This chapter on anger from Miki Kashtan’s book Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives is one of several in a section titled “Strategic Discomfort.” Introducing this section she tells of her own discovery that she could look upon all her emotions, even the most difficult ones, as gifts. Our emotions each provide information on how well or poorly our needs are being met. She devotes one chapter to each of the six emotions she has found most difficult for herself and for many others in her workshops and counseling practice: fear, shame, helplessness, despair, anger and grief.

Transforming Our Experience  of Anger

Anger is a peculiar feeling in at least two ways. One is that we have “anger management” classes alongside the contrary injunction to feel and express our anger. The other is that I have yet to meet someone who relishes others’ expression of anger, and yet so many of us want, even expect, others to be available to our own expressions of anger towards them. These paradoxes intrigue me, and lead me to believe that we know very little about how to relate to anger in a way that supports ourselves and others.

While anger has not been a major obstacle for me in my life, I have worked with many individuals and with groups on the topic, and have learned enough about it in this way that I hope my thinking can be a gift, even if it doesn’t come from my own direct experience. I also want to express my appreciation to Marshall Rosenberg for giving me initial insights about anger that have served to frame my investigations for years and years.

The core insight I have come to have about anger is that most of the time we either stuff our anger or run with it, and that we hardly, if ever, give ourselves the opportunity to use it well as information about what is going on, which would allow us to learn from it. I believe changing our relationship with anger to have curiosity and space instead of constriction and urgency is key to mastering and transforming our experience of anger.

Understanding Anger

It goes without saying that anger only comes up when our needs are not met. The question remains, however, about why in some situations our response is anger and in others our response is hurt, anguish, or helplessness. What is it that makes our organism move in the direction of anger?

If everything we do and all of our reactions are attempts to meet needs, then anger is no exception. The more intense our anger, the more it points to important needs we are attempting to meet by mobilizing it. Anger is a feeling, and it may appear odd to think of it as something we do or choose. Still, take a moment to reflect on a time when you were angry. Can you see now what you were hoping (usually unconsciously) that the anger would give you? Sometimes, we mobilize anger as a strategy to ensure that we will take care of our needs. At other times, we mobilize it as a strategy to be heard by others. What was it for you? Now think of other times when you were angry. Can you identify what led you to mobilize anger?

Anger and Evaluation

If you keep asking yourself why you are angry in a particular situation, you are likely to hear yourself say something like: “Because s/he didn’t do what s/he said s/he would do.” This kind of expression – the idea that someone else can make us feel a certain way – shows a strong lack of sense of power. Indeed, I have come to believe that we are extremely unlikely to feel anger at a time when we feel powerful. We are much more likely to feel anger when we feel powerless.

If you really want to understand your anger, keep asking the question again and again. Why would you get angry when someone doesn’t do what s/he said s/he would do? This is where the question starts becoming strange, because it seems self-evident. I have found many times that unpacking the self-evident provides astonishing opportunities for learning. I have found, many times, that persisting with this kind of question uncovers, somewhere, a belief that the other person should act differently. It is this belief and the implicit moral evaluation, rather than the action itself, which lead to anger.

Needs Leading to Anger

Having identified that anger stems from thoughts about what someone should do, we can ask again why our organism chooses to think in terms of what someone should do. Clearly, some of it is deep habits in our culture. However, I have found many times over that if I can identify the active need instead of attributing choices to habit, I have more of a chance of making full connection.

I want to illustrate the variety of needs that may be at the heart of the kind of thinking that generates anger with a real-life example.

Fred[1] regularly got into fits of rage in his relationship with his partner, and wanted very much to get a handle on what was going on and what he could do differently. In order to support him more effectively, we focused on one specific incident. Fred started by sharing his initial inner reaction that led to the rage: “I can’t believe she would do something like that! She asks for more kisses and hugs, and, when I do it, she spits on it. What a bitch! I hate her!” With deeper exploration, we discovered together that the needs at the heart of the conflict for him were respect and dignity. Then we looked more closely at why he chose anger. Why would he need to mobilize anger to ensure that he took care of his needs? Three themes emerged.

One was that he had an inner struggle about owning his need for respect. On the one hand, he was holding really tightly to wanting respect, with an intensity of “having to” have this need met. On the other hand, he was working double-time to make the need go away so that he would not have to deal with having a need that wasn’t acceptable to him. The more he tried to make the need go away, the more desperate he became about meeting it. Finally, he unconsciously mobilized the anger to ensure he would attend to his need for respect, however unskillfully. In this way, the anger served to “win” his inner battle, while also protecting him from feeling shame about having the need, because the anger put the blame on her, not on him.

The second theme was that he had no picture of how he could attend to his needs and hold his partner’s needs with care at the same time. Once again, Fred finds himself in an either/or mindset: either he cares for himself at the expense of his care for his partner, or he cares for his partner and gives up on his needs. The anger then ends up giving more weight to his needs compared to his care for his partner’s needs.

Lastly, the exploration uncovered the fact that respect, immediately underneath which was consideration, was a surface layer. For Fred, both of these needs signify reassurance that he is loved and cared for, which he immediately realized was much more vulnerable than respect or consideration. The anger, then, served the purpose of protecting and hiding the vulnerability of wanting reassurance about love.

With these three themes, each one of which was keeping Fred tight inside, it was no wonder that he mobilized so much anger in those moments. His anger was the only means that he knew and could imagine would give him sufficient power to attend to these desperate needs that were hidden from him.

Mastering Anger through Vulnerability

Protecting our vulnerability often appears to others as if we are aggressive even when we don’t feel it. Anger is the quintessential emotion that masks vulnerability, shame, fear, and helplessness. Especially when we are vulnerable, sometimes the only way our system can recognize that we are taking ourselves seriously, that we matter, at least to ourselves, is through anger. For as long as we haven’t made the deep choice to embrace vulnerability, anger is also a likely strategy for power. In addition, for many of us anger is a major path towards aliveness, being “drunk with fury” as one workshop participant put it. Anger often comes with intensity and pleasure even when we are judging it. It’s as if we rejoice inside about doing something for ourselves, something that supports a sense of mattering.

We rarely experience the expression of vulnerability as a path to getting such needs met. How likely are you to experience the sharing of your vulnerability as a powerful way to express yourself? How likely are you to imagine that your vulnerable expression will be heard by others? Can you easily imagine that a vulnerable expression of what you want and feel will matter to others? Does it seem plausible that you will experience aliveness when sharing vulnerably? Suppose Fred said to his wife, when he recognized his growing anger, “I’m so scared you won’t love me.” Until we recognize vulnerability as a viable different path – for power, for mattering, for aliveness, or for being heard – we are likely to keep going to anger.

When you add to our great fear of vulnerability the fact that most of us tend to judge ourselves for our anger, we are unlikely to release ourselves from the grip of anger even though we know all too well that the way we express anger doesn’t create the kind of connection we want.

For as long as we judge our anger, it stays, because the anger is there for a reason, and when we berate ourselves for it we are not making room for it to speak to us about that reason. We give in to anger, or we suppress it, but we don’t listen to it most of the time. And since the other person we are talking with doesn’t listen to the anger either (When was the last time you expressed yourself angrily to someone and received in response something like, “Honey, darling, I so want to give you what you want”?), we never learn from what the anger has to teach us. It is only through making a different choice – to listen to our anger, to uncover the vulnerability that it hides, to prioritize our needs – that we can transform the dynamics of anger.

After our conversation, Fred took it upon himself to share his vulnerability with his partner. This was not an overnight task, and required letting go of many cherished notions of fairness and ideas of what a relationship “should” look like. Slowly, over the course of about two years, Fred learned to express and ask for what he wants; to say “no” when he would otherwise develop resentment; and to bring his most tender feelings to his partner even when she herself was not most receptive to it. The result was nothing short of a miracle. After quite a number of years of distance and alienation between them, Fred now regularly speaks of the grace and beauty they now share. From repeated and frequent experiences of rage, he has shifted to extremely rare expressions of anger that stand out and are then used for further learning. He also delights in his own internal transformation, which affects other areas of his life as well as his relationship.

When our practice of vulnerability is integrated and embraced, we can recognize vulnerability as an alternate source of strength and power that comes from within, which then diminishes the appeal of anger as a strategy for power. We literally need to learn how to express our truth vulnerably and still experience a sense of power, mattering, and aliveness.

[1] Not his real name