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Getting Beneath Anger With Self-Awareness

Agressive businesswoman with boxing gloves ready for fightingIn my last blog post on the brain and its impact on our behavior, I highlighted the gap that exists between what is happening and how we can perceive that as a threat. In this post, I want to focus on the power that awareness has to circumvent that dynamic.

One of my coaching clients, a top-notch lawyer in an international firm, was heading up a country branch for her company. One day she received a copy of an email sent to one of her subordinates by another country manager. In her fellow country manager’s email, he offered to help the subordinate in my client’s office with the hiring of a local attorney.

My client’s immediate response was, “Why is this guy interfering with my office, trying to step into my territory and do my job? Is he trying to undermine me and show that I’m incompetent?”

In short, she felt threatened by the email, and her first response was anger. She was in the process of constructing the flaming email she was going to send back when we spoke. After talking, she realized that what was really going on beneath the anger was that she was not feeling that her competency and skills were being respected.

Instead of feeling threatened — which to her meant feeling in danger and powerless — she went to anger, which felt more powerful to her.

This is not an uncommon situation. We have a tendency to confuse the two. We respond with anger, when what we actually have is a perceived threat we are not aware of.

By taking the time to stop and notice the threat (not feeling respected and taken seriously) and recognize that this is often an underlying feeling for her, my client was able to see that she might have been projecting those motivations onto the situation.

In light of this, she decided to re-examine the email and the circumstances surrounding it. When she did, she remembered being at a meeting several weeks earlier, where she mentioned being overwhelmed and having staff working for her who needed assistance, but she couldn’t attend to. The offending country manager had offered to help at that meeting — something she had forgotten. The email he sent was his follow-up to that conversation.

The end result of her awareness, her willingness to look beneath the anger and consider the real threat, was that instead of sending him a flaming email, she ended up sending him a thank-you note.

The first thing to do is make a distinction between what we think we perceive and what is actually happening. They may not be the same thing. Noticing our reaction to a threat, instead of believing what our minds are saying in the moment, is one pathway to breaking the hold the more primitive part of our brains have on our emotional reactions.

What situations have you made worse by reacting from anger? What situations have you made better by bringing awareness to them before you acted out in anger? We would love to hear your comments.

15 thoughts on “Getting Beneath Anger With Self-Awareness

  1. Last Valentine’s day I had a special delivery of flowers that was to go to my wife at her work. When she got home I found out she never got them. I was about to burn up inside but I thought I better keep calm and just call the flower shop to see what happened. It turned out that the driver was in a bad wreck making a delivery and many orders were destroyed. He went to the hospital and so on (he was fine). Anyway, I realized that things happen and I was glad no one was seriously hurt. My wife understood about not getting any flowers and the florist more than made it up to us.

  2. Sounds like (or should I say reads like?) she is a bit paranoid. Maybe she knows she can do a better job and that someone is noticing that?

  3. I think that any married couple could name a dozen times when they reacted to anger and wish they didn’t! Stress in our lives brings out the worst in us and it is so important to take that step back and think before we act.

  4. My alalogy may be way off, but when I played baseball my coach always told me to not react immediately to the ball because you might misplay it. He always said I should take that first second and analyze the situation. This is the same for many things in life. Stop for a second and think about it before you misplay it.

  5. I can see how she felt the way she did. First off she said she felt overwhelmed. Big flag for not sure if you can do your job effectivley. If you are aware of that, then others can be too. If you start needed help to get things done, then that also means that you can’t do the job effectively. I think she needs more confidence in herself.

  6. Christine Miller

    My wife is so level headed. I sometimes wish she would react more angrily to situations! I guess I do enough of that for us.

  7. Thanks for reminding me to stop and think. It is so easy for me to react quickly to things rather than putting them in perspective first. A week doesn’t go by when I look back and wish I could have handled a few things differently.

  8. I think most people might think that someone is interfering in a situation like this. However, as in this case, it’s not always the situation. Glad she was able to see the realness of the offer for what it was.

  9. Maybe when someone offers help we should all be a little skeptical. Not sure if anyone’s job is safe anymore and I think that the was she reacted first was justified. Although, if she knows she is doing a good job, then maybe being upset isn’t justified. Just how I see it.

  10. Last year my son was in a fight and I immediately thought it was the other kids fault and I marched right in to the principal’s office. Wasn’t until I got all of the info that I found it wasn’t the kids fault. Another situation where I wish anger didn’t get the best of me.

  11. I work with people like that. Everytime you try to help they jump at you rather than stopping to think that your offereing help because you want to, not because they need it.

  12. As a teacher I get administrators and other teachers in my room watching me. I remember once when I was observed by a peer teacher and when she debriefed me she gave me a low score and of course I felt I needed a higher score. I immediately shut down and didn’t want to hear any more. Of course, when I finally took the time to see how I was scored I realized I actually deserved the score based on what she was observing and it really didn’t mean that I was doing a bad job or that I wasn’t a good teacher. I felt really bad. Now I always listen to all of it and then if I don’t like something or think differently, I politely state my side. Works much better.

  13. I think we all need to just stop and think about things sometime. Often we react very quickly to things and this seems like one of those situations. I’m glad she ended up sending the thank you note.

  14. Several years ago I was in charge of a small school and the board of directors had hired a consultant to come in assess the school. The week before he came he kept sending me emails about doing this and doing that. I got so fed up thinking who is this guy? This isn’t my job. I sent back a reply that I wish I never sent – basically telling him I didn’t have time. Well, when he finally came it was not exactly a pleasent visit and within a week I was let go. When I looked back at those emails later on I realized that he wasn’t really asking me to do all that much. Anger got the best of me that time.

  15. I have made just about every situation worse from anger. It was to the point where nobody even wanted to go out to eat with me because they were afraid I was going to complain. It took awhile, but now I realize that getting angry just put me and the other people around me in a bad mood. Not worth it!


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