I didn’t use to think I was an angry person.
I rarely raised my voice and often avoided conflict.
Yet, there was another side of me when I was with my family. I would often get triggered, emotions exploding inside of me, leading me to verbally lash out in annoyance and frustration.
I started realizing that I didn’t do this with people outside the family because I wanted them to see the “real” me. The real me wasn’t angry. Or so I thought.
I started getting mini reality checks every time my anger would begin to leak out at the friends I usually got along with. Although I tried to desperately avoid tension and conflict with them, my true feelings would eventually come out as passive-aggressiveness — a pointed joke, a roll of the eyes, a curt period at the end of a text.
“I’m not angry, I’m just annoyed…”
Just because I never appeared angry doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience anger like the average person. In fact, I probably experienced it more.
Instead of expressing it outright, I often held on to it out of desperation. I didn’t want to create tension in my relationships. But now, looking back, I see that it would have been easier for everyone if I had just said what I felt.
The problem is, I could never find a way to express myself in an effective way. Often, when I finally brought issues up, they had already gotten so bad that the conversations were emotionally charged… which led me to avoid confrontations later on — it was a vicious, reinforcing cycle.
A Language of Life
That’s where Nonviolent Communication (NVC) comes in, a process of communicating developed by the clinical psychologist Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg.
“Violent”, in his words, means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm. He suggests that the way we communicate can be a primary source of how we experience violence in our everyday lives.
“While studying the factors that affect our ability to stay compassionate, I was struck by the crucial role of language and our use of words. I have since identified a specific approach to communicating — both speaking and listening — that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)
This process of communication has revolutionized my life — the way I speak to others, express myself, and think about things. The process itself is straightforward — yet, the practice of it is much harder than it seems.
At its essence, NVC is a needs-based way of communicating. When we get what we need, we experience emotions like affection, comfort, relief, serenity, and hopefulness. On the other hand, when we don’t get our needs met, we may feel emotions like fear, aggravation, irritation, loneliness, detachment, etc.
NVC is about expressing and negotiating those needs in a way that allows us to have open and honest communication with the people in our lives.
“Nonviolent Communication shows us a way of being very honest, without any criticism, insults, or put-downs, and without any intellectual diagnosis implying wrongness.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
It can be used effectively in settings from work, school, therapy, and relationships. In the book, Dr. Rosenberg even talks about the effectiveness of NVC in prisons, war-torn countries, and low-income schools.
Honestly, I just think NVC is dope.
I probably sound like a walking advertisement for NVC, but I have no personal or material stake in this. I’ve just found the process to be incredibly lifechanging, and want to share it with the world.
In this post, I won’t get into the specifics of the process. Instead, I’ll be touching on how communication plays an essential role in producing and maintaining anger in our lives. Instead of brushing anger under the rug or taking it out on others, we need to learn how to fully embrace and express it instead of letting it take over our lives and relationships.
“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.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)
Especially in a time like this, where we’re either physically isolated from each other or crowded with loved ones at home, learning to communicate our anger properly has become even more crucial. Furthermore, being physically isolated has actually highlighted the way we communicate because, in many ways, it’s all we have left.
You Don’t Have To Be Angry
In the book, Dr. Rosenberg states that anger is a superficial response to our deepest unmet needs:
“When we are connected to our need, whether it is for reassurance, purposefulness, or solitude, we are in touch with our life energy. We may have strong feelings, but we are never angry.”
Reading this, I felt doubtful. It didn’t seem realistic or possible to never be angry.
I thought about our world and it was hard to imagine it without anger. And when I say “anger”, I’m not just talking about the extreme forms of anger that can result in screaming matches or physical violence.
I’m talking about the insidious forms of anger that find their way into every aspect of our lives. Feeling pissed off when someone cuts us off in traffic. The flicker of annoyance when our friend is constantly running late. The dirty dishes in the sink. The cluttered drawer. The pay cut. Opening the door to find that the neighbor’s dog has taken a shit on the doormat.
The little things that chip away at our patience lead us to respond in unproductive ways, whether it’s sending passive-aggressive texts, incessantly nagging at our partners, or gossiping non-stop as an outlet for our frustrations.
And of course, you might feel justified in your anger about certain things. For example, the lack of leadership during a pandemic. The panicked individuals crowding grocery stores and making the situation worse. The con artists taking advantage of people’s fears to make money.
Maybe on some level, you’ve fully embraced the anger, walling yourself off from the world. Or maybe you’re just cynical and jaded because you’ve tried everything… and life didn’t turn out how you expected. Do you blame the economy and the terrible people who run this country? Do you believe this while ignoring that your anger has made a home inside of you?
No One “Makes” You Angry
“Whenever we are angry, we are finding fault — we are choosing to play God by judging or blaming the other person for being wrong or deserving punishment. Even if we are not initially conscious of it, the cause of anger is located in our own thinking.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)
On a day to day basis, we may have a million thoughts like:
“I can’t believe that guy cut me off. What an inconsiderate jerk.”
“Wow. Why would she say that and humiliate me in front of the entire team? She’s obviously only out for herself.”
“If he really cared, he’d pick his socks up off the floor.”
The first step to fully expressing our anger and getting our needs met is by acknowledging that our anger isn’t caused by other people’s actions.
Rather, the cause of our anger is in our own perspective and thinking. It’s important to note that just because someone else triggered our anger, doesn’t mean that they are the cause of it.
In each of the thoughts above, the person is blaming and judging someone else. Judging others actually misdirects the attention away from one’s own needs, preventing them from addressing the true cause of their anger.