Anger is an energy – a physical, bodily energy that expresses itself through body language and through verbal language. And, as you’ve probably experienced yourself, it can get away from you and cause you to make mistakes that will haunt you for years. As Dr. Laurence J. Peter famously said, “Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret”.
When anger takes over, your “choice” mechanism takes the back seat as anger follows its raging path, like flooding, churning river. Aristotle knew this over 2000 years ago…
“Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.”
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Anger – until interrupted and channeled – wreaks havoc. It swells its banks. It power-hoses our bodies with adrenaline for a fight, and for men especially, there is a jolt of joy in this ancient warrior energy.
But while this physical joy is temporary, the blowback is often permanent.
That is why most wisdom traditions caution us that anger hurts us more than the external object of our anger. In the words of the Buddha, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”.
The path of personal evolution, from destructive impulses into a life of awakened choices, is not a path of repression or shame or burying sometimes abusive emotions such as anger. But rather, it is the patient practice of transmuting them, through our heart and mind, into energies that serve our highest goals.
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Both ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychology offer a number of simple actions you can take to ensure that the passing heat of anger doesn’t burn you forever. Here are 9 of the best…
#1: Hit Pause
“If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.”
– Chinese Proverb
Anyone who has had a child knows that they can startle us and we can lash out, both physically and verbally in ways we’ll regret for days, if not longer. The Talmud tells us not to discipline your kids when you’re angry for a very specific reason; because when we do, any action you take is not for the sake of the child, but in service of the anger itself.
Thus the usefulness of the “count to three” rule when you are angry. Before you say something you’ll wish you hadn’t, count slowly to three. Perhaps more important – because anger is a physical energy – take three extremely deep belly breaths – the very act of which will slow your metabolism and dissipate the energy of anger. You will feel a naturally induced calm and will probably make a better choice with what comes out of your mouth next.
Of course, If that’s not enough, you can always follow Mark Twain’s rule, “When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.”
But I wouldn’t recommend it around kids.
#2: Ask “What’s The Use?”
I heard a story recently about my younger son, who has moved through life with a Zen-like equanimity. Apparently a local group of boys were confronted by another group of boys. As tensions rose, one of the local boys – a hothead- the one who told me the story – zeroed in on one of the other kids and said to my son, “I’m going to kick his ass!”
My son said simply, “Why?”
The boy told me that moment changed everything. The way he retold it, “It was like time stopped. I looked at Fuzz (my son, who was 12 at the time). He couldn’t make sense of why I wanted to hurt someone. And suddenly I lost my will to fight”.
Jack Kornfield, PhD, the great interpreter of Thai Theravada Buddhism, tells a similar story, about a similar, if older teacher.
“As one Zen master said when I asked if he ever gets angry, “Of course I get angry”, but then a few minutes later I say to myself, “What’s the use of this?”, and I let it go.”
Because anger is a heightened and temporary body energy, it should never be mistaken for “you”. Therefore, as with anything that is not you, you can choose to engage it with your mind.
Question your anger: Why are you here? Do I need to listen to you? What are you trying to tell me? What are you trying to protect? Does that thing/feeling really need protection? What good can you serve if I focus you on toward creating a positive change?
#3: Release Anger By Expressing it Safely (and Remotely)
An important way to transmute the “heat” energy of anger so that it doesn’t take over our mind and choices is to release it safely.
You can write out a furious letter to the person (or institution, or disease, or condition) that you feel angry about. Pour all the fire you can muster into that letter. Don’t stop until you are physically and emotionally exhausted. Then, if you can, walk to a quiet place in nature and safely burn the letter.
Nature is our best (and most cost-effective) therapy. Let what poet Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things” absorb your angry energy and replace it with rest and stillness and “grace.”
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry
Or by contrast, go into the forest or the beach and shout your fury into the infinite pillow of nature. Either way, by resting or ranting, your body will know when the anger is out.
Then, as Berry says, you will be “free” – in this case to make a more positive, productive, beneficial choice of what to say or do next.
#4: Change Your Expectations
Anger is usually the result of wishing the world to be something than it already is. The Taoists make this analogy…
“If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because there is somebody in the boat. Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry.”
In many ways, the boat that collides with us is always empty. By that I mean that we have the expectation that the world, and the people in it “should” not be banging up against our precious self-boats. And that there must be something wrong or malicious about them if they do. (1)
If we change our expectations and understand instead that people are operating along their own unique narratives (which have little or nothing to do with you), from their own unique and complex (conscious and unconscious) motivations, then it’s much harder to “expect” them to accommodate the bump-less passage of our boat.
When you do this, it’s much harder to blame people for doing things “to” us. That person who cut us off in traffic might be terrified of losing her job. Our boss who just yelled at us might not have had sex with his wife for 6 months and is going internally crazy. Our spouse who has suddenly shut down might be very privately mourning his or her mortality because a friend or a personal hero died.
It’s much harder to feel angry when you understand that we’re all in our little boats, barely in semi-control, often not conscious of the habits and stories that guide us as we all roll down the cross-currents of life’s river… mostly in the fog.
#5: Learn From the Ghost
In my home video program on How to Inspire Love, I include a module on what I call emotional “ghostbusting.”
Every time you argue with someone close to you, chances are high that what you are arguing over is not the actual source of anger. It’s not the sink full of dishes, it’s the ghost behind the words – someone feeling taking for granted and feeling taken advantage of for doing most of the work. It’s not that he took that phone call for 20 minutes after dinner, it’s that you feel that you’ve become a second or third priority in his life. (2)
When you feel anger, rather than look outside yourself at the monster who “caused” you to be angry, look inside for the ghost whose silent wailing turned a small trigger into major explosion.
What’s really making you angry? What’s the deeper frustration, the unmet yearning, the wound, the sorrow inside of you? If you can first identify how your heart is hurting, then you can transmute the outward-directed anger you were feeling into a profound understanding and compassion for what is weeping inside.
In other words, embrace your inner ghost and hear its wail. Only then, re-engage the person who triggered your anger.
Imagine – compare if you spoke to someone you loved from a place of accusation and anger to speaking to them from a place of being vulnerable about what is hurting in your heart. Which do you guess would have more impact and lead to more understanding and resolution? (3)
One more thing…
Anger is often a way not only of quieting our ghosts but also our demons – not the parts that are hurting, but those impulses within us around which we feel shame and conflict. Epictetus expressed the Stoic approach to this… “When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.”
Or as Jung put it, some 2000 years later, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding about ourselves.”
Both the ghosts and demons of our inner pain haunt us, until we invite them into the conversation.
#6: Tevye Your Way Forward
A few years ago, I had a business partner who not only broke his contract with me, but stole about $25,000 dollars and my long established web domains. Was I furious? Of course. After all, I had allowed him to stay in my home while he recovered from bankruptcy. I trained him. I allowed him to re-build his life.
Every day after he vanished, I would entertain in my mind all the different ways I would kill him. A knife in the back? A cord around the neck? A Louisville Slugger in the noggin? After all, after years of baseball, I have a damned good swing.
Then, one morning, it was January 4th –it was that momentous a change that I remember the date – I woke up with my heart full of forgiveness. Why? My rational mind had taken over.
This guy, this creep, this liar, this scum – also helped 5x my business over two years. And despite his efforts, I was able to regain the key data with which to quickly recover my revenue stream. Plus, I woke up on a sunny California morning next to the exquisitely beautiful, loving woman who would soon become my wife.
My rational mind, quieted by sleep, was able to see “the other hand.”
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye famously talks to God. Reflecting the style of 1400 years of Talmudic debate, he ponders his daughter’s engagement to the poor tailor…
“On the other hand, he’s an honest, hard worker. On the other hand, he has absolutely nothing.”
Your task, next time you feel anger’s heat overtaking your brain, keep cool in the pre-frontal cortex and see if you can find a list of your “on the other hands”.
The person or condition that ignited the anger inside you – what good might they also have brought? What good might you create that you might not otherwise have been able to create before?
In short – see if you can find a positive counterpoint to each negative spark that is firing up your anger. If you really want to win at this game, find two.
#7: Turn Off the Projector
Many years ago, I worked with an Amazonian shaman and his magic jungle potions in the effort to release anger toward my ex-wife.
To be totally frank, my language was, “I want to finally forgive her” – which of course suggested that she was the one who had to be forgiven – and had something to be forgiven for.
But the shaman’s magic was strong and true, and during my five-hour journey, I was confronted with a startling reality: every single quality I resented about my ex-wife, I possessed myself. And even more shocking – I had possessed each one of them before I even met her!
Well, let’s just say that was a humbling night.
It’s no secret that our feelings get amplified when we see behavior of our own of which we’re not proud, show up in our kids, our partners, our lovers. Stinginess. Selfishness. Cruelty. Aloofness. A hard heart. It’s like seeing a movie projection of our worst aspects thrown up on the screen of another person.
The solution? See as clearly as you can what it is that you find so reprehensible in that other person. Then turn off the projector and, in the darkened theater, look only within.
Is there a trait you are ashamed of that you see reflected in the person who is “getting you angry”? Or are you angry because subconsciously, you see yourself in the mirror of them – and it’s not flattering?
Be prepared to feel humbled.
#8: Replay to Get Context
I experienced a period of extreme financial stress while I was a single dad raising my two teenage boys.
One day, I snapped at them and before I could even get the apology out a few seconds later, my elder son said, matter-of-fact, “I know. You’re not mad at me. You’re mad at yourself. You’re having a hard time at work and you’re anxious about that. You’re sorry you yelled at me. It’s okay, I already know.”
I could only smile. Not only at my son’s calm and insight, but also at the fact that I had made it a practice in the past to share the context of any amplified anger I might show. For years, I had been quick to let them know that when I snapped, I was probably already tense – and that they should not feel the blame for my flashes of hot-headedness.
When you snap, when you show anger and you secretly know that there is a pre-existing condition – stress, fear, frustration, worry – simply let the person you got angry at know.
If you’re not sure in the heat of the moment if there is such a context, just rewind an hour and replay the movie of your life up to your current angry encounter and check in with how you were feeling before the anger blossomed.
Then rewrite the scene with them, this time, in the way you want it to go.
#9: Steer it Toward The Good
Anger serves anger; it feeds itself as your fight-or-flight hormones rush into your blood stream. Anger often serves self-righteousness. Anger is both a shield and a sword – and the aim of it is to protect the ego, protect some notion of a “self” that apparently needs protecting.
It’s a weapon, and like all weapons, can be used to serve justice or to inflict terrible injustice.
When you have righteous anger – maybe about racial injustice, or abject poverty or you witness someone being abused – then that anger rises for the good of another. Anger, in the defense of others, can often be the necessary spear tip into the heart of evil. “The world, wrote Bede Jarrett, needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.”
If you yourself are the victim or genuine abuse, then your anger may be the booster rocket to get you out of a destructive situation.
But when you have common self-righteous anger – maybe you feel insulted or dismissed or ignored or diminished – then that anger is about preserving or bolstering some notion of “you”.
The practice here is to ask yourself, what is your anger serving in any given moment? Are you merely trying to put a mask in invulnerability over your ego? Or are you serving a higher good? The safety of children? Of the environment. Of animals. Of the dispossessed.
Emerson said, “A good indignation brings out all one’s powers.”
But a bad indignation, where we are serving little but our own wounded ego, reduces our understanding, judgment and breadth of mind.
And the world already has enough of that.
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