Weekly Column: Aspire Unplugged, by Cheryl Patterson
“Emotions are a vital part of our inner guidance… Like our illnesses, our dreams, and our lives, our emotions are ours, and we must own them and pay attention to them.” – Dr. Christine Northrup
Emotions are like a compass, with each point indicating the parameters of our lives. At major points, we may be happy, sad, content or angry, and at other areas, anything in between. And if we stray too far one way, we can get lost. Anger is one of those areas where it can be easy to get lost, in two major ways.
1. Outwardly reacting to situations we’re unhappy about through hostile verbal communication or actions. This can include blaming, criticism, hurtful comments, yelling and physical aggression.
2. Passivity. Avoiding direct communication (out of fear of other’s negative reactions, such as confrontation, judgement, loss of personal ties, etc.), and replacing it with indirect expressions. These expressions may seem subtle but can have a big impact, and can range from things like feigned forgetfulness of important things, to withholding oneself from giving to the needs of others, and other misleading and inconspicuous hurtful ways that can corrode relationships.
Both expressions of anger can sabotage chances at happiness because the focus is on the emotions and reacting to what we don’t want, through destructive behaviors, instead of focusing on wants and needs. Therefore, problems don’t get resolved, and often result in more frustration and anger.
So, how do we cope with our anger? We start by looking it from the perspective of fulfillment.
According to Sonja Lybmorsky, researcher of happiness, University of California, our level of satisfaction is linked to fulfillment. She says, “Satisfaction with one’s life implies a contentment with or acceptance of one’s life circumstances, or the fulfillment of one’s wants and needs…”
When our wants and needs are not fulfilled, it can result in anger. Many studies concur that anger is the signal that we’re not living authentically—not being ourselves. When our needs and wants suffer, anger is our clue that something is wrong and requires our attention. It’s a valuable tool that provides us with the opportunity to be real with ourselves.
The goal is to recognize anger as legitimate, understand what’s at the root of it and reduce it. When we get to a point where we’re reacting emotionally to situations (outwardly or passively), we need to give consideration to the feeling and why it’s there.
The following are ways to help you understand and deal with your anger in constructive ways:
Know your triggers. What sets you off? A common cause of anger is stress—the higher the stress the greater the anger—from demands such as child care, finances, social isolation or disconnection from loved ones, feeling powerless or feeling a lack of control in situations. Once you have a better understanding about what’s bothering you, then you can deal with it and ease your emotional burden. Improve, reduce or eliminate the stressors that you can.
Strive for balance. Areas such as a lack of sleep, exercise or relaxation, poor diet, or an overload of demands and not enough support, can wreak havoc on how we cope. Balance can also mean a ‘time-out’ from a situation, to take a breather, so we can respond (versus react) to it constructively.
Challenge negative thoughts. Think of problems as a challenge (something that can be resolved), rather than a threat (something that will harm you in some way), and find constructive ways of dealing with them. For instance, instead of dwelling on what you don’t want, switch your focus to what you do want.
Get to know your needs. What’s begging for your attention right now (more sleep, leisure time, support)? Create a list of what your needs are and make it a goal to fulfil them.
Communicate your needs to others (without blame—“I feel or want…”). The more people understand your needs, the better they can contribute to them. Be clear. Telling someone they’re inconsiderate doesn’t tell them about what you want; telling them you need more of something specific from them or for yourself does.
Set boundaries. Super heroes are fictional characters! There are limits to what we can do, as hard as it may be for some to hear (or a relief for others). Know your limits and be your own advocate. Establish a realistic lifestyle based on what you can comfortably do.
Nurture a sense of self, aside from your roles. Who are you outside of being a parent, partner, friend, family member and co-worker? What do you want, desire or crave to do, other than what is expected from you? We’re more than what we have to give. We have to learn to strike a balance between what’s expected from us (including our own expectations) and how we can just be ourselves. Make a list of things you love to do on your own and start with one.
Get professional support. Anger can run deeper than overwhelming demands. And the weight that can be lifted off your shoulders from talking to someone (non-judgmental) can be invaluable, as can the tools you acquire.
A York University study on anger concludes, “To know one’s anger is to know one’s self, for anger brings with it a message about what we (and others) need.” They add that to ignore it is to prevent self-care and knowing oneself – two essential elements of mental health and a quality of living (“Living as a Chameleon,” 2006).