In-Depth Communication

All Aboard the Anger Boat

Anger is a raw and primal feeling that happens to all of us. While it can be all well and good to say “I shouldn’t get angry”, or “It would be better if I acted with empathy when I’m angry” – the truth is much further from reality. Anger tends to cloud our judgement, engaging our animalistic reactionary brain.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about anger and how the cause is not the other person, but rather our own thoughts and needs. What might not have been so clear, is how to actually deal with your anger. What do you do about it?

Our anger is a wake-up call, or notification, that something is going on internally. One or some of our needs aren’t being met. With this wake-up call, we can grasp the opportunity to give ourselves empathy and be more comfortable with the present situation.

I’m not suggesting we repress our anger, but sit with it and observe.

Clouds in the Sky

For those of you with meditation experience, this might remind you of the cloudy sky metaphor. The sky is our emotional and mental landscape and the clouds represent emotions and thoughts. In meditation, we don’t forcibly try to clear the sky, but simply watch the clouds roll on by, inspecting their shape, texture and colour with a sense of curiosity.

We can do the same thing with our anger, applying a bit more of a framework.

When we feel anger, we can pause and reflect. What are the specific things I’m observing which are stimulating my anger? This might be a car jumping in front of you in traffic, or a person texting you to say they can no longer make your party. The more we can make these observations free of an evaluation or judgement, the better off we’ll be.

Once we’ve identified what’s contributing to our anger, we can start to think about the needs of ours which aren’t being met. Our needs are the things we all share. Food, water, shelter and safety – yes. But we also have needs for community, contribution, understanding and respect. Say a person messaged you to say they can no longer make your party. In this case, your anger may be an expression of your need for certainty, respect for your time or love with your friend.

When we sit with our anger in this way, I find it tends to float away, like another cloud in the sky.

The Empty Boat

That’s looking internally. To address our anger, we can also look outward, to the object of our irritation.

In our minds, we can guess at the intention behind someone else’s actions. More often than not, I don’t act out of a malicious intent. What about you?

If you or I don’t behave in this way often, then what are the odds that the actions of another person are motivated from this place? More likely is the case that it’s the interpretation of these actions, rather than the actions themselves.

People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.
– Epictetus

Since the other person’s intention is not to make us angry and cause suffering, we can start to view them as an empty boat. There is an old Zen story, which I first read in a book by Alan Watts which may provide food for thought.

A man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him.

At first, it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realises that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster.

He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For crying out loud, turn aside!”

But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. By this time, he’s standing in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist. The boat smashes right into him. It’s then he sees that it’s an empty boat.

The Anger is Present

Everything I’ve discussed so far is quite passive and reflective. I appreciate that some of you may now be calling:

“Hey, Luke! It’s not always that simple or easy.”

I agree. What I’ve suggested so far works when we have the ability to pause and reflect. What happens when we’re in the middle of an argument with someone, though? The other person is speaking with a passion and intensity which holds our attention, making it difficult for us to do some self-reflection.

In these situations, we would do well to put our own emotions on hold. We have been given the perfect opportunity to give the person in front of us empathy. Most of the time, the underlying message behind their words is “Please! Hear what I’m saying!”. So instead of becoming defensive, justifying our behaviour or retaliating back, we’ll give them what they’re asking for.

We’ll listen, with empathy.

The same process applies. We try to reflect back to the person what they’re observing, feeling and needing. Just as if it was us. The key point here is for you to make a guess at each. Asking “How are you feeling?” or “What are you needing?” can lead the person to think they’re being analysed by you. By guessing at the emotions and needs (It sounds like you’re feeling angry because you were wanting some more respect and autonomy) we show a genuine intention to connect with the other person.

When the flow of compassion and empathy is established with the other person, we’re then in a better place to express our own anger. You take responsibility for how you’re feeling and encourage the other person to do the same through the empathic process.

2 comments on “All Aboard the Anger Boat

  1. In theory it sounds easy, in practice it is difficult to put your emotions on hold when you are in the situation. How do you do that?

    • Luke Weatherstone

      It is quite difficult to do in reality. It takes a lot of practice and a commitment to really connect with the other person.

      We can practice this by trying to see the other person’s anger as a trigger to give them empathy. “Oh, Luke seems quite angry. That’s my cue to connect with him.”

      Practicing giving someone empathy when you’re in a calm state is another way to prepare for those situations when you yourself might be quite upset.

      Definitely not easy.

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