Russell Kolts: How Can We Use Compassion To Manage Our Anger?

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 1:56 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Reframing Anger.

About Russell Kolts' TED Talk

Why are some of us more likely to struggle with anger, and how can we learn to manage it? Psychologist Russell Kolts offers strategies for using compassion to transform our approach to anger.

About Russell Kolts'

Russell Kolts is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University. He has pioneered the application of compassion-focused therapy (CFT) for the treatment of problematic anger. He regularly conducts trainings and workshops on compassion.

Russell has co-authored and written various articles and books, including The Compassionate Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger. He holds a BS in psychology from Oklahoma State University, and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Mississippi.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


On the show today, ideas about Rethinking Anger, its upsides and downsides.

RUSSELL KOLTS: I like to say that anger is a wonderful sign and a terrible strategy. Most of the time I think anger is really good at helping us identify things that we need to attend to that are troubling to us, that bother us - you know, potential threats. The problem is that the typical sort of responses that are motivated by anger - if I translate that directly into behavior, then we end up saying or doing things that cause problems in our relationships or in the workplace or whatever context we find ourselves in, you know?

RAZ: This is Russell Kolts.

KOLTS: I'm a clinical psychologist and a professor at Eastern Washington University.

RAZ: And part of Russell's job is to help other people sort through their anger, but it's also something he's struggled with a lot.

KOLTS: You got it.

RAZ: Wow. And so - and this - I mean, that's - but, I mean, this is kind of exciting - right? - because you are able to identify that in yourself because you've studied this phenomenon, and you know that you have this. It's like you can be your own...

KOLTS: Oh, yeah, no. It's very clear. I can see it as it's happening.

RAZ: Yeah. For Russell, managing his anger is a daily exercise, but it took him a while to even realize it was a problem. Here's Russell on the TED stage.


KOLTS: My son was about three months old, and I was home taking care of him one day, and it was a day in which I had a lot of work that I really wanted to get done. And so the 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. And I remember, like, finally, he goes to sleep, and I'm gently setting him down into the crib and tiptoeing out of the room. And just as I get in the other room and I sit down to work - the cry.

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

RAZ: Wow. So there are obviously people who have a more angry or irritable temperament, and there are other people who just don't.

KOLTS: Yeah.

RAZ: Like, it doesn't - they don't seem to get so upset or bothered by things that other people might get bothered by. And I look at those people, and I'm like, oh, my God. How can I have more of you? How can I be more like you?

KOLTS: Wouldn't that be nice?

RAZ: You know? Like, yeah. What explains that? Is it just the way they're wired? What is it?

KOLTS: Well, it's a combination of things. So probably, they came into the world with a system that was not tuned to activate in terms of irritability and anger quite so easily, and then probably because they had those genetics from their parents, they likely grew up in a home where anger wasn't modeled, where good emotion regulation was.

So, you know, the moment we're born, all that kind of genetic stuff we have becomes either activated or not by the environments in which we find ourselves. And so if you have an irritable temperament and you're raised in a home that tends to be more volatile, then that really sets you up, then, to struggle with irritability and anger going forward.

RAZ: You know, it's interesting because for me, as a parent and as a person who did experience anger and irritability as a child and saw that modeled, you know, you - I think a lot of parents try to parent in opposition to the way they were parented, but time and again with my children, I really am calm. I ask them to do something. I ask them again. I ask them again. I ask them 10 times.

KOLTS: Yeah.

RAZ: And then 11th time, I just lose it, and I say, get your shoes on right away.

KOLTS: Yeah.

RAZ: And then I feel terrible.

KOLTS: And it works.

RAZ: And it works, and they respond to it, and they get scared. They put their shoes on, and I feel horrible. I feel like the worst person on the planet.

KOLTS: Yeah. I mean, the way anger activates us - you know, what our anger is telling us is, you have to act now.

RAZ: Yeah.

KOLTS: You have to - there's a felt urgency around it, and that urgency tends to overwhelm the part of us that could be reflective and, you know, those sorts of things. We also - when we're angry, we think more superficially, and then we'll tend to kind of incorporate that information. And then we will hold onto it, and we won't let it go.

RAZ: Yeah. So let's say that anger or having an angry or irritable temperament is an Achilles heel in life. It means that you actually have to kind of double down on managing it, right? And so what do you do? How - I mean, you have this gene. Like, you have this, and you're a psychologist, so yeah. Help. Tell - what do you do?

KOLTS: Well, I think you address it the way you address any potential vulnerability you might have, you know? You take helpful efforts to try and minimize the impact on your life, and I think the first thing we have to do is just kind of interrupt the momentum of it. Interrupt the momentum to create some space for whatever comes next.

So I remember - you know, it's been a year or two, but my wife and I had gotten into an argument, and I was really angry. And I went down - I've got a room in my basement that's filled with vinyl albums and guitars, and I go - I went in there and put on a record, and I just sat there for a while, kind of calming down. And after a few minutes, my wife came and knocked on the door and opened up and said, would it be OK, you know, if I came in? And I said, don't take this the wrong way, but I'm not ready for you to come in yet, and I want you to know that when I closed that door, I wasn't shutting you out. I was shutting me in because I know that whatever comes out of me right now is going to be hurtful. I just need a little more time.

And so I took another 10 or 20 minutes, listened - finished the side of my record. And then I was able to go out and say OK, you know, let's reconnect. Let's talk about this. Whatever.


KOLTS: Let's try and exercise really quickly, if you would. I'd like you to bring to mind a situation in which you recently struggled, 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 that you dearly cared about and wanted to help. 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?

You see, that's compassion - to notice, wow, I'm really angry right now. I'm really struggling. This is really hard. 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, work to balance our emotions first and then work with the situation. That's true strength. That's compassion. Thanks.


RAZ: That's Russell Kolts. He's a clinical psychologist who specializes in compassion-focused therapy. You can find his full talk at

Hey, thanks so much for listening to our show on anger this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to, and to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Katie Monteleone with help from Daniel Shukin and Emmanuel Johnson. Our intern is Kiara Brown. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.