Dear Neil: Thanks for your recent column on anger. What’s been fascinating for me is to realize how ill-equipped I am to having any reaction other than anger or feeling like a doormat. Learning to rein in anger is freeing, but if people who have relied on anger for power don’t have any other readily available choices besides capitulating, it can lead to a crippling sense of impotence and powerlessness. Without my anger, I became a neutered person around my wife, because I simply do not have the skills to find an alternative between my anger and submission. I’d love to see you write about how I can find my power without resorting to anger.
Curious In Boulder, Colorado
Dear Curious: Your first and most important solution is to know what your feelings and needs are—and to effectively communicate them to your wife before you get angry or reactive. If you do that, you don’t have to resort to anger in order to speak up about what you feel, need or want.
So when you first notice you’re beginning to get angry, and before you allow yourself to get really worked up and hostile, take a brief (30 minute) time out and ask yourself the following questions: What else am I feeling other than anger right now? How vulnerable do I feel? About what? Am I feeling shamed? About what? Am I feeling criticized, judged or inadequate? About what? Might this anger be deliberate—as a device for getting my way—or for distancing when things get too close, intimate or threatening? Am I attempting to cover up my feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem with my anger?
Secondly, challenge yourself to communicate your emotions in a more skilled, effective fashion, by addressing these questions with your wife: When I get upset, I’d like for you to respond to me by… I feel invalidated, hurt or not cared for when… It hurt me when… I’m still hurt by… I’m angry about… If I pay attention to how I respond to criticism… If I pay attention to the quality of my communications with you… If I were more willing to expose my vulnerability to you… If I could face you with less self-protective armor… If I were to take more responsibility for being understood… If I take more responsibility for understanding you… Please forgive me for… To resolve this issue, I need… . Then invite your wife to respond to the same questions, with you giving her a full respectful hearing—so both of you can address what you feel, need and want.
The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to confront problems, issues or conflicts as they arise, with skill and finesse, without having to resort to angry explosions, hurtful comments or bad vibes.
I’m not saying there isn’t an appropriate place for anger. There is. But personal power doesn’t come from angry explosions, even if you sometimes get your way by using anger. Personal power comes from having a skilled, effective way of expressing yourself—and then doing it.