A Coaching Power Tool Created by Tineke Tammes
(Career Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
Generally speaking, if a human being never shows anger, then I think something’s wrong. He’s not right in the brain. Dalai Lama
When choosing my power tool it was clear all along that my power tool would be about anger. Anger has always been an integral part of me. But when I was growing up anger was not an emotion girl expressed, it was not done, not ‘ladylike’.
Throughout my life, anger has continued to burn. Anger at a society that wants women to be ‘nice’ (and isn’t that a word you don’t want to see on your gravestone!), a society that doesn’t acknowledge women’s anger or even belittles it. Anger at a family who – embarrassedly – laughed at their angry little girl, rather than trying to understand her. Anger at the path that was pretty much carved out. Anger at injustice. Anger at workplaces where men are seen to be ‘decisive’ when expressing anger, but women are dismissed as ‘unstable’. And anger at myself, for not understanding why I was feeling the way I did.
As I got older I began to understand much better what this anger was. And I learned to manage and even use my anger. Because anger is a force, a motivator. Anger makes you fearless. Anger makes you say and do things you would never have done otherwise…
…which of course can also be the problem!
Grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear. Zora Neale Hurston
So, what is the problem?
Everyone gets angry. It’s normal to feel angry from time to time. And anger in itself is not a bad thing. Anger gives you a clear indication that something is wrong. Someone might have violated one of your values. Someone might have overstepped your boundaries. Anger activates your ‘fight or flight’ mechanism and overcomes your fear which enables you to defend yourself. Anger is also a powerful motivator. For example, if you have a strong sense of justice, anger might be the motivator that makes you take action to improve the situation.
However, I see three scenarios where anger becomes a problem:
- Anger turning inward - You have been so adept at suppressing your anger that you no longer recognise it for what it is. You don’t express your anger, but instead, it turns inward. You use your anger to chastise and punish yourself. This can lead to you losing sight of what you want or even of who you are, and becoming frustrated even more with not being able to express what it is that you want. Sometimes your anger can lead to excessive stress and even make you ill!
- Anger is expressed in an uncontrolled way - You are not aware of your anger, are therefore not able to control it and out it comes, at times when you could do without! (Interesting fact: 65% of office workers have experienced office rage, 45% of staff regularly lose their tempers at work! - source: British Association for Anger Management). Needless to say that this can cause harm to yourself and also to your relationships.
- Anger is expressed in a controlled way but not to your benefit - Sometimes you are aware of your anger, but you are using it in the wrong way. For instance, you always get angry about the same thing, but nothing really changes.
Harriet Lerner, the psychologist, describes this very well in her book ‘The Dance of Anger’. In this book – which I have returned to again and again during the last twenty years – she describes how women use their anger in behavioural patterns that keep the status quo in their family relationships in place. Reasons for this could be that they want to protect their loved ones or that they are afraid of dealing with the profound changes that changed behaviour might bring about.
When researching my power tool I ran into a dilemma. Because what is the opposite of anger? What different perspective would allow you to use the positive aspects of anger (the energy, the ability to overcome your fears – even if only temporarily) whilst managing and controlling the more damaging aspects of anger (anger turning inward, losing control, damaging relationships)? I looked at this from different perspectives:
- Opposite emotions
There are a number of theories about how many emotions there are, ranging from 4 (fear, grief, love and rage, William James, 1890) to 154 different basic emotions (Tiffany Watt-Smith, 2017). In Robert Plutchnik’s Wheel of Emotions (1980) model emotions can be mild or intense (e.g. rage is an intensive form of anger). In his model anger is posed opposite to fear. And whilst I believe that you – temporarily at least – can overcome fear with your anger, I don’t believe it works the other way around where fear is the empowering perspective that would overcome anger!
Others believe that the answer is love, calmness, happiness or gratitude. And whilst all these emotions can be the outcome of work to understand and manage your anger it didn’t quite provide me with the active change in perspective that I was after.
- Underlying emotions
Anger has been identified by Paul Ekman as one of the five “basic emotions” in his ‘Atlas of Emotions’ (anger, disgust, fear, sadness, enjoyment). However, some believe that anger is a secondary emotion, that anger is an expression of embarrassment, loneliness, exhaustion, or fear. I believe that – to an extent – this could be true. When examining what really is triggering anger, it might well turn out that it is trying to protect some of the raw hurt feelings that might be hiding underneath.
However, I wanted to deal with the emotion of anger in its own right, and delving into what might be lying underneath might have led to very different perspectives, outside the boundaries of this power tool altogether!
Anger is often equated to behaviour. In this view anger is an action. It is being violent, or being passive-aggressive, or using our rage to intimidate people into doing what we want. But anger is a feeling first, and action later.
So, are there behaviours that we can adopt that would be the ‘answer’ to the positive perspective question? Well, let’s see.
You could control anger. Everyone agrees that uncontrolled anger is, not a good thing. Controlling anger, however, can lead to suppressing anger with potential damage to mental as well as physical health.
So, what to do? Anger is a normal emotion, and acknowledging this is the first step in starting to get to grips with anger. Understanding your anger – what it is, how it manifests itself, and what triggers it is next. And in a lot of anger management courses they teach you how to manage your anger – what you can do to calm yourself down, distract yourself, so that anger doesn’t overwhelm you. However, this – in my view – dismisses some of the positive aspects of anger, namely the creative energy and the (controlled) fearlessness that anger provides you.
No, for you to use your anger for your benefit it is not enough to just manage your anger. Instead, you need to harness it. If you harness something such as an emotion or natural source of energy, you bring it under your control and use it. By harnessing your emotion, as your anger, you can choose to put it to good use, rather than letting it control you.
Choice vs Anger
And this small little word, choose, finally determined the title for my power tool: Choice vs Anger.
Some people believe that anger is ‘better in than out’ and that you feel better when you have expressed your anger. I don’t believe this. Expressing your anger without a filter is a sign of immaturity in dealing with your emotions. If you do this you let your emotions rule you, not the other way around. I believe we all have the choice to consider what we do with our emotions. Emotions are part of us, but they don’t need to rule us. We have a choice.
Earlier in this document, I described three scenarios, where anger could become problematic:
- Anger turning inward
- Anger is expressed in an uncontrolled way
- Anger is expressed in a controlled way but not to your benefit
What would these situations look like if you chose to manage and even harness your anger?
- Anger turning inward
A lot of times people – and especially women – don’t even know that they are angry. They start blaming themselves for things that happen. They internalise their feelings of anger. If they chose to manage their emotions they would become much more self-aware of what their emotions are telling them, and could make an active choice to stop pointing their anger inwards. Once it is clear what their emotions are telling them they can make informed choices about what it is that they want to do next.
- Anger is expressed in an uncontrolled way
These people have no filter on their emotions. What comes in their head is the truth and therefore has to come out. They might need counselling to understand where their anger comes from and how to manage their anger.
If they chose to manage and harness their anger they would – when their anger flares up – be able to recognise the feelings when they happen and make better choices on how to act on these feelings.
- Anger is expressed in a controlled way but not to your benefit
How often have you had the same argument, with your partner, your boss, your kids, your mum? About the housework, money, roles and responsibilities? If you continue doing what you’ve always done, you will get what you always got!
People in this situation know they are angry, but choose to have the same argument all the time, with predictably similar results. Instead, they could harness their anger and choose to behave differently, which could then lead to different behaviour from others.
For example, if you have had the same useless argument with your spouse over and over again, you might want to use that energy instead to come up with strategies that actually satisfy your needs. You probably need to change your behaviour, which in turn might lead to your spouse changing their behaviour. This needs careful consideration, as there might be reasons why you have kept the status quo in place in the first place!
So, what can you do to get to a stage where you can manage your anger and harness it? You can use the following techniques:
- Practice mindfulness - By practising mindfulness you will become more aware of the fact that your thoughts and emotions are just that, thoughts and emotions. You feel them, you think them, you let them go. They do not define you. Also, by practising mindfulness you become more aware of where you feel your feelings in your body.
- Journaling - I’ve found journaling the most valuable technique to becoming self-aware. Writing down what you are feeling is not a waste of paper (as I thought for many many years). I’ve found that it’s an absolute necessity to be able to write, without restrictions, what’s on your mind, what thoughts are popping in your head, what you’re feeling. It leads to you feeling calmer and more composed, it frees your mind of clutter and opens your mind to new solutions.
- Understand your values and your triggers - For you to understand what ‘triggers’ your anger you first need to understand your values. What do you believe strongly in? What ‘gets’ you every time someone oversteps your boundaries? What are your boundaries?
- Know your strengths - Understanding your strengths allows you to accept yourself and to support yourself in making different choices.
- Self-acceptance - Understand who you are and accept yourself. You are you, and you are good enough. You are also not your emotions. Be thankful for your emotions, they are there to protect you and warn you, but don’t let them rule you.
- Practice making choices - A powerful tool that I was once given was to write down three things that you chose (to do) that day. Or ‘how did you express the fact that you have choices’. A variation on the ‘gratitude journal’, this teaches you to become more aware of where you have the ability to make different choices.
‘I realized that if my thoughts immediately affect my body, I should be careful about what I think. Now if I get angry, I ask myself why I feel that way. If I can find the source of my anger, I can turn that negative energy into something positive.’ Yoko Ono
Anger is a very powerful emotion. One that can be firmly based on someone’s past or has a mental health element to it. As a coach, we always have to be mindful of this and refer someone to a mental health professional or counsellor if that is what’s required.
However, if a client is angry about something and wants to get out of the negative cycle of anger, there are lots that we can do as coaches to support clients to make more positive choices. Below is a selection of some of the questions we can ask to understand where the client is and where he or she wants to go.
Questions you can ask are:
- What emotions are you feeling? Where in your body do you feel these emotions? How do you know when you feel these emotions?
- What are your values? How will you know when someone tramples on your values?
- What triggers your anger? How does someone behave? What is happening? What ‘gets’ to you every time someone oversteps your boundaries?
- What is the cost of getting angry?
- What would happen if nothing changed?
- What options do you have to make changes?
- What would need to change to choose a different option the next time you are ‘triggered’?
- What can you do to make sure that you don’t react straight away?
- What can you take responsibility for?
- What is out of your control?
- What can you do to use your feelings to make a positive difference for yourself?
- What do you value about yourself? What do you believe strongly in? What strengths do you have? How could you use those strengths to make different choices?
- What support do you have to make these changes?
There are a number of considerations:
- Clients who are experiencing anger will not be able to move forward on other subjects. It is therefore essential that anger is addressed before moving forward.
- We need to be conscious not to get drawn into the situation (‘he said, she said’), rather than coaching the person.
- It might not always be clear what the client is feeling. He or she might have buried their feelings and emotions for such a long time that they may have trouble articulating them.
- Feelings of anger might cover other emotions like loneliness or fear. It is important to find out what is really going on.
- As a coach, it is vital to regularly check in with yourself. Anger is a powerful emotion that you are not immune to yourself! If something triggers you during a coaching session you need to be aware of this and let go of this anger before it affects how you listen to your client and how you can support your client. It’s not about you!
I firmly believe that anger is an emotion that we should be grateful for. Anger warns you, of someone overstepping your boundaries, of your values being compromised. It overrides fear and provides you with the ability to stand up for what you believe in. Anger is also a motivating power that energises you to do things that you might otherwise not have done.
Anger can be a devastating power as well, that can damage you and your health and your relationships at work and at home.
However, you have a choice to use this power for your benefit! By acknowledging, recognising, managing and harnessing your anger you can do things that you might otherwise be too fearful to do.
In this power tool, I’ve tried to convey some of my experiences and some of the experiences with – especially – women’s anger. There are masses of websites, courses, art therapy courses and mental health associations that deal with anger management. And as I said above in this document, if anger is firmly rooted in the past or if there is a mental health issue at play, then it is our role as coaches to refer clients to counselling. However, there are lots of ways in which coaches can help people to acknowledge their anger and turn it into a force for the good.
References and further reading:
The Dance of Anger, Harriet G. Lerner, HarperCollins Publishers, 1989
Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1995