Empowerment Through Anger: The Tools of Nonviolent Communication

In the United States, people who experience discrimination and oppression are often stereotyped as “angry.” For example, the stereotype of the “angry black woman” is reinforced in the popular media over and over again. The result of this stereotyping is the message that those who experience oppression and discrimination should not be angry. For people of color, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, gender-variant people, and differently-abled communities, this message—to swallow your anger—can be frustrating and make people feel invisible. The invisibility of groups can happen when those individuals are not allowed to voice their own opinions and to share their truth with the world. The long-term impact of invisibility can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and anger-management issues.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, an educator who teaches nonviolent communication, suggests that anger should not be ignored, but instead can be turned into a useful tool to create personal and societal change. His experiences include working with oppressed communities and he states, “Such groups are uneasy when they hear the terms ‘nonviolent’ or ‘compassionate‘ communication because they have so often been urged to stifle their anger, calm down, and accept the status quo … The process we are describing, however, does not encourage us to ignore, squash, or swallow anger, but rather to express the core of our anger fully and wholeheartedly.” Using Rosenberg’s model, anger can be accessed and used in an intentional way and can be a powerful tool for people who experience discrimination or oppression.

Anger management is often addressed in therapy by using a cognitive-behavioral approach that focuses on interrupting the sequence of thoughts and events that lead to uncontrollable anger.

A nonviolent communication perspective to anger management adds an additional tool that can not only knock uncontrollable anger off track, but also redirect it to create positive change. This approach to anger teaches that:

  1. Anger is not bad.
  2. Anger is not something to be repressed.
  3. Anger does not mean something is wrong with us.

There are multiple steps to turn anger from something destructive to something constructive. The first place to start is to separate out the trigger of our anger from the cause of our anger and recognize them as two separate things. The trigger is the event that happened that makes a person angry. The cause, however, is usually something much deeper. It is the belief that we hold about the event that happened that makes us angry.

Trigger: The event itself.
Cause: The meaning we attach to the event.

For example, lots of people get really angry when they’re driving. Let’s say you’re driving along (or riding your bike or walking), minding your own business, obeying all of the traffic laws, and all of a sudden a car cuts in front of you—no turn signal, no warning. This might make you really angry. Feelings flood through your body, your temperature rises, you might even yell out something that you would never say to someone’s face. You are pissed off. In this example, figuring out the trigger of your anger is easy—this driver cut you off.

But what can be trickier is figuring out the cause of your anger. What is your story about the driver cutting you off? Why do you think he or she did it? You’re thinking that the driver was being a jerk, showing you disrespect. Maybe you think he or she did it as a personal affront to you because of your bumper stickers or your skin color or your gender. This is the cause—the story that we instantly make up is the cause of our anger. In reality, we don’t know why the driver cut us off. Maybe he or she had a sick kid in the backseat or had just received call from family about a parent who was in the hospital. The driver cut you off and failed to use the turn signal not because he or she didn’t respect you, but because he or she was so worried and focused that he or she wasn’t paying attention to anything else. Suddenly the whole event takes on a whole other meaning—the trigger still happened, but now there’s a different cause attached to it.  The anger you felt was not about being cut off but about feeling disrespected.

When we want to change things in our lives, we need to focus on the things that we can control. And, in this example, we can control the story that we make about the trigger. Identifying the belief we have that is the cause of our anger is the first step to figuring out what we need to have happen instead and how to clearly and directly share that with another person. It allows us to express our anger fully. Rosenberg states that, “Anger is the result of life-alienating ways of evaluating what is happening to us.” Separating the trigger of our anger from the cause of our anger is the first step toward creating a new relationship with anger that decreases the harm we cause to ourselves and to others. It begins to open the door to using anger not just to vent feelings, but to create change in our relationship with others.

Rosenberg, Marshall.B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.

© Copyright 2011 by Damon Constantinides. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Cairns

    July 28th, 2011 at 4:25 PM

    You know,when I’m angry about something,I just can’t stand it when people say I’m angry.I mean,I’m angry I know but I don’t want you to say I’m angry!I don’t know why this happens but it only gets me more angry.

    I’m not generally an angry person but being called that(when I am at a particular time) brings out a completely different and very-angry me.

  • Madison

    July 28th, 2011 at 6:25 PM

    What a great article. If we all would take the time to understand what is actually pushing our anger forward then it would make the world a better place.

    I have found that the easiest way for me to do this is to take deep breaths and to go to a small trance type state. Then I can really focus on the reason for my anger. If I sit and let all the other influences in then I become unfocused and unsure of why this singular event has raised my temperature.

  • Rasheedah

    July 29th, 2011 at 4:32 AM

    You can say all of that about doing things to not be perceived as “angry” but I am telling you that in the real world you are still going to be viewed this way. People have these ideas about how a person is going to act and react in certain situations and if this is the idea that they have about you already then chances are it is going to be very difficult to break down those walls. Not impossible, for everything has possibility, but it CAN be a challenge.

  • terry

    July 29th, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    general perception is that anger is bad and that there is nothin positive bout it..what you’re saying is true but most people don’t think that way..that’s the general perception..and unless that changes people will always act according to the same flawed idea.

  • andre

    July 29th, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    How did this impression even get started? Well maybe a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are, and we all know it, certain people who go through life with a chip on their shoulders. And once enough people do that, regardless of the race, that is the idea that begins to form about the whole group. So maybe the time is now to move away from that sense and attitude of entitlement and become a part of society that everyone wants to be around.

  • Steven

    July 30th, 2011 at 7:10 AM

    Be careful of how you are perceived and showing your anger is what i have found to be useful. As @Rasheedah said it is how to change perceptions and if you are viewed as an angry person or a person who will react angrily then that will effect how people interact with you. My technique for handling things that make me angry is to not show anger in public or in front of other people. As soon as I can get to a private place I let my anger out. But very rarely show this side of my personality in public.

  • V.C

    July 30th, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    If people put you in a stereotype and label you as something its not going to help to try and fight or argue with them. That is bad anger.

    If you try to do your own thing and go against the negative stereotype that they say then you are proving them wrong and without even confronting them! This is good anger.

    I have followed this technique for a long time, being a person of color myself.

  • Mickey

    July 30th, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    Communication is the essential key to life.
    Allowing things that are beyond your control to shut down your communication skill set can be the key to sure ruin.
    You can;t allow your anger, or what could be perceived as anger get the best of you.
    Learn to sy what you think think and mean what you say without losing control.

  • Alisa Kamis-Brinda, LCSW, LCADC

    July 31st, 2011 at 4:00 PM

    What a great article! It is crucial for people to have awareness of what causes their anger and explore other ways to interpret a situation. Being able to do this often decreases anger. However, it is also crucial to have effective communication skills to express your anger in a calm way so that you can be heard, which increases the chances of a problematic situation being resolved.

  • H.N.F.

    August 20th, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    Anger IS a bad thing if it’s not properly managed. I’ve worked with plenty of staff who have issues with their anger that aren’t obvious in the beginning. They take on a high pressured, fast-paced working environment thinking they can handle it when they can’t. I’ve had to fire more than one staffer because he couldn’t keep his temper or his tongue under control because of stress.

  • lyle finch

    August 20th, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    Making up excuses for other people is very common in my experience. The guy who cut you off is probably just a really bad driver and will likely push his luck a second time and cause a pileup, lose his car, and wind up in hospital for his aggressive driving stance. What goes around, comes around.

  • Jill N

    July 9th, 2014 at 8:30 PM

    Damon.. I have been searching for a therapist with your values and approach for so long. I would drive 2 hours to see you, but I was laid off and no longer have insurance. I wish I could afford to talk to you. You seem to understand so much of what I am struggling with. I wish there was a way!

  • AB

    January 24th, 2022 at 1:20 PM

    How will we communicate with the person who cut us while driving? The only practical way of communication in this scenario is honking.

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