The Universal ‘Anger Face’
Researchers at UCSB and Griffith University in Australia identify origin and purpose of the facial expression for anger.
I’m doing some research on anger for some coaching clients. Of course as is always the case, I’m also learning about my own relationship with anger.
How do we define anger?
Anger is an emotion that is felt and is a natural response to when we feel under threat of some sort or when we feel wronged. It can also be about our needs not being met.
Aggression on the other hand is the behaviour that results from anger, so a person can become angry without acting on it.
We have several misconceptions about anger in our society, to name a couple: anger is inherited from our parents and cannot be changed. This is not true, the expression of anger is learned behaviour, this can be confusing as this comes from observing others, usually our first experiences with anger is with our caregivers, anger may never be shown or shown often etc.
Anger is ‘bad’ and leads to trouble, so needs to be suppressed. This is also not true, it is the act of aggression that can cause trouble, however if we learn effective cooling techniques for our anger, this can be really helpful.
Usually anger comes from our beliefs or interpretations about a particular event which then leads to self-talk e.g. yesterday there was a woman on the train, speaking really loudly on her phone and I noticed my self-talk was ‘I don’t want to hear her conversation, she’s rude talking that loud’ etc. I noticed my thoughts and had a chuckle and remembered to challenge my beliefs, and come up with three alternate possibilities to help quiet my judging mind: in this case: A) perhaps the lady had a hearing problem, B) perhaps the person she was talking to was in a noisy place and couldn’t hear her or C) perhaps she was lacking in awareness how loud her voice was. I immediately noticed an internal calm come over me and I could then relax and switch off.
One of my clients feels her partner doesn’t consider her when they plan ahead for their weekend. He will commit to something and then cancel at the last moment, she doesn’t express how she feels as she doesn’t want to cause conflict however, the lack of communication around this is causing a build-up of resentment within her. In this scenario, one useful method for expressing anger in a constructive way could be:
“When you cancel our arrangements for going out without an explanation, I feel frustrated and I would like you to consider the impact of your actions more so that we can enjoy our weekends together.”
The ‘when you’ part is about stating what’s happening in as factual a way as possible without judgement, the feeling part is about you getting in touch with your feelings and naming that and the I would like part is about stating your needs, as we know one source of anger can be unmet needs. Sometimes we will still not get our needs met and may need to think how we can meet our own needs for example, however it is useful to get into the habit of communicating with your Partner around how you feel.
Another one of my clients, one was in a home where his father had a dependence on alcohol and so as a child, my client was living in a very uncertain situation and was surrounded by fear. There was so much anger in his father, that he suppressed his anger growing up and became quite depressed as an adult. He is getting in touch with his anger now through working on naming and describing his emotions and accepting them in a non-judgemental way, this has been huge for him. When we can identify an emotion and describe it; this can lead to a significant reduction in anxiety.
I am working with a female client who is now getting in touch with her anger. It was not ok for her to feel anger in her home and therefore her anger was supressed into the ‘nice girl’ syndrome. This is a familiar place for a lot of my female clients.
I, on the other hand was volatile growing up, particularly as a teenager, as I didn’t know how to name my needs and I held a lot of shame around this as an adult. This is where Brene Brown’s work has really helped me to make sense of this. She defines shame as ‘the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging’. The only way to break this shame cycle is to uncover it and name it, it needs ‘secrecy, shame and judgement to grow’.
The truth is, I was very different to the rest of my family and found it hard to be understood as I neither had the awareness, the vocabulary or the tools to name what I was experiencing and to ask for what I needed. Anger is often the expression of unmet needs. So what is the antidote to shame? Empathy and naming it!! This is often the antidote to anger also.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about cultivating the practice of deep, compassionate listening which can transform anger. Often when a person speaks aloud their story in my experience, it may be the first time they have shared so deeply. How we respond to this can be very healing relationally. Do we respond with advice or judgement or can we listen deeply to another and witness their story without the need to fix?
When you get angry, go back to yourself and listen deeply to the message. Take a long, slow deep breath into your belly and continue to breathe. Allow the anger to wash over you. Cultivate curiosity and ask the anger what it wants to share with you. Thich Nhat Hanh posits that we can transform from a ‘sea of fire into a refreshing lake’ – I love this and will continue to practice!!
Reflection thought starters:
What judgements do you hold about anger?
Where might it be useful to show yourself some compassion?
Thich Nhat Hanh ‘ Anger, wisdom for cooling the flames’ 2001, Berkley Publishing Group.