When Rachael and I first started dating, I made the intelligent move of telling her I never get angry. Yep, I did exactly what I tell people not to do and used the word “never”. At least it was with respect to myself I suppose.
What do you think her response was? If you guessed she was in disbelief and took it upon herself as a personal challenge to get me angry, you’d be right. Boy, what have I done?
Now, to be fair, I do get angry. I don’t think my anger lasts for long, though, and as a result, I seldom express it, making it invisible to other people. I’m far from being a Zen Master. The most useful concept I’ve found in addressing anger is an awareness that my anger is not someone else’s responsibility.
Someone else can’t make you angry. Sure, they can say things or behave in ways which create a series of events which lead to your anger, but they’re not the cause. What I’m talking about here is stimulus versus cause.
I’ve spoken briefly about the idea of stimulus versus response before. In the space between stimulus and response (your anger), there is a choice. This choice is what gives rise to the anger, not the stimulus.
I can hear some of you right now.
“So, you’re saying I chose to feel angry when John borrowed my car without permission? That still sounds like he caused it!”
It might not yet be clear why the other person shouldn’t take responsibility for our anger. If it’s not their fault, then what exactly is causing our anger?
Anger is the result of needs not being met.
Consider the following scenarios.
Scenario one. You have a meeting scheduled to pitch a new idea your boss. You’re really excited about this new idea and have spent the last week preparing a kick-arse presentation to blow them away and get to work on the new project. Half an hour before the meeting, they call you to cancel and reschedule for a couple of months away.
Scenario two. Same client meeting scheduled about an idea you’re keen on. This time, you’re very much unprepared. You know a little about the product you’re pitching, but have little market research, a lousy PowerPoint presentation, and no potential sponsors. Again, the call comes in half an hour beforehand to cancel and reschedule for a few months in the future.
Both these scenarios have the same stimulus: your boss cancels a meeting. They might generate very different responses though.
In scenario one, we can easily see how you might become frustrated and angry. You’ve put in a ton of work, were really excited about the prospect of contributing to something you’re passionate about and now you’ll have to wait a few more months.
In scenario two, the emotions might be the opposite. Wracked with nervousness before the meeting, a sense of relief may wash over you since you felt ill-prepared and now have an extra two months to prepare for the next pitch.
Can you start to see how our anger is not dependent on others, but on ourselves and our own needs? The first scenario has anger as the emotion, a possible expression of our unmet need for contribution and community. The second scenario has relief, which may be a positive example of our need for self-worth and creativity.
We can use this anger as a gentle reminder that our needs are not being met. When we feel anger, we’re given an opportunity to give ourselves empathy and see what the real problem is. We’re staying with the anger, not suppressing it. I’ve found that when I sit with the anger, reflecting on my needs, it washes away.
I’m definitely not saying this is easy. It requires continual practice, and I doubt you will ever reach a point where you deal with anger in exactly the way you’d like to. But you will improve, you will be happier, and your relationships will be stronger.
As for Rachael trying to get me angry? She has, and she saw it. I think she was quite pleased with herself.
Photo is of my favourite tea cup on my bookshelf.