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Beyond Anger Management—Finding the Gift
In this chapter, I would like to share my perspective on the role anger can play in our lives. I hope to challenge you to shift away from the idea that anger is something to be suppressed. Instead, anger is a gift, challenging us to connect to the unmet needs that have triggered this reaction. I reveal common misconceptions about anger and how our anger is the product of thinking. A discussion of anger easily supports a better understanding of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), because it touches on so many key NVC distinctions. Living from your heart, making judgment-free observations, getting clear about your feelings and needs, making clear requests, and supporting life enriching connections all relate to how you respond to anger.
Anger and Nonviolent Communication
When it comes to managing anger, NVC shows how to use anger as an alarm that tells us we are thinking in ways that are not likely to get our needs met and are more likely to get us involved in interactions that are not going to be very constructive for anyone. NVC training stresses that it is dangerous to think of anger as something to be repressed or as something bad. When we identify anger as a result of something wrong with us, our tendency is to want to repress it and not deal with it. That use of anger—to repress and deny it—often leads us to express it in ways that can be very dangerous to ourselves and others.
Think of how many times you’ve read in the newspapers about serial killers and how people who knew them described them. A rather typical description is, “He was always such a nice person. I never heard him raise his voice. He never seemed to be angry at anyone.” In NVC, we are interested in using anger to help us get at the needs that are not being fulfilled within ourselves, that are at the root of our anger.
Many of the groups I work with around the world have witnessed the consequences of teaching that anger is something to be repressed. These groups have seen that when people are taught that anger should be avoided, it can be used to oppress them by getting them to tolerate whatever is happening. However, I also have reservations about how, in response to that concern, some have advocated cultivating or “venting” anger without understanding its roots and transforming it. Some studies have indicated that anger-management programs that simply encourage participants to vent anger—by, for example, beating pillows—just push the anger closer to the surface and, in fact, leave the participants more susceptible to expressing their anger later in ways that are dangerous to themselves and others.
What we want to do as we use NVC to manage anger is to go more deeply into it, to see what is going on within us when we are angry, to be able to get at the need—which is the root of anger—and then fulfill that need. For teaching purposes, I sometimes refer to anger as being similar to the warning light on the dashboard of a car—it’s providing useful information about what the engine needs. You wouldn’t want to hide or disconnect or ignore it. You’d want to slow down the car and figure out what the light’s trying to tell you.