Last Monday night millions of viewers watched as Andre Igoudala, basketball player for the Golden State Warriors, was hit in the groin by a player on the opposing team, the Cavaliers. The television replayed the scene in slow motion from various angles as the sportscasters discussed whether or not the action was a technical foul. As I watched Igoudala’s body language, I was amazed at how quickly he reacted. Although I will never know exactly what he felt at that moment because he has not told me his experience, I have a feeling it was something like this: Surprise —-> Fear and Pain —-> Anger.
It all happened in less than 2 seconds. Anger is quick.
The experience is then mixed with thoughts.
“I can never get this right.”
“There’s no way I can handle this right now.”
“She’s right. I should have listened to her.”
You feel discomfort, shame, regret or hopelessness. Because you don’t want these feelings, you lash out.
“My boss is so demanding.”
“The President’s healthcare system is the worst thing that’s happened to this country.”
“Who does she think she is? She’s always telling me what to do!”
This shift can happen in less than 2 seconds.
So what’s the deal?
Anger is a primitive response that once helped us fight for our food and shelter and protect ourselves and our loved ones. When we are angry, our brains release a neurotransmitter called catecholamine which gives our body a burst of energy. The hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are also released, raising our blood pressure and increasing our heart rate. This is why we feel powerful when we’re angry.
Where does our anger get us? Is it helpful in maintaining connection to the people we care about? Does our anger encourage others to respond with care, concern and consideration? No. My mentor, friend and colleague Thom Bond, Director of the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication often says we need to “strike while the iron is cold.” In the heat of the moment, when we hear someone telling us how to think, feel, act or what we should or shouldn’t do, we become defensive or freeze up. If we slow ourselves down, respond to our thoughts with curiosity and ask ourselves “What am I missing right now,” we can begin to see and connect with our unfulfilled needs.
So then what? Are we supposed to ignore our anger? Is anger bad for us? Nonviolent Communication has taught me that anger is a messenger. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, used to say the expression of anger (as we have currently know it) is a tragic communication of unfulfilled needs. We need to find out about those needs. In order to understand which needs are not being met, we must allow ourselves to see and feel when we’re angry. Don’t get rid of anger. Instead, let it come and have it’s full expression, but be cautious. When we mix our judgements with our anger, we lose connection to our needs and the other person’s needs and start focusing on who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s important to take time and create space to find our needs through anger, especially in the beginning of our practice.
1. Get out of there… fast
Next time you start to become angry and you can hear yourself making judgements or blame statements, stop the conversation and exit the situation if you can. Let the other person know you are going to do this and why. Watch out for blame or judgement here. Instead of saying, “I’m leaving because you’re a jerk,” you might say “I’m getting angry and I’m afraid I will say hurtful things I don’t mean. I’m going to leave the room for about 10 minutes so I can calm down, and then I’ll come back.” Make sure you come back.
You can physically leave the room, close your eyes or sit in silence. The more you experiment with this, the easier it is to do this in the room with the person with whom you are arguing. The purpose is to slow yourself down and create a space for yourself to figure out what’s beneath the anger.
2. Walk It Off
Take a time in. Instead of that age-old time out when we were supposed to think about how bad we were behaving, take the time to look inside your anger. Find out what you need without blame or should/shouldn’t thinking. Only return when you are ready. If 10 minutes is not long enough, let the person know you need more time. During this time in, place your hand over your belly-button and inhale deeply into your belly. Then exhale. Do this until you feel calmer. Your hand should rise and fall as you breathe. If you’d rather get that angry energy out of your body through movement, go for a walk, run or, my personal favorite, punch a pillow multiple times. I have a friend who buys cheap thrift store dishes, takes a friend with her for support, and throws them against the wall of her barren garage. She swears it makes her feel better, and she has a friend to help her clean up.
3. Needs, needs, what are my needs?
Once you have slowed down your breathing and heart rate to a manageable level, take the opportunity to practice this exercise created by Thom Bond: theexercise.org
A special thank you to those who created these resources.
The Science of Anger
5 Yoga and Breathing Tips to Conquer Anger Issues
Note: Kat makes no claim that any of this is The Truth for anyone else. She writes to keep up her practice of NVC skills, which are always evolving, and to share her learning with others. This post may change at a later date.