Home » Anger, Compassion, and What It Means To Be Strong by Russell Kolts (Transcript)

Anger, Compassion, and What It Means To Be Strong by Russell Kolts (Transcript)

Russell Kolts

Here is the full transcript of Russell Kolts’ TEDx Talk: Anger, Compassion, and What It Means To Be Strong TEDxOlympia conference.


So I’m a psychologist. And a lot of my work involves using compassion-focused therapy to help people work with emotions like anger.

Anger can be a tricky emotion to work with because it can feel really powerful in us. So even when we can see that our uncontrolled anger is causing lots of problems in our lives and in our relationships, we can be reluctant to give it up. We like feeling powerful. We like feeling strong. And that’s why I think if we’ll really be able to commit ourselves to work with emotions like anger, we have to discover new ways to be strong and that’s where compassion comes in.

Now my own journey toward using compassion to work with anger actually began when my son was born. And I got to see the impact of my own anger was having on my family. You see, I’ve got what you might call an angry or an irritable temperament. One way to think of temperament is the idea that some people are born having an easier time experiencing certain emotions. Some of you, I suspect, are very easy going, intend to take things in stride, don’t get too worked up for the things that don’t go your way. And If you like that, by the way, is good for you. It’s nice, it’s a nice way to be.

However, other of us will have a very different experience of life. Some of you, for example, may have a much more anxious temperament. You may notice feelings of anxiety coming up in you easily, frequently, and sometimes, very powerfully. If you like this, by the way, don’t beat yourself up for it. It’s not your fault. And I mean it, it’s not your fault.

We don’t get to choose our temperament. But if we are going to have happy lives and good relationships, we’ve got to take responsibility for working with what we’ve got. And a part of what I had to work with is anger and irritability. That really came to head for me when my son was about 3 months old, and I was home, taking care about him one day, and it was a day in which I had a lot of work that I really wanted to get done.

Parents among you will not be surprised to find out that on this particular day, my son took about an hour and a half longer than normal to go to sleep for his morning nap. I remember, finally he goes to sleep, I’m gently setting him down in the crib, and tiptoeing out of the room, and just as I get in the another room and I sit down to work, the cry.

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And with that cry I was filled with anger. It took everything in me not to rush across the hall, stand over his crib, and yell, “Why can’t you just sleep?” Luckily, that didn’t happen, but something did.

The intensity of the anger I felt at my infant son for doing nothing more than not sleeping at the exact moment I wanted him to sleep, shocked me awake, and I knew that if I was going to be anything like this sort of father I wanted my son to have, I had to do something about my anger.

Now it turns out there are actually quite a good number of effective anger management techniques. That this is true: if you are someone who struggles with anger, there are some powerful tools out there that you can use. The tricky bit is getting people to use those tools. It’s neither easy nor fun to admit that you have problems with anger and to commit yourself to working with it.

Let me ask you a question: have you ever said or done something out of anger that’s caused terrible pain in the people you love the most? Me too. How does it feel to admit that to yourself? Do you find yourself wanting to move toward that experience or to move away from it and never waited? It can also be a pretty lonely thing; to be someone who struggles with anger. Think about it. When we see someone who is anxious, what do we want to do? We want to approach and reassure them. When we see someone who is sad, we want to approach and comfort them.

What do you want to do when you see someone who’s angry and hostile? You want to get the heck out of there, right? Of course, you do, we all do. That’s part of what anger does. It pushes people away. But what that means is that you or someone who really struggles with anger can get very used to the sight of other people walking away because they don’t want to be around you. And that’s hard.

For me, although the feeling of my anger felt powerful in me when I really took a look at it, I discovered that behind that anger were a lot of other much more vulnerable feelings and emotions: the fear that I couldn’t control my own feelings, the sadness that my behavior was so different from the man I wanted to be, and the shame of watching the people I loved the most walking on eggshells around me afraid that they would say or do some random thing that’d set me off.

And in the face of all that scary stuff, I did what a lot of folks do: I avoided it. I just tried not to feel it, distract yourself, blame other people, rationalize those sorts of things, right? And over time, I discovered, through experience, what a growing body of scientific research is demonstrating which is that working with difficult emotions by avoiding them doesn’t work and often makes things worse.

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Now being a good father was important to me though, so at this point, I took decisive action in the way we, academics, do: I began to read. And one of the books I read was about the His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet. And in that book, I saw a vision of the sort of man. I wanted to be, the sort of father. I hoped I could become. Don’t get me wrong, I have no aspirations to be the leader of a worldwide religion, but it was that courage, that wisdom, the kindness, the compassion.

You see, compassion involves allowing ourselves to be moved by suffering, the suffering of other people, and even our own suffering. And experiencing a commitment, a desire to help, to obliviate that suffering.

Compassion begins with courage, the courage to face the things that make us uncomfortable, and sometimes, the courage to face the things that scary us the most about ourselves. Compassion gave me a way to work with my anger, not by turning away from it and avoiding it but by turning towards it not with condemnation but with kindness and a commitment to do better. And over time, I discovered that when I stopped blaming other people for my anger or beating myself up for having it, I could use a lot of those powerful anger management tools I told you about before, and over time, I could help other people do the same.

Now, as an aside, if this sounds easy, let me assure you, it was not. For me, admitting I had problems with anger and working with it, it was like being Frodo marching in the Mordor. It was ugly, it was scary. A lot of times I didn’t think I could do it. But over time, I discovered that the more you move towards it, the easier it gets and the stronger you get. And after a while, all those terrifying emotions just stopped being so terrifying and start being normal human feelings we can acknowledge and work with.

Let’s try an exercise really quickly if you would. I’d like you to bring to mind a situation in which you recently struggled. Maybe a time when you were feeling powerful feelings of anger, sadness, or fear, shame, or whatever you struggled with. And as you look back on that struggling version of you in that situation, try to look back with compassion. The way you would relate to someone you dearly cared about and wanted to help.

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See if it’s possible to see those powerful feelings and thoughts you had at that time, not as something that was wrong with you but as normal human reactions that we have in the face of difficulty. If you were at your very best, you’re kindest, you’re wisest, you’re most courageous, you’re most compassionate, how would you understand what was happening there?

If you could go back and whisper into the ear of that vulnerable version of you, in that situation, what support or encouragement might you offer to help yourself be at your best in that moment, as you face that difficulty? You see, that’s compassion, and if you’re interested in bringing that compassion in every moments of your life you might try three things; it’s a good start.

The next time you noticed yourself filled with anger, shame, or some other emotion you’re struggling with, instead of just going and acting on that emotion or denying and avoiding it, beating yourself up for having it, what if you just took a moment to just compassionately acknowledge what was happening in you? To notice, “Wow, I’m really angry right now. I’m really struggling, this is really hard.” That’s number one.

Second thing: at that moment, see if you can take a moment to slow things down, to take a minute or two just slow down your breathing. Slowing down the body can help slow down the mind. Anger tries to convince us that we have to act right now, but we don’t have to believe it; we can take a moment, or to balance our emotions first, and then work with the situation.

Now, if this sounds awfully a pie in the sky, let me say that I’ve used compassion-focused therapy to work with men sentenced to decades in prison, many of them for violent crimes –and yeah, when I walked in the prison looking like this talking about compassion, initially I get some eye rolls. But over time, these men discover what I had learned that the anger that felt so powerful in them was often a method they used to run away from more vulnerable feelings and emotions like sadness or shame, and that compassion gave them a way to work with all of that, and these men didn’t just stop working with anger either, they actively looked for ways to support one another; and then, they looked out into the world and they asked more questions.

Questions like how can I help people out there? So they don’t end up in here. Even from prison, how can I help? And if they can do it, so can we. That’s true strength. That’s compassion. Thanks.