How self-awareness is the key to dealing with anger (or the tortoise and the hedgehog)

There are people who seem to get angry at the drop of a hat. I am one of those people. When I was teaching at the University of Warwick I went on an Emotional Development course which enabled me to become aware of my feelings, amongst other things. This course definitely had an effect as, afterwards, one of my students asked me what had happened to me.  She said, ‘where’s it all gone?’. ‘Where has what all gone?’  I asked ‘All that anger’ she said. She described me as having been like a ‘threshing machine’ She said, ‘You seemed to chew people up and spit them out’. This was news to me and I was horrified as the last thing I wanted was to intimidate my students. How could I be this oblivious to what I was putting out? 

I am not sure what changed my behaviour, but I think it was probably having the opportunity, on that course, to reveal my ‘dark’ side to a room full of people who listened with total acceptance. I was able to become aware of my deepest feelings and be more in control of them. I was able to be reflective in a safe environment and ask myself, ‘what am I really angry about and where does this anger really belong?’ rather than reacting. It has proved a useful experience which contributes to my work with people who seek my intervention with their problems, especially problems with anger (in themselves and others) and has also helped enormously with my relationships. 

As children we often experience situations that are damaging and hurtful but we can seldom understand the reason for it. We may experience abandonment, rejection, hurtful criticism, emotional withdrawal by others or physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Small children do not have the vocabulary to express their feelings when these things happen to them. They possibly experience an underlying sense of shame and guilt or anger when this happens. If these feelings cannot be expressed, (have words put to them) they cannot be dealt with and so lie contained within us, being triggered into expression by similar incidents that happen in our adolescent or adult lives. If parents have never learned to express themselves in this way, this then they cannot facilitate this development in their offspring. 

Since we never developed the vocabulary to explore these feelings as children we react automatically; our response is to ‘act them out’ i.e. demonstrate how we feel rather than explaining. Many incidents can awaken these stored-up feelings.  In my case it might be that I’m feeling inadequate, or, stupid or bad if I make a mistake. I was made to feel stupid or bad when I made mistakes as a child, or even when I did not make one. If you cannot relieve these feelings by expressing them verbally the only choice is to demonstrate them. Children may kick, scream, sulk, withdraw, bully others and have ‘tantrums’. I wonder if you know adults who do that too? Donald Trump comes to mind with regards to the tantrums. 

This (not surprisingly) does not contribute to good relationships. People around you are often left wondering what they have done, but because of their childhood experiences they can have varied responses e.g. withdrawing out of feelings of injustice; getting angry in turn, for the same reason; attempting to pacify because they are scared and think they really must have done something terrible. None of these responses work because they do not alleviate the feelings being acted out by the other. 

One couple describe themselves as ‘the tortoise and the hedgehog’. When threatened the hedgehog curls up and shows her spines. This threatens the tortoise who withdraws within his shell. The hedgehog is then frustrated because she is being ignored and her feelings are not being addressed. She becomes even more angry. There is no way the tortoise is coming out of his shell until the war is over and the guns cease firing! That might take a long time. 

It is not hopeless, although it might seem so. The hedgehog needs to learn how to express her angry feelings in a way that does not threaten the tortoise and the tortoise needs to be brave and tell the hedgehog how intimidated he feels by her anger. Simple isn’t it? Well no it isn’t I’m afraid. It takes a large degree of self-awareness and work on yourself to be in touch with your feelings enough to communicate effectively. Because others around you are often unaware of your childhood traumas (and therefore triggers) they can walk into a minefield of explosive emotions. 

We also need to discover where these ‘survival strategies’ came into being and what was the basis of them. What is the hedgehog really angry about and who with? What do the actions of the tortoise remind her of? Why is the tortoise so afraid of her disapproval? Discovering the answer to these questions can help people to see that they are not ‘bad’ people, but people who just did not have an early environment that fostered self-awareness and was conducive to the development of a full and fluent emotional vocabulary. 

These questions and their solutions can all be addressed by the emotional education workshops, courses and coaching offered by the Centre. If you recognise yourself in these scenarios, or maybe even if you don’t, the work you can do with the staff at the Centre will help you to change some of your responses and strengthen your relationships with others. You can bet that it is not only in intimate relationships that these responses occur, it is also in your relationships at work and with friends. So, workshops, courses and coaching may be extremely enlightening and transform your relationships on all fronts. Why not give it a go?

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