The Anger Management Lessons Nelson Mandela Taught Me

There will be much written about Nelson Mandela in the coming weeks as South Africa in particular and the rest of the world mourns the loss of one of the world’s greatest role models. In a world where our political leaders are often defined by their weaknesses here was a man who role modelled exactly that which he wished to see.

It may seem strange to some for an Anger Management specialist to be discussing Nelson Mandela but those that know his story will know the connections. I am not going to go into detail about his story other than to draw on it for my lessons. If you want to know more read the proliferation of articles about his life on line.


Lesson 1 – Anger is there for a reason

Anger grows in us to protect us. Anger is about out boundaries and about energising us to defend or attack in order to protect ourselves. Up to the late 1950s Mandela was committed to peaceful protest until a fateful peaceful protest where the state (white) police opened fire on protesters killing over 50 people. Mandela is cited as stating that it was at that moment that he became committed to guerrilla armed protest against white supremacy. The white state was not listening to peaceful protest.

Any of you reading this who have committed acts of anger or had them committed against them, remember  this does not excuse the acts themselves,s it simply explains them. On a personal level, anger is a signal that I need to take notice of myself and a chance to learn more about my issues.


Lesson 2 – Forgiveness is the most powerful force and it is essential for healing.

All the reports of conversations with Nelson Mandela that I have heard today keep mentioning that he never referred to his own suffering. He suffered 27 years imprisonment with initial period breaking rocks in Robben Island prison. The regime was brutal and he was separated from his wife (Winnie) and his young children. The reconciliation process and the exchange of power may never have been possible if he was consumed with the need for justice, retribution and revenge.

The power of his forgiveness and the role modelling of reconciliation that he gave to the world inspired and enabled the Rainbow Nation to grow and move on.

How many of us are unable to move on? How many of us say we have forgiven when we really have not? How many conflicts from the past get brought back into the present to inflict further pain? How many of us demand revenge or retribution in the name of justice or fairness?


Lesson 3 – Humility removes the ego and enables engagement.

I heard a reporter who has interviewed Mandela several times.  When he met him the second time he said to the reporter “do you remember me?”  He took care of his own ego and therefore did not expect others to take care of it for him. He did not expect or demand respect. Instead he respected himself and as a result respect for him was given naturally.

He was one of the most powerful political figures in the world and yet all people experience is his humility.

How many of us seek to hold on to or use our power gain more power over others? Relationship are not about giving up power or taking power off others.

Lesson 4 – Reconciliation is about accepting the past happened.

Part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy is reconciliation. He, again, role modelled reconciliation and with the help of Archbishop Desmond Tutu set up the truth and reconciliation commission. The purpose of this was simply to hear the truth, acknowledge the acts that have been committed and move on. This was not about retribution.  If both sides of a conflict can meet and admit to the painful truths then acceptance can be allowed to develop and the pain can be consigned to history and not allowed to infect the present.

Lesson 5 – Be the change you wish to see

Gandhi is often misquoted. The closest real words of Ghandi I can find are these “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Nelson Mandela came out of prison a strong, peaceful and powerful and wise person. Everything he did and the way he did conveyed how he would like the world to be. One man’s behaviour and millions are influenced.

This is a conversation I often have with my clients who are locked in combat with another. Their defence being,  “if I stop being angry and behave respectfully then the person I am in conflict with will take advantage…” To stop the anger and treat others how I would like to be treated sounds a better alternative to continued conflict.

The world will be a poorer place after losing this great statesman. His legacy will last for generations.


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