Red-Button Words! How to talk about Anger

“Anger can be valuable if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up—to realize we have a need that isn’t being met or that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely to be met. To fully express anger requires full consciousness of our need.

~ Marshall Rosenberg

After you identify and express your anger through writing and action, and ONLY after, it is time to talk about your anger. It’s best not to talk about feeling angry when you’re feeling angry. Think before you speak. Be gentle to yourself and others. The energy and tone of your voice can alienate the very people you love the most. This is not the time to push these people away!

Red-Button Words: Liar, loser, must, never, lazy, should, always
Illustration by Krissy Traustason for The Small Guide To Life’s Big Changes

When those around you hear should, always, have to, never they naturally respond defensively, argumentatively, and stop listening!

We use red-button words when we feel ignored, powerless, want to strengthen our argument, or it’s just a habit. So ask yourself, Am I feeling small, powerless, misunderstood, or defensive?  If so, what communication would make you feel empowered, heard, understood or at peace?  

Red-Button words inflame, wound, and can blow the roof off relationships. Which is why it’s so important to choose your words with care.

Positive Practice: Choose what you say!

  • Spend a day listening to what you think and say. Listen without changing anything.
  • Do you have an arsenal of good phrases to use when angry? If not,Try some of these :   

I’m feeling angry right now and don’t want to hurt myself or anybody else with what I say. OR I can see that now isn’t a good time for me to share what is important to me.  It would be really helpful to me if you could ________ (wait for a reply, find a different way to talk about this, let me get back to you when I’m more rested).  I feel _________ right now. (distressed, tired, confused, upset).  I need to regroup, leave this conversation and regroup now.  Could we get together again in 24 hours?  

  • Now, imagine how it would feel to release Have to. Should. Must. Never. Always. Would you relax? Practice release and choose some good alternatives.
  • If you realize you are using Red-Button Words, Pause! If someone is agitated, people are leaving the room, or are getting in your face, you may be out of control emotionally. Just leave the room.
  • Remember to come back later to apologize. I’m so sorry, I know my words hurt you!

Speaking about anger is personal and powerful. Speak to someone who has earned the right to hear and who can listen without judgment. A healthy support group will be neutral and have protective ground rules. Listeners don’t need to be burdened or expected to fix our anger. The goal is to look at what you are feeling and why. When you express how you feel, you open the way for empathy and understanding.

A word about listeners

Sometimes, no matter what you say, or how you say it, your audience will not welcome your words. When a topic is extremely sensitive, or the receiver feels vulnerable, what you say can be perceived as a Red-Button topic.

I have pushed one of my dear daughters away in a conversation about shoes. Does anyone else get passionate about discussing the merits of sturdy, supportive, functional shoes vs. fashionable foot slayers?  After recognizing my ergonomic advice was not appreciated for the 40th time, I displayed strong emotion and was told, “You’re angry!!!” I hadn’t used one Red-button Word or raised my voice, but I felt judged and dismissed and found myself backtracking and trying to deny my feelings. Later, I acknowledged that I had a right to my frustration. So from personal confession, strong emotion can be interpreted as anger even if no Red-Button words are used—and you’ve given the best advice in the world.

Obviously it requires courage to know when we are angry and to let others hear about it.”

~ Harriet Lerner

Excerpts taken from The Small Guide to Life’s Big Changes

Do you feel your anger is too fiery or intense to share? A professional counselor can help you identify what’s at the heart of unresolved and ongoing anger. Trained counselors are a safe, objective alternative to family and friends. Just as you would go to a specialist for heart disease, you need to see a professional counselor for an angry heart.

Do you resist the idea of professional help? It’s natural to resist the unfamiliar. Resistance often indicates fear: of change, of shame, of not doing this right. Consider procrastination, blame, isolation, or denial as resistance to grappling with your anger. Gently acknowledge your resistance and get help anyway.


Barbara James

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