Susan Kaplan

Change Your Face of Anger

by Susan Kaplan, M.S.W., M.P.A.

© 2006

What does your face of anger look like? Are you feel stuck in a pattern of anger? Repeating cycles of anger can eventually wear you down. Sometimes our loses happen before we even realize that our anger has gotten in the way, as seen in the following stories:

The Ass’s Shadow

A traveler hired a donkey and a driver to take him to the next town.

They stopped to rest and the sun was beating down. The traveler sat in the donkey’s shadow, where there was room for only one person.

“Get up, I want to sit there,” said the donkey’s owner. “You hired the donkey, not his shadow.”

“Nonsense,” replied the traveler. “When I hired the donkey that included it’s shadow.”

While the two men were arguing, the donkey ran off.

Thus - In quarreling about the shadow we often lose the substance

An Aesop Fable (source: Peace Tales, by Margaret Read MacDonald’s)

Exploding Fireworks - Exploding Words

When my son was five years old, he had a best friend of four years. Our families developed a strong friendship. Imagine my surprise when they showed up with sparklers as a birthday gift! I had made it clear that fireworks scared me and her gift was such an insult. Our words exploded like fireworks, as I stated, “I am shocked that you brought these!”

“You are so protective. These aren’t fireworks, just don’t overreact.” she replied, “Why are you treating me like I did something wrong?”

We expressed our anger at the door for another five minutes. Then they left. I continued our conversation in my head and heart for many months afterward, waiting for her to call and apologize. In retrospect, I think she was waiting for an apology too.

The relationship just stopped. No calls, no communication. Weeks went by, turning into months and then years. Finally I realized that we had both overreacted. I called to apologize and was secretly hoping she would also apologize. My call was met with coolness. All that time of replaying the situation over and over in my head and heart, we had lost precious time. Like the donkey running away, our relationship was completely gone.

This article is a two part series on anger. How we manage anger depends on our relationship we have with our own anger. We wrestle with ourselves and others as we identify and then redefine what anger looks like, choosing to act differently. The first stage of Listening and Understanding your anger is the focus of this article. Followed with a second article on Release and Action, this series will support a daily practice of peace.

Listen to your Anger

You always seem to find what you are looking for. Are you listening for peace or for anger? There is an exercise I use in my workshops to help people open up their listening. Play along with me.

Look around the room and find all the items which are the color red. Take a quick scan and then look back at the computer. Now....without looking around you, can you tell me where all the objects which are green are located? Everyone groans, caught in their unexpected blindness. When we are listening for a particular thing, we often miss something important. As you begin to work on anger, be open to listening on many levels and explore the meaning you attach to anger.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, invites us to see our anger as a baby we are holding in our arms. Look at your baby and learn what the baby’s crying means. This attention to the baby translates into turning your attention towards your anger to learn what your anger is trying to tell you. This type of listening for feelings and needs requires that you listen on many levels. Give yourself time to observe listen and understand.

Avoid dumping, blaming, name calling, negative self talk, assumptions, and all the other ways we judge ourselves and others. Judgments only serve to escalate your anger towards yourself and/or others. Focus on just observing your anger. Rather than making judgment statements, ask questions like “Does this work in the short run? Does it work in the long run? How does this anger get in my way or help me get what I want and need?”

Expand your listening skills by reading Zen of Listening, by Rebecca Shafir, and, The Sacred Art of Listening, and Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening, by Kay Lindahl . Use the following areas to help you listen to your “face of anger”. After you develop this initial understanding, you will be ready for the second stage of releasing your anger in a healthy manner and choosing positive peaceful action.

The Four Levels of Anger

Begin with an inventory of how anger shows up in your daily life. Use the four levels of body, mind, heart and soul as a pathway to identify your “face of anger”. Consider these levels as an internal living system within yourself, as each area can interact with another and all levels can change. Ideas are listed for each level to help you begin to identify what anger looks like.


muscle tension in shoulders or neck; headaches; sore stomach; swallow breathing; teeth grinding; overeating or under eating; excessive drinking, exercise, use of electronics or drugs; sleeping too much or not enough; throwing things; slam doors; drive fast; depression; being late; taking up too much or not enough space; “fight or flight” response; illness; inability to relax; lack of appropriate touch; inappropriate or rough touch; no enjoyment of sex life; rapid heart beat; turn away from; stand over.


words used for criticism, blaming, name calling, etc.,; planning revenge; negative internal dialogue (self talk) towards others and/or self; focus on past - list all past wrongs; focus on future - this will ruin your life; strategize how to change the other person; talk with others to get them on your side; gather evidence; “I am right!”; re-play incident over and over; argue; “stories” to explain why you are a victim or not responsible; gossip; talk behind someone’s back; take control to do it right; agree to do something and then not doing it; act intellectually superior; prolonged silence; sarcasm; laugh at not with.


tired or closed heart; lack of expression of other emotions, i.e. playfulness, sadness, joy; difficulty in expressing healthy range of emotions; closed ears to self and others; judgments of other or self; crying or yelling; still a victim; emotionally distant from self or others; does not listen to intuition; feeling isolated from others because they don’t understand you; narrow focus in life; waiting for life to begin; no energy; exhausted; lack of passion for doing what you love; relives emotions over and over; lack of creativity - we have always done it this way; hides behind culture; hides from own culture.


disconnected from others; not connected to nature; angry at G-d; can not see the divine or sacred in others; inability to dance; no enjoyment in life; can not see beauty; blind to interconnectedness; shrinking spiritual life; isolation; drawing energy inside; narrow life focus; righteous - my way is right; hide within religion or spiritual life; kick the dog or let the plants die; use child to get back at other parent; overspend money; addiction to information and computer.

Take a moment to write down how anger shows up in each of these levels in your daily life. Give yourself time to observe yourself and make note of the more subtle forms of anger. Remember to observe and avoid judgments. These four levels are important expressions of your internal and external life.

Building Blocks for Anger

Your internal system also includes additional building blocks of experience, meaning you give to those experiences, values, beliefs and external influences. Consider how each of these areas has influenced your past and present anger.


‘slow’ or ‘quick to’ anger style

hold onto grudges or let go quickly

introvert or extrovert

effects of birth order

do you keep a love book or hate book?

any issues, labels, and challenges or celebrations

your story bag of life stories - what happened when you got angry, how

you have gotten your needs met, the meaning of your feelings,

and the influence and meaning of significant life events


how anger was and is expressed, i.e. things flying through the air verses silence

What was ok to express and not to express?

What was in control and out of control anger?

family story bag of stories: family heroes, how anger served the family history,

forgiveness, and healthy expression of a range of emotions

cultural & ethnic:

significant cultural or ethnic history which influences anger

we can carry collective anger from our cultural or ethnic heritage - what does it look like?

how does your cultural group express anger?

cultural focus on community verses individual

religious & spiritual:

the meaning your religious or spiritual teachings give to anger and expression of anger

geographical connections:

relationship to nature

influences of the region and/or city


Can you see how your anger has been affected by these areas? For example, if you were labeled as a wild child, did that mean you could be loud and expansive in your anger? If your cultural background includes values of obedience, did you express anger at all? Have you changed the meaning of anger and how to express it over time?

Feelings and Needs as a Guide

Anger is always the second emotion, with primary feelings underneath. An anger mask can easily distract you from understanding what feelings you have. During a Stories for Peace Family program, one teenager shared her anger at the amount of homework she had to do each night. She did not need to do any house chores after school! Her father spoke angrily about her daughter’s procrastination. Now there seemed to be two problems - the initial problem of needing to get chores done and an argument between them!

By looking underneath their anger, we find a range of emotions. The parent and child could be feeling: tired, neglected, frustrated, love, overwhelmed, or even silly. Feelings just are - there is no right or wrong. Their feelings give direction on how they might resolve this situation, without the verbal violence of an argument. Feelings reveal to us needs - often unmet needs - connected to the situation. Stay in the present and focus on how to meet the needs of both.

In this case, the parent needs help with the house chores. The child needs to do homework. Now their argument can shift to a discussion on when to schedule time for both chores and homework. A brainstorm on how to set up this schedule will enable both to respond differently to each other and the situation. A win-win for both!

Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion and Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, has powerful information on how to identify both feelings and needs, and, specific nonviolent language to talk about getting those needs met. These techniques reflect a paradigm shift with the goal to create meaningful and peaceful relationships between people. After you understand feelings & needs, and, empathize with each other, you have already released some of your anger and are on the way towards a more peaceful daily life!

Responsibility of Self

Some people grow larger as they demand the other person change, while others shrink as a victim as they wait to be saved. Do you take too much responsibility or not enough responsibility? How do you maintain peaceful rhythms in your life? You can keep anger going with constant fuel on the fire or let go of anger with clear choices to respond differently. Responsibility can be broken down into response - ability: increase your ability to respond to your own anger pattern and that of others.

How much energy do you focus on unresolved anger? Imagine how much energy you would have if you responded differently and took that energy to get your needs met in a positive manner! Your internal belief, about what options or responses you have, can be empowering in your life or overpowering of your life.

Systems In Your Life

In addition to your own internal system, you are also a member of external systems, such as your family, friendship groups, neighborhood, school, classroom, workplace, geographical region, spiritual affiliation, and our planet to name just a few! These circles of relationships vary for each person, with each circle a unique patter of interaction, values, and language. Some of these systems are healthy, allowing you to feel safe to be yourself, while in other systems you may want to protect yourself.

Observe how you act in each of these life circles - how do you express anger in each? Are there different values and expectations? Do any of the systems encourage healthy expression of all types of feelings and needs? Are you able to engage in creative problem solving and supported decision making? What type of support do your experience? Do you feel a congruence between your circles, meaning that you do and feel similar things in all of them? Or are you balancing differences and feel an incongruence among your systems? Sometimes we release our anger by leaving or changing a system we are connected with.

Loses & Gains

Many years ago I was in a high energy nonprofit agency working as a trainer. Often I butted heads with the Director, who was an impressive woman and master teacher. Night after night I carried anger home because I could not develop new curriculum for the training program. When my kids told me that “I was always angry” I stopped in my tracks. I was losing precious time with and connection to my family. My mind was constantly revisiting disagreements and I was grinding my teeth. Tired of being a victim, my heart felt heavy and closed off. So focused on what was not happening in my life, I missed being present to my daily life. What I gained was the safety of not having to actually plan my future, make a clear decision on what I wanted to do next, and face the fears of developing my own private work. Instead of working on getting my needs met, I was stuck in a circle of anger and unmet needs. With mindfulness, courage and support from my family and friends, I did move on! What fresh energy and positiveness came into my life when I began to let go of anger!

Take a moment to recall a specific person or situation from which you still hold or carry anger. Consider how your anger is serving your life right now. What do you lose from staying angry? What do you gain from staying angry?

Focus your attention

In an Alternatives to Suspension class for middle school students, I taught six boys the yoga position of the warrior. Laughing, they pushed each other off balance and called each other names, obviously revealing their discomfort. Eventually all the boys tried the warrior position.

“How can you use this pose when you get really angry?” I asked them. “If you can learn to focus your energy (stop reacting and stand still), you can visualize where you want to put that energy (looking out over your forward hand) and make a decision to do something different. This takes more strength than fighting.” The session ended with the boys’ jokes about going into warrior posture during a fight with the local gang members. At the next session, one of the boys proudly exclaimed, “I love being a peace warrior! When my dad started to yell at me about something, I went into the bathroom, locked the door, and stood there like a warrior. It calmed me down! I don’t want to be like my dad cause I’m tired of always yelling.”

There is a chinese saying: “You will end up where you are going, unless you take another path.”

In the second part of this series, we will use your listening and understanding to define how you want to release your anger and the actions you want to take. The article will continue on with warning signs, how to release anger on the four levels of body, mind, heart, and soul, skills, and how to use your observations to revision where you want to be in your life. Design what your daily practice of peace would look like.

Susan Kaplan, M.S.W., M.P.A., provides a variety of services, including coaching, consultations, workshops, programs, performances and Walk and Talk sessions® Susan developed and uses a holistic wellness model in her combined social work and professional storytelling practice. She specializes in teaching applied life skills through Balance and Harmony for Family, Classroom and Workplace and applied and educational storytelling as Storyteller and Story Listener®. As a contract trainer, Susan also works with The Conflict Center, providing skill building and Stories for Peace program.

Contact her at:

(303) 871-8469

P.O. Box 102379

Denver, CO 80250-2379

Second part

Release and Acting

Use your gifts
tool box - name your strengths, gifts, and skills
warning signs
release on 4 levels
self talk

use anger in positive manner

  • slam poets
  • organize in Montbello
  • restorative justice

daily practice

  • mind - vision, skills praticed
  • heart - open and protected
  • body - nonverbal, congruence with words
  • soul - see beauty, divine and sacred in everyone & everything

Use your gifts

We all have gifts, strengths, and passions. Use these as a path way towards change. If you are athletic, walk out your anger before you react. Good at organizing yourself? Then use that strength to break down how you want to act on meeting your own

needs and express your feelings. Like to read? Read books or listen to books on tape on anger or place reminder notes in your car and on your mirror. Have a passion for the arts? Draw or dance out your anger to reach what you are feeling. Like to cook? Break your anger down into a recipe and see what ingredients you want to leave out next time. Are you strong in taking care of others? Use that same skill to take care of yourself.

Strong in taking care of yourself? Use that same skill in taking care of others.

We all come with our own “tool box” of gifts, skills, strengths, and passions. Use these as a foundation for how you will change your pattern of anger. Often in my parenting classes, I find that people often carry high expectations on the “right way” something must be done. In developing a change in your behavior, I find that if you start with a strength you are more likely to succeed.


It takes about 3 weeks to make a change


Like a yoga practice - one must create a practice of daily peace skills. More complicated situations need to be broken into smaller components - work on change within each smaller piece.

Remember to focus on one change at a time. Integrate that until it becomes an automatic part of your behavior - then identify if there is another step of change.

Release of Anger

body: use yoga breath (mouth, chest and tummy for kids); change how you move through space - i.e. walk faster or slower; take a hot shower; throw paper wads into the wastebasket; walk while you talk with a difficult person; tighten and release muscle spots where you hold tension; and practice the warrior pose.

mind: change self talk to “I can get through this” or “I want to do this differently”; express your needs and feelings directly with “I” message, I feel____ when____and I need_______(do not use you in this sentence!); use words to build bridges with the other; stay focused on the present and not the future or past; generate list of new ideas and pick one new idea to try; refocus on either details or big picture.

heart: identify and express feelings under the anger; “agree to disagree” and acknowledge that it’s ok to have different feelings and needs; hold different levels of conversation with the other person - not just problem solving; learn to express a range of emotions in your daily life; practice forgiveness which is learning from the situation but not holding onto the negative energy;

soul: have a conversation within your spiritual life, i.e. talk with G-d or resolve your anger towards G-D; find a spiritual mentor to talk with; walk or hike in nature; sing or dance; nurture hope; develop a ritual of reconciliation; celebrate teeny, tiny steps towards peace; place yourself within your life and take steps to become alive and active in your life; visit a place of beauty everyday (as simple as sitting beneath a tree); practice gratitude.

quick ideas

Strategies of anger management

1) Listen to what your relationship to anger is and the patterns you create

2) Be responsive to what is your part and what is the part of others - problem ownership and responsibility different than feeling guilty or taking all or none of the responsibility

3) Release your anger and focus your energy towards resolving & moving in positive direction

4) Be honest with yourself about what is under your anger. Use courage and your gifts & passions to move forward to express feelings and needs.

5) Sharpen your communication and problem solving skills.

6) Open your heart to yourself and others with compassion, non-judgement and deep listening.

7) Seek support and mentorship in your daily practice to be peaceful in your daily life.

“It was the queerest thing ever I saw,’ said Hank Huggins. “I was driving a freight wagon from up in the hills down into the low country, but I ain’t never forgot that contest and I never will!”

“Crash!” , he recalled, “It sounded like two locomotives smashing head on.

Then it would be quiet for awhile before you would hear the next noise. Clang! Then silence until you would hear another sound. Bong! As I drove my wagon down into the country, full of freshly dug up ginseng root - a mighty valuable cargo, these sounds keep echoing through the woods. Finally I stopped in a beautiful open meadow.”

“Besides lots of green grass and a gentle winding river, this meadow had two big herds of sheep.” He shook his head in disbelief as he continued, “One flock was white and they were standing looking towards the other flock, which was all black. It was strange how not a one moved a muscle. They were all watching two rams in the middle, with one white and one black ram facing off. Both were snorting and kicking up their heels and then they would run right into each other, head first. Crash!”

“Wham! They would come back at each other, never pausing. I don’t know what they were fighting about, but they continued on for an hour!” Hank said, “But I had to get my load down that mountain and to the market, so I left them.”

“About a week later I came back up that way, brining up some coffee and sugar to the folks who live up in the woods on that mountain.” he continued with a laugh, “Why I never saw anything like it! In that same meadow those two rams were still fighting! But their had worn their horns right off - clean down to their bare heads!

Bong! These two kept banging their skulls together, stagger a little each time and then they’d back off and go for each other again. Thump!”

“Funny thing though, the two flocks were now grazing around them, not even paying attention to them. The white flock was grazing behind the white ram and the black flock grazing behind the black ram. They had lost interest in the fight.”

“Must have been another week or so before I passed that way again, going back down with another load of ginseng.” Hank smiled, “I was sure those two rams had given it up. The two flocks were grazing as peaceful as could be.” he shook his head, “But I couldn’t believe what I saw in that middle of the meadow. Never in all my days had I seen such a site!. Something white and fluffy was out there blowing back and forth, a little above the ground. It was right over the place where the white ram had worn away the grass running back and forth. Then on the other side I saw something black and fuzzy, moving back and forth where the black ram had been.”

“When I looked closer, I understood that these flying objects were the sheep tails of those fighting rams! They’d back off a few yards and then rush at each other, bouncing together. Pause. Then they would start all over again.

“Well if it wasn’t the darnedest thing! It was all that was left of those two stubborn old rams. They had kept at it until they’d worn themselves clean down to their tails. And they still wouldn’t give up. Well, I drove on thinking it over. ‘Now there’s a lesson’ I said to myself, ‘if you want to take it.’ (source: “The Fighting Rams”, Tall Tales from the High Hills, by Ellis Credle) page 2


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