My Anger: Gradually and Then Suddenly
A few years ago, I had a big aha about anger. It didn’t happen all at once. Just like the Ernest Hemingway character Mike says about going bankrupt in The Sun Also Rises, my learning about anger came on “gradually and then suddenly”. The gradual awareness came through repeated feelings of shame, regret, and wishing I’d shown up differently. This awareness was fed through feedback from relationships, coworkers, family members, and my harshest critic – myself.
The suddenly was when I engaged in the Equus Coaching Certification program. As part of that program, I had to work on myself as I was learning to work with clients. What came up most often was how outwardly angry I became when I could not easily master the skills for the program. Ironically, it was my anger that was blocking my path.
My wonderful teacher and mentor, Koelle Simpson, did not back away from shining a light into my anger. I had denied that it existed – I was so past that. After all, I meditate, I write journal entries to explore my emotions, I study self-help and psychology, and others come to me for guidance. I’ve got anger nailed, right? No.
On some topics, there is a slow burning fire that can flash up when all the elements are right.
Do you ever feel that way? A rise in anger that flashes up despite your best efforts to tamp it down or deny it? ...or to numb it, busy it, suck it up and smile through it, or even to find someone or something else to blame it on? I felt that way. And I still do.
But now I know from my work with Koelle that anger is actually the manifestation of sadness and fear that have not been acknowledged or felt.
You see, anger isn’t a pure emotion; it is a compound emotion. Think about water: Water is a combination of oxygen and hydrogen – H2O, right? Anger is a combination of the primary emotions fear and sadness.
But fear and sadness are uncomfortable emotions to deal with, and we have been taught to avoid them when we can. So, when sadness and fear want our attention, they turn into anger – anger gets our attention. Unfortunately, we often project it outward, and it gets everyone else’s attention, also.
Imagine you have given up a job you loved for a new job with a promise of advancement or better pay. After a few weeks, you begin to wonder if you’ve made a mistake. Before long, you have determined that your boss is a jerk, the leadership is screwed up, your coworkers aren’t friendly, or maybe all the customers are idiots.
Whoever the target(s) of your anger may be, one day you get feedback from your new boss that your communication with colleagues and customers needs improvement. People are reporting that you seem to have an edge of anger.
Now you are really angry. And a bit humiliated. How could this be happening?
The Pathway to the Turnaround
The pathway to turning this around comes through breaking it down by asking yourself:
“What am I sad or disappointed about?”
“What am I afraid of?”
For the example above, the sources of sadness or disappointment are easy to identify. You are sad the new job is not what you expected. You are disappointed that it isn’t a fit. You may even be disappointed in yourself for not making the best choice. Or maybe you are feeling grief for the job and friends you left to take this position.
The fear can be a bit trickier and may require some writing, or talking with a coach, trusted friend, or mentor who knows how to be a witness to emotional dialogue, who will allow you to share and be vulnerable without feeling the urge to fix it for you or rescue you from your emotions.
Maybe you are afraid that you are stuck in this job forever, or that you’ll never find happiness at work again. Or maybe you are afraid that you will be fired. Sometimes you can easily come up with the fear, and sometimes you need to spend a bit of time on it.
But once you acknowledge what is really fueling the anger, the sadness, and the fear, you can take some time to feel those emotions by letting them come forward. Then you will have the space to take clean and clear action steps to move forward authentically – how empowering is that?
I’m on the Path … Now What?
Let’s say that the sadness is about the loss of coworkers you adored and the discomfort of not having a community within this new position. Feeling and acknowledging that loss as an important one is key – sit with the feeling of sadness, notice where it is in your body, and allow tears to come if they want to.
Also, acknowledge within yourself that it isn’t your new coworkers’ fault that you were more connected with your former coworkers. It takes a long time to develop that ease in relationships. If you are honest with yourself, the first weeks and months at the old place were probably uncomfortable as well.
Next, come up with some strategies to build connections:
- Question your hopes and expectations for the others in your new job. What were you expecting from them? Expectations of others without prior agreement can lead to great disappointment. Try showing up at work without any expectations of how relationships will develop and see where they go! Or communicate what you need in a kind way: “This is a tough transition for me. I’m wondering if we could grab lunch and chat?”
- Don’t wait in victim mode. Instead, be proactive. Invite people to a one-on-one coffee so you can learn about them. Ask them about their work history at the company, what they love about being there, what they see as their strengths and achievements. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be seen and heard. These types of conversations are the foundation of relationships. Keep it positive, and be a curious learner.
- Practice active listening. Notice how much you are talking when you interact with others. If you are talking more than 40%, you are talking too much. When we start a new job, we have a tendency to want to prove ourselves. This can cause initial resistance from those who are already there. Listen more, and comment or ask questions that invite more information to be shared, such as: “Fascinating. Would you say more about that?”
- Be real by letting a few people know that this transition is a bit harder than you realized, especially if you’ve had a rocky start or they have experienced your anger. Tell them you may have come off a bit more gruff than you intended, and that you’d like to start again, now that you’ve realized what is happening for you. Everyone loves the turnaround; you will gain respect and empathy.
Grace Is in the Space!
I wish I could say that I no longer experience or project anger. But now when I feel anger creeping up, I try to stop, take a breath, and explore what is under the anger.
When I remember to do this, the anger lifts like a fog, and I can see clearly how the target of my anger isn’t really responsible for causing the anger I feel. Usually, what I discover is that my anger stems from regret or shame (something I wish I’d done differently) or future-tripping (creating scary stories about what might happen in the future).
Where in your life are you directing anger at someone or something? Take a minute and explore the anger through the lens of sadness and fear by asking the two questions from above:
It is not that you will now live a life without anger, but you will begin to see anger as a gift that shows you there are sadness and fear in your heart that you have yet to feel.
P.S. If you are ready to explore how anger may be creating a bit more difficulty in your life or blocking your path, a few private coaching sessions from someone who has been there and done that may be just the ticket. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time for a confidential one-to-one call.