An image of one my favourite people, Greta Thunberg, demonstrating powerful anger and making world leaders sit up and pay attention. Powerful anger is much discussed in Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships which I first came across when a client told me it was the best book she had ever read. I have since recommended it to many people – several of whom have said “I knew from the first page that it was the book for me – it describes me perfectly!”
My previous blog looked at what Harriet described as “Nice Ladies and Bitches” and their different styles of anger. When it comes to expressing your anger, do you go down the road of silently seething with resentment, or losing your temper and yelling with rage? Both styles are ultimately non-productive and do not lead to change or creating healthy relationships.
So how do we transition from non-productive or even harmful anger to productive powerful and healthy anger?
In order to turn anger into something useful, we need to become good observers of what is going on. The first step is noticing that we are getting angry. What might you notice in yourself as a precursor to anger? Often, when you’re in full-on anger, it’s not the right time to try to resolve a situation. Can you identify the micro-changes within you that lead up to fight-or-flight? Does your heart-rate change? Does your face feel flushed? Where is your attention focussed? Do you start to get defensive? In these moments, when you recognize that something is going on, do your best to see it as a sign that something within you needs to be recognised. Take space if necessary, to get clarity. Don’t focus on being “right” or “winning” – focus on getting yourself back to a place of connection within – and love/compassion for your partner.
Know the moves and countermoves
Anger is often a dance with very set patterns that are repeated over and over again. Learn to deal with countermoves and resistance to change in yourself and your partner. “Countermoves” are ways that a partner tries to hook you back into the old patterns when you are trying to change. If you have patterns in the way that you interact with your partner, you can prepare ahead of time for what they will probably do to try and continue the pattern. When that happens, can you continue to not take things personally? Can you stand firm in not being pulled into an old pattern? Can you do that in a way that is kind and compassionate?
Define a bottom line
One challenge in relationships regarding anger is defining a bottom line. A “bottom line” is the place where your beliefs, priorities, and values are not negotiable. Can you define a bottom line in a way that doesn’t create an ultimatum, but instead offers your partner a pathway for change? What if you don’t know what your bottom line is? It takes courage to acknowledge that you aren’t clear about how to proceed, and to not know what your position actually is. Sometimes it’s ok NOT to do anything!
Courage is a key quality
What are the roots of change in your relationship? Change comes in small steps, so don’t expect immediate and dramatic results (although they do sometimes happen!). Change is made of courageous acts instead of blaming others and staying victimised. What is more important in your relationship – being locked into a pattern of pursuing, distancing, anger, and blame—or having the courage to break free from those? These changes are not easy, and it takes courage to shift your actions and not know how your partner will respond. Can you take a position that doesn’t involve blaming others – but that still allows you to take a stand for what you need and desire in your relationship?
It’s not all about the other person
When we are angry with another person, we often go into black an white thinking patterns, believing that they are wrong and we are right, they are bad and we are good. Start looking for positive, constructive ways to address your needs within yourself, and within your relationship. Even if a situation really IS 97% the other person – that still leaves 3% for you to work on and change. And once you change, the whole dynamic changes.
Are you recreating old family patterns?
One of the strategies Harriet shares in her book is to go back to your family origins. We all have a legacy that is handed to us from the formative people in our lives about handling anger and conflict. If our father expressed his anger by shouting and swearing and our mother was passive and silent, or vice versa, perhaps this is something that we have unconsciously inherited.Exploring what has come before you in the way other family members have handled situations can be extremely helpful – once we are aware, we can break old unhealthy patterns.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r6Y9uhmL6Y Why won’t he apologise? Harriet Lerner TEDtalk
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPgGfQPqyhg Interview with Harriet Lerner on The Dance of Anger
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!