Befriending anger: Harmful reactions can be a teacher
“He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
– Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
MARQUETTE – When the coffee grounds spill across the kitchen, when that car won’t get out of the left lane, when you mess up, you don’t get what you want or the world won’t conform to your idea of justice — sometimes we find ourselves with that burning in the chest that means we’re mad.
Some people have a temper that explodes like my coffee grounds did this morning. Others stuff their anger inside or turn it against themselves. Personally, I use all those techniques depending on the day. But that’s how I know none of them work.
Unprocessed emotions fester and create patterns of avoidance or abuse in our thoughts, words and behavior. But if they are understood, they offer us insight into what we truly need.
Anger is confusing, because it isn’t always bad, especially expressed productively. Many times, anger is founded. When it’s based on a deeper love or desire for justice, it can energize important endeavors in our careers or personal lives.
But there are many ways of expressing anger that lead to harm, making it a huge barrier to closeness, peace and understanding.
When I don’t get what I want or I’m hungry, tired or stressed, petty anger can lead to thoughtless lashing out, escalating a situation needlessly. Over time, negative reactions to triggers become patterns and entrench themselves.
Again, this can be directed outwardly but inwardly as well. Either way, it’s cruel.
The Buddha said, “Enraged with hate, with mind ensnared, humans aim at their own ruin and at the ruin of others.”
But we don’t have to stay ensnared.
If we remember to notice anger as it arises, it’s possible to transform it into something beneficial.
Anger takes hold deep in the body and seizes control. It is often automatic and polarizing, covering up some other deeper emotion. It takes patience and concentration to learn what’s really happening.
The first step is to pause. Breathe. Don’t necessarily believe your thoughts. You’re not in your right mind, so pausing at any point can prevent further damage — to others, but also to yourself.
Then notice what’s happening without judgment.
Anger can feel like wildfire sweeping through your body as you tense up. Your heart rate increases along with your blood pressure. I feel the heat especially behind my face. My chest tightens as the sympathetic nervous system is activated. There’s usually a surge of energy.
Noticing how anger manifests itself is humbling, revealing our own lack of control. No one chooses to be angry; a perceived threat is triggering a complex physiological response in the body. It may be irrational, but it’s not really our fault. So don’t judge yourself, just notice. As you do, another emotion may arise, and if you can, stay with that emotion as well. How does it feel in the body? What deeper need might it reveal?
Sometimes the feeling underneath, like grief, terror, betrayal and other vulnerable emotions, are scarier than the anger. In fact, our anger is protecting us in some sense from that pain. So if possible, thank your anger for being your teacher and for protecting you.
Thank yourself for the courage to work with your anger and thank the other person for being patient with you. Gratitude is the best antidote to aversion and negativity.
Ultimately, be patient with yourself. Allow whatever arises and aim to understand the deeper truth of the situation. And always bring compassion, not blame or judgment, as your companion while you investigate.
When you learn the deeper reason for your anger, it might reveal an unmet need or a toxic pattern of blame or aggression. It might reveal a deep love or vulnerability, or a self-righteous desire to be right.
Just noticing what’s really happening is such a powerful practice, because in time, you will be able to express more honestly what you’re feeling and what you need. But be patient. This journey isn’t easy, and every stumble is your teacher.
Don’t forget to ask forgiveness of those we hurt. Don’t push away guilt and shame, but feel them courageously. Look closely at how we hurt others, take responsibility and know that change is constant. Just one small shift in our patterns of mind, over a period of time, can create a massive difference in where we ultimately end up.
It’s also important when you “notice and allow” to remember you are a human being with needs and not a doormat. Communicate and do what’s best for yourself and those you love.
Just as anger and aversion can bring pain and ruin, so love and forgiveness bring healing. No one is doomed to remain in the slavery of harmful habits.
Editor’s note: Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.