When Enemies Appear: Untangling Our Anger

Eva Hamer
August 30, 2023

These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC

The Gist:

  • Understanding Anger: This blog post introduces an exercise to understand and channel anger, which can be both a protective force and an overwhelming emotion. It shares a personal example of how the exercise helped diminish a recurring pattern of anger.
  • Practical Use of Anger: The post emphasizes that anger is sometimes necessary, such as for protection, and the exercise is not meant to eliminate it entirely but to manage it when it is not serving you well.
  • Goal of the Exercise: The practice is designed to guide the reader from blame and anger towards empathy and understanding, whether or not the object of the anger is still present in the person’s life. It's relevant in both personal relationships and activism.
  • Self-Empathy Process: The post starts with a self-empathy process that involves understanding one's judgments, observations, feelings, and needs, a process that may be repeated if emotions escalate.
  • Understanding the Other: After self-empathy, the exercise leads into understanding the other person's observations, feelings, and needs. If emotions are triggered, the reader is encouraged to return to self-empathy.
  • Requests: The final stage includes identifying any requests or commitments, recognizing that external actions might not always be necessary or possible. The shift in emotional understanding may itself be a powerful resolution.

Anger is powerful and can be a massive force for protection and positive change. But sometimes, anger can feel too big for our bodies to hold without hurting us. Until I discovered this exercise, I was often kept up at night stewing with anger, sometimes toward people whose supposed violations occurred years ago. When I learned this exercise, developed by Miki Kashtan, I resolved to get up out of bed in those moments and journal it. I knew that when I was stuck in these states, something that really calmed me down would be the fastest way to get to sleep, even if it took an hour. 

I imagined a long future of this strange practice, seeing myself slipping out of shared hotel rooms and coming up with explanations for my 2AM journaling for years to come. After all, this pattern was strong and I had a seemingly endless supply of sparks to ignite my late-night smoldering (though generally, when I brought these same situations to mind during the day, they weren’t nearly as charged). 

I think I got out of bed for the exercise twice in the first couple of weeks, and the pattern hasn’t existed since. I was astonished at the efficiency with which I had untangled my anger at the “enemies” who appeared in the night.

You Might Need Your Anger

This exercise involves extending silent empathy for someone who’s the object of your anger, in order to soften anger and blame. You don’t need me to tell you not to do it if your anger is helping you in some way, such as by protecting you from returning to an abusive partner. As with all practice, start at a lower intensity to get a sense of how the exercise can work for you. 

What is it for?

This is a practice that seeks to guide us from blame and anger towards understanding and compassion, even if the other person is no longer accessible. The goal is to experience a softening of fury and an ability to imagine, even if we don’t agree with, another’s perspective. There are two main applications I’m suggesting. 

  1. When your anger isn’t meeting your needs, such as in my example above.
  2. When the object of your anger is someone with whom your relationship is important. This could be another activist, a family member, or an adversary in your activism, like a dismissive powerholder or a member of the public you talk to during outreach. 

Self-Empathy First

Before diving into the process of understanding another's perspective, it's crucial to start with yourself. This process is explained in more detail in Part 5

  • Judgments and Feelings: Write out your story about the situation, allowing yourself to vent. 
  • Observations: Identify the actual facts of the situation that triggered you.
  • Feelings: Name your feelings and sensations, noticing how they shift when you do.
  • Needs: Reflect on the underlying needs related to your feelings and observations.

Repeat this self-empathy process anytime you get escalated during the exercise. If we’re working on something that really needs untangling, you’ll probably do this a handful of times. It’s likely that some different observations, feelings, and needs will come up each time. 

The Other Person's Perspective

Once you’ve softened from practicing self-empathy, you can begin to explore the other person's perspective. Even inviting yourself to do this might cue up more anger. If that’s the case, return to self-empathy. When you’re ready, consider the following, paying close attention to any shift in how you’re holding anger and blame.  

  • The Other Person's Observations: Try to view the situation from their eyes, identifying what they might have observed.
  • The Other Person's Feelings: What feelings might they have experienced? It’s okay that this is a guess. If you feel triggered, return to self-empathy.
  • The Other Person's Needs: Contemplate the needs that might have been present for them. Hold each need you identify in your mind for a while, imagining what it’s like for them to have that need unmet. If you can, connect with a part of yourself that wants that need met for the other person, even if you continue to disagree with the way they tried to meet that need. 

Identify Requests

Once you've experienced a shift in your emotional stance, consider any requests you might have of yourself or the other person. These might be internal commitments or external actions, depending on the situation. Recognize that it might not always be possible or necessary to take external action. The practice itself, the shift from blame to understanding, can be a powerful resolution.

What if it didn’t work?

If your anger still feels escalated after this exercise, consider which needs your anger might be meeting for you. In what ways are you better off for having anger or blame? Is anger protecting you from something dangerous, preserving your sense of dignity, or fueling your work? Allow for the possibility that you can choose anger as a strategy to meet these needs. 

Softening the Edges

"When Enemies Appear" is an invitation to travel from the turmoil of blame and anger to a place of understanding and compassion. By starting with self-empathy and then extending that empathy to the other person, we soften our hard edges and open ourselves to connection and understanding. This process is not always easy or quick, but it is a powerful tool for reconciliation. Even when the other person is no longer in our lives, this practice remains relevant for offering a resolution for ourselves. 

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