What does anger mean: How you can learn to use emotion as information


Emotions mean something, that’s why we have them! If that’s true what is the purpose of emotions and what are they trying to tell us?

“When you move through emotions like horses do, when you get the message behind a troubling feeling and change something in response, you experience greater periods of authentic peace and fulfilment.”

Way of the Horse: Equine Archtetypes for Self-Discovery by Linda Kohanov

Let’s take anger for example:

Imagine you are in your home office putting the finishing touches to an article you’ve been working on and your partner walks into the room and starts telling you about a problem he’s had at work that afternoon?

Suddenly you can feel a shift from your positive state of enthusiasm! You feel your shoulders tense and creep up towards your ears, and you lose focus on your article. You feel angry! (You might even be thinking ‘I shouldn’t feel like this, I should be happy to see my partner’!)

“anger is a message which lets you know that a physical or emotional boundary has been crossed”

What do you do when you feel angry? Do you shout at the nearest person? Do you blame someone for making you feel angry, saying things like ‘you made me angry’? Perhaps you try and suppress or hide your anger for fear of upsetting others or you may even turn you anger inwards and feel guilt or shame, thinking ‘it’s all my fault’!

What if you knew that you were feeling angry for a purpose, that your emotion had a message!

“Having not set boundaries for most of my life it took me some time to say what I wanted calmly and clearly.”

I’ve learned that anger is a message which lets you know that a physical or emotional boundary has been crossed. And the way to move through anger is to establish what boundary has been crossed and what you need to do to restore it!

Going back to my earlier example:-

When you listen to the message of anger and restore the boundary this will enable you to move through your anger with agility and get back to your article in peace!

 Here is an example of how you could deal with it effectively!

“Hi darling, that sounds a tough afternoon. I’m working on the final elements of my article for the Parish magazine, which I want to send off this evening. If you give me another 1/2hour,  we can eat together and I can hear about your day then.”

As your partner leaves, your shoulders relax, your focus returns and you are able to complete the work on your article. (it worked for me!)

It can be that simple and bring a huge sense of relief. In reality, it’s not always as smooth as this!  Having not set boundaries for most of my life it took me some time to say what I wanted calmly and clearly. Sometimes I had to be more assertive and this often made me feel uncomfortable, especially since I hadn’t set a boundary in this way before. (My usual pattern would have been to suppress my anger, only for it to explode on some unsuspecting bystander!)

With practise, it’s far more effective to set a clear boundary, than an angry outburst or internalising the emotion.  Over time, responding to your anger as a message helps build the foundation of respect and understanding in your relationships.

This is just ONE example of the meaning of ONE emotion. What if you feel angry, but it’s not because a boundary has been crossed? It could be that your emotion is not anger, but frustration, agitation or even disappointment!

How to know what emotion you are feeling?

Before I learned to listen, understand and respond to my emotions I had no idea what I was feeling, what my emotions were, or what they meant!

All I knew was that it didn’t feel good and I didn’t want to feel that way. I would do everything I could to suppress or hide how I was feeling. I’d grown up believing that it wasn’t good to show emotion and that I had to just ‘get on with it’. As I’ve learnt to be congruent and honest with myself I have been able to communicate more calmly and effectively and be happier in my relationships.

“Horses are models of emotional agility. When something scares them, they startle and bolt. When the danger passes, they relax and go back to grazing. They don’t spend the afternoon ruminating over the fact that they had to run from a predator, and they don’t stay up all night worrying about future encounters with lions and tigers and bears. Trust in the universe flows through their veins. The world, after all, is a salad to them.”

Way of the Horse: Equine Archtetypes for Self-Discovery by Linda Kohanov

When I was given the Emotional Message Chart, created by Linda Kohanov, it became my reference guide and I began to move fluidly through my emotions, it was the beginning of a new way of being in my life!

I had the chart pinned on my fridge for months!  When I wasn’t feeling good, I would go to the list and ask the questions to see which emotion most accurately fitted with how I was feeling. Once identified I could then read its message. Even better than that, the Chart gave me ideas of how to change the situation and alleviate the emotion. I could work out what I needed to do, so that I could feel better.

“When you move through emotions like horses do, you experience greater periods of authentic peace and fulfilment.”

Linda Kohanov had spent years studying horses and the way that they responded to emotions and she created a Four Point Method for Emotional Agility.

This is an excerpt taken from Linda Kohanov’s book: The Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation (2013). Guiding Principle 1 – Use Emotions as Information.

 “Four Point Method for Emotional Agility

 By becoming more horse like in your responses to emotion, you can successfully align thought, feeling, and action for optimal performance, enriching your personal and professional relationships in the process. Horses, especially those who haven’t been traumatized by abusive handling, are models of emotional agility. They: –

  1. Feel the emotion in its purest form
  2. Get the message behind the emotion
  3. Change something in response to the message and
  4. Go back to grazing (In other words, they let the emotion go, and either get back on task or relax enjoying life fully. They don’t hang on to the story, endlessly ruminating over the details of uncomfortable situations.)”

Here is a link to the Emotional Message Chart created by Linda Kohanov and shared in The Power of the Herd.

The most important benefit of listening to, understanding and responding to our emotions is that it helps us to become restored to our natural state of ease and calm. Every other benefit is a direct impact of us taking that responsibility – we can feel calmer, have more respectful relationships and be more confident in ourselves.

It’s just as important to flow with our ‘good feeling’ emotions as it is with our ‘not so good’ feeling emotions and to know if we are feeling excitement. Horses show us that we can move freely from one emotional state to another if we allow ourselves to ‘feel’ them.

In Way of the Horse; Equine Archetypes for Self-Discovery, Linda Kohanov writes:
“The opposite of evading experience is deceptively simple; staying fully present to whatever happens.”


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