Posts from the ‘Assertiveness’ category

Anger can be a difficult emotion to experience. It is highly activating. It gives us adrenaline and energy to act – or REACT. It can be quite automatic and often feel out of our control.

In interpersonal situations, anger is an important messenger – it communicates to us that our boundaries have been crossed, feelings have been hurt, and it can motivate us to communicate our feelings and assert our boundaries. But anger can also be intoxicating. We can become overwhelmed by it and it can take on a life of it’s own, causing us to react and act out in ways that we may later regret.

Interestingly, there is often a more vulnerable feeling underneath our anger (like a hurt feeling, feeling disconnected from another, a need that wasn’t met, or not feeling heard, seen, or valued by another). Rather than feeling that “softer” more vulnerable feeling, anger comes in to protect us. And there is nothing wrong with protection, but when our angry reactions become habitual patterns leave us feeling worse, then they may no longer be so helpful. While the anger is valid, in that it is signalling a hurt, the volume (intensity) is just turned up a little too high. That is, the *feelings are valid,* but when we slow down the reaction, it give us more space to *respond more skillfully,* rather than succumb to old ways of reacting that may leave us feeling worse.

Mindfulness helps us to slow down this process and reflect on:
(1) what happened (the situation)
(2) the feelings experienced
(3) the thoughts (interpretation) of the situation
(4) the urges (in response to that interpretation)
(5) the action(s) we take
(6) the consequences of our action(s)

Our thoughts (interpretations) can be VERY convincing, especially with a whole lot of adrenaline behind them. But remember that not all thoughts are facts and that our perception is highly influenced by strong emotions.

Tara Brach, psychologist and mindfulness teacher discusses a mindful approach to anger, involving responding rather than reacting in her article and talk:

Communication… ahhh that thing we never learned in school… and did the best we could with based on what our parents modelled for us. The thing that we usually don’t think about until we have that conflict or major problems with friends, kids, family, partners, etc.

When we are feeling threatened, there is a natural protection mechanism that usually arises to prevent us from feeling that emotional discomfort. Unfortunately these well-intentioned protective mechanisms become bad habits and usually end up actually hurting us and our relationships in the long run.

David Burns lists several of these ‘communication pitfalls’ – any sound familiar?

– Defensiveness – instead of listening, defending ones own perspective

– Problem Solving – ignoring feelings and jumping to fixing mode

– Denial – pretending that the problem isn’t there

– Counter-attack – responding to criticism with criticism

– Hopelessness – claiming that you’ve tried everything and nothing works

– Blame – either blaming yourself or the other party completely

– Passive-aggression – say nothing, but pout or slam doors

These are just some of the 18 communication pitfalls David Burns lists, that many of us fall prey to during heated exchanges. He uses the acronym E.A.R. to remember the components of good communication:

E. EMPATHY. Acknowledging the other person’s feelings OR point of view (not the same as agreeing with them). Trying to jump into the other party’s shoes and see how they might be seeing the situation or feeling can be very disarming and help to soften communication and our feelings of threat.

A. ASSERTIVENESS. Clearly expressing your feelings and needs using “I” statements.

“I feel ________ when ________ happens”
“If _______ happened, I would feel ______”

R. RESPECT. Communicating with a tone of respect. Nothing gets our prickly side out quicker than an eye roll or condescending tone of voice.

Lastly, give yourself permission to TAKE A BREAK when emotions are too high and come back to the situation when both parties feel more calm.

More information on the “how to’s” of the EAR technique and podcast interview with David Burns here:

014: The Five Secrets of Effective Communication (Part 1)