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.
- Anger is not bad.
- Anger is not something to be repressed.
- 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.
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