, or other softer emotions. While it can be challenging to work directly with our hard feelings, which are focused on self-defense, softer feelings can be approached gently and understood, allowing for them to be known and transformed. We can begin to soften the tension in our body and give it the wise, compassionate attention that will allow these softer feelings to show themselves.
Step Three: Identify the “unmet need.” Unmet needs are needs that are universal in nature. We all need to feel seen and heard, included, respected. Once we have identified these unmet needs, we can honor and look at other ways to meet them. In some cases, we can meet these needs for ourselves. Others may gently encourage us to reach out to others. We may even find it helpful to work with a counselor on these issues for additional support and guidance.
Would you like to learn more about ways to work compassionately with anger?
Our therapists are trained in and utilize various types of mindfulness, including mindfulness- and compassion-focused approaches to anger. If you or someone you know would benefit from learning compassionate anger management techniques, please contact us today. We would be happy to speak with you about how we may be able to help.
Below are additional resources you may find helpful in your compassionate journey.
Brach, T. (2003) Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam.
Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.
Kolts, R. (2012) Compassionate-Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Your Rage and Heal Your Relationships. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Neff, K. D. (2021). Fierce Self-compassion: How women can harness kindness to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. New York: Harper Wave.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.
*from Peacemaking by Thich Nhat Hanh, https://www.soundstrue.com/products/peacemaking