As a parent, it seems every weekday morning I find myself dancing along a “spectrum” of emotions, anywhere from giddy and excited to downright angry and frustrated. It’s like riding a rainbow of feelings every morning!
But I really dislike anger. It’s ugly. It’s an emotion that can arise more quickly than I am able to prepare for its arrival, and it brings along with it a wrath like no other, leaving hurtful words and actions in its wake. As I’ve made attempts to be more mindful of my words and actions, anger has only left me increasingly frustrated because I can see it coming, I can see it erupting, and then I can see the hurtful results in the end. The most frustrating part about it for me is that even though I see it coming and going, I find myself “locked” into it and I can’t shake it until it’s over. I know I am experiencing it, yet I struggle with stopping it before it completely unfolds.
But, in retrospect, as I reflect upon the arrival and departure of anger after the fact, I have found myself asking, “What is anger, really?” What is this emotion? And, more importantly, where does it come from?
In my book, Rise Above Criticism, Negativity, and Conflict, I dive into the origin of negative emotions. I explore the core principles of nonviolent communication, where we learn that negative emotions simply arise from an inability to meet one’s own needs. And, of course, the “wrath” that sometimes accompanies our negative emotions in the form of hurtful words or actions, is usually our “tragic,” yet inadequate attempt to ask others to help us meet our needs.
So, I get it — anger comes as a result of an unmet need. But, what is “it” that we “need” which is actually leading to the anger? To me, this is the core question which will reveal the true nature of anger and help us understand what we can do to actually overcome it and (hopefully) eliminate it from our “arsenal” of emotions to make our lives and the lives of others more wonderful.
As I’ve taken the time to reflect upon this, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that anger arises when our expectations of an outcome that we desire are not met. Anger comes along when we want and expect a certain outcome, but we then realize that the outcome will either not be realized, or there is the possibility of that outcome not materializing. When we make this realization, anger rears its ugly head.
Based on this determination, anger comes from clinging to an expectation. If we can eliminate the expectation, we can eliminate the anger. However, eliminating expectation is not an easy task for any of us, especially when we’ve been conditioned to set goals and create visions of what we would like the future to hold for us. After all, successful people are the ones who establish goals and create vision boards and then work tirelessly to make it all happen. So, when does a person decide that their ambitions and expectations are doing more harm than good?
Here’s where we all need to do our part and reflect mindfully on our own source of anger. We need to take some time to think about where anger arises in our own lives and determine where that expectation resides, and what is its source.
For example, when I get angry as I’m trying to get my girls out of the house to get to school on time, my expectation to be out the door by a certain time on the clock is my hangup. I’m expecting to leave by that time, and if I don’t leave at that time, or events are transpiring which are making it obvious to me that we may not make it out of the house at that time, that’s when the anger arises for me.
I realize that the anger is directed at something that is predicated upon the actions and behaviors of my daughters. I have little control, other than my cheerleading and encouragement to keep moving forward and to keep getting ready. Sometimes that lack of control leads to frustration too.
So, what can we do when we realize that anger is coming as a result of expectation, and specifically, the expectation we hold which is not being met? We can start by ditching the expectation and replacing it with understanding.
What is understanding? For me, understanding is being mindful and empathic. Being mindful includes being totally aware of what is unfolding, realizing that things are unfolding because that’s the way it is happening, and being indifferent and unattached to an “idea” of how things “should” happen. There is no “should.” There is only what “is.”
Understanding in the form of empathy brings along with it an understanding of what is happening in the lives of other people. When I am empathic, I put myself into my daughter’s shoes (figuratively, not literally, of course) and think about how they may be tired, or how they may not be really into going to school that day. Maybe there’s a social situation that is on their minds and that’s occupying their thoughts. Perhaps they’re not feeling well. There’s a myriad of things that could be occurring that I am missing when I am fixated on meeting my own expectations and neglecting what’s happening in real time with my family members in the morning.
While it’s not an easy task, at least it’s an understandable and reasonable undertaking here. I know that anger comes from clinging to an expectation — our expectation. When I can eliminate expectation, and replace it with understanding in the form of mindfulness and empathy, I can not only see how I can overcome anger but also replace it with a much softer and more loving approach that benefits not only me but those I love and care about.
Do you have opportunities where you can inject more understanding into your life? Can you think of ways that you can be more mindful of what is transpiring at the present moment, and can you be more empathic and understanding of the situations in which others may find themselves, which is contributing to their actions and behaviors?
Perhaps if we all can make a more conscious effort to be more understanding when the opportunities arise, we can all make this world a much less angry and a much more loving place to live in, and we can serve as a positive example for others to follow. While it’s not easy, if we can expect less and understand more, we can bring to those around us a version of ourselves that motivates and empowers those we love and care about.