This article was originally published by Forbes.
I recently found myself fuming in anger after my colleague “Crystal” dropped the ball. This was exciting, since anger is a difficult emotion for me to experience – and an even more challenging emotion for me to acknowledge. But it’s one that we all experience.
Anxiety and life coach Dr. Tim Kershenstine and I identified the following three strategies to move through anger at work in a healthy and productive way.
1. Recognize and accept that you’re angry.
Growing up, anger wasn’t an emotion that was easy for me to name. I could readily acknowledge feeling sad, frustrated, disappointed, or upset, but never angry.
It took Hurricane Katrina, a particularly unhealthy romantic relationship and a lot of therapy for this native New Orleanian to recognize and accept anger. Even since then, my default response to anger has been to get angry with myself – to get self-critical.
There may be a gendered cultural significance to this pattern, since it’s more socially acceptable for men to show anger outwardly than for women. Kershenstine posits that “The lack of cultural acceptance surrounding women’s anger may result in women turning that anger inward.”
Instead of lashing out or outwardly expressing my anger as a man might, I blame myself.
My natural critical inclination sounded like this:
I can’t believe I was so naive to let Crystal take the lead on this process. I should’ve followed my instincts, touched base more often and voiced my concern when I first saw a potential red flag. Instead I just let her lead the way, which ended with me getting screwed over.
It’s not exactly an inner monologue that’s rich with self-compassion.
Kershenstine advises that “When you acknowledge anger, you can consciously choose what to do with it rather than simply reacting from it.”
My default reaction of self-criticism keeps things bottled up and turns the anger inward in an unhealthy way. Awareness of my anger about the situation allowed me to stop myself in the trap of self-doubt and strive to make a different, more conscious choice.
2. Allow yourself to actually feel angry.
After I realized I was angry, I found myself telling a friend, “It’s not constructive for me to be angry with Crystal.”
I was trying to shift into a positive perspective, which Kershenstine told me essentially suppresses my anger.
Here’s what my efforts to override my anger with positivity (suppression) sounded like:
Since I need Crystal to step up and do her job moving forward, being angry with her is counterproductive to my goals. Having a difficult conversation at this juncture just exhausts me, so it’s ineffective to be angry.
This may have been a rational argument to attempt to squash my anger. However, as the authors of the book Difficult Conversations write, “It doesn’t matter if your feelings are reasonable or rational. What matters is that they’re there.” They go on to write, “Feelings are too powerful to remain peacefully bottled. They will be heard one way or another, whether in leaks or bursts.”
My takeaway: don’t focus on the rational, socially acceptable response first.
I needed to sit with my anger for a little while without trying to fix it or problem solve – to first acknowledge and accept that I was angry and then to actually BE angry.
Actually experiencing anger sounded like this:
Crystal’s the expert. This is infuriating. I’m angry with her and at the situation. [Expletive, expletive, expletive] She really screwed me over. She was irresponsible and didn’t do what she committed to. She over-promised, got my hopes up, and then screwed me over. [Expletive]
Kershenstine cautions that, “Some people get trapped by their anger, and if we hold onto it, anger can be a very destructive force.”
For me and others who struggle to tap into anger, connecting to and accepting it allows us to move through it rather than turning it inward or suppressing it.
For those who tend to make others the target of their anger, acknowledgement of the emotion can allow them to channel it into a healthier direction rather than lashing out.
I embraced anger by talking through it and journaling about it, and I found that the emotion organically dissipated and released.
3. Strategize about how to proceed.
After the anger subsided naturally, I found myself far more at ease. I was still frustrated and disappointed by the experience, but it had lost much of its intensity and frenetic energy.
Here’s my rational evaluation of the situation, after anger had dissipated:
I don’t think Crystal deliberately misrepresented anything. She was overly optimistic and got my hopes up. This is an opaque process. Perhaps there was more she could have done, but you don’t actually know that, and there’s not a lot that can be done now. You learned a ton from this experience. You can either have the difficult conversation or just be more proactive in the future.
In the past, the feelings of stress, self-doubt or frustration would have lingered. It’s surprising to me how calmly I reconnected with an authentic feeling of optimism and acceptance.
Despite a few decades of being a human, anger still feels like a new emotion and almost delights me when I notice it. When I can allow myself to be present with it, I sometimes think, “Oh, I know what this is! I’m angry. Fun!”
As you reflect about your relationship with anger, or whatever emotion may be difficult to tap into, consider what your default patterns are and what it would take to move through the emotion in real time.