Image from Straight Gym Blast
I have had a few clients who have suffered terribly from their inability to manage their anger effectively confirming what the Buddha had accurately observed:
You are not punished for your anger, you are punished by it.
In other words, our anger, and not the people or things we are angry with, causes our own suffering.
Aside from my clients’ experiences, I have enough experience of my own to realize how much our happiness is blocked by anger! Put simply, you cannot possibly feel angry and happy at the same time! And, if you do not know how to effectively deal with anger, it will remain a barrier to your happiness even without your being aware of it. This latter is particularly important to bear in mind because its effects, short and long term can be particularly damaging.
I had a friend, a Catholic priest, who, in his late forties, suffered a stroke which severely reduced the mobility and strength of his left limbs. He was fortunate that apart from that, he was able to recover fully from a temporary lapse of memory and speech impediment. When I went to visit him shortly after hearing about his stroke, he shared his experience:
“There was XX (the name of a religious colleague) who had been at loggerheads with me for some time. He just could not grasp my intention about YYY (some initiative that my friend had proposed) and he was determined to thwart my effort in getting this approved by the community of priests and laity.
On Wednesday night, after he left from our meeting, I found myself seething with rage. The next thing I remember, I was trying to call YY (a mutual friend) to get him to take me to the hospital because I was not able to see or speak clearly and I had lost movement of my left arm and leg.
A few days later, when I was recovering in the hospital and able to speak properly, I noticed him approaching my bed from a distance. I could feel my heart pounding and because they had me hooked up to the ECG machine and I could hear the change in the beeps and see the peaks on the screen, I knew I was not imagining things. I knew I was letting him get to me and I realized then that I had to do something about it”.
There have been many studies done on the correlation between anger and heart disease, strokes and cancer but perhaps one of the more well-known ones is that done by Dr Dean Ornish (author of Love and Survival) in 1998. One of the outcomes of that study was the recommendation that lifestyle changes together with psychosocial interventions could retard, if not reverse, the build-up to heart and other related diseases. Some of these interventions include visualization and anger management.
So, why do we get angry? On the surface, the reason is simple: Things (including people) are not the way we want them to be. On a deeper level, the reason is one of self-preservation in which we believe that our ability to control things around us is threatened. When we believe we are losing control, we respond in anger, whether overtly or covertly. In other words, anger has its roots in fear.
If you had suggested to my priest friend before he had the stroke that he had suppressed anger and that he was not dealing with it, he would have dismissed it. After all, he was never angry with any of us! Besides, our general impression of anger is one of explosive rage – raised voice, violence and other behaviors such as slamming doors and throwing objects. But there is a less noticeable form of anger that continues to eat away at us even when we do not appear visibly angry and it can do as much, if not more damage than the other.
I have known several people who have claimed that they never get angry! (I don’t think that even the Buddha or Jesus would have ever made that claim! ) And yet, I have seen how quickly their mood can turn, in some cases violently and in others, more covertly through sullenness, withdrawal or snide remarks. Often, people will deny that they are angry or capable of getting angry because, to them, that would be an admission of losing control.
This brings me to one of the first things we must do if we want to be able to handle our anger effectively – we must acknowledge it when we feel it. I would also suggest that we learn to acknowledge it even to those around us, should we be asked. To acknowledge something is to face it and that in itself has a powerful effect in helping to bring it under control.
Acknowledging our anger does not at all mean admitting weakness. On the contrary, it is a demonstration of strength! You are strong enough to admit the truth! Neither does acknowledging your anger make you weak or weaker. Again, it actually evokes greater strength and confidence, the energy of which would otherwise be directed into covering up your anger and/or excusing your behavior and/or breaking out in angry behavior!
Next, understanding that anger is just one of many states that arise in our mental continuum is important. Like sadness or guilt or jealousy, anger is just another state that arises in our mindstream and if dealt with appropriately, will dissipate. It is no worse or better than any other. It is when we hold on to our anger and allow it to consume us that we energize it!
Thirdly, understanding why we feel angry is important. Understanding and accepting that our way of seeing the world is not the only valid way is critical. Understanding that our happiness does not depend on the world being just the way we want it to be is equally critical. And finally, reflecting on how our anger hurts us and impacts on others WITHOUT allowing ourselves to plunge into guilt and self-chastisement is also necessary.
You will notice that the three things I’ve mentioned i.e.
Acknowledging and admitting our anger
Understanding the nature of our anger and our beliefs about ourselves and others and
Reflecting on the impact of our anger without self-chastisement and self-judgment
are things we do mentally. Does this mean that there is nothing else that can be done, especially behaviorally? Not at all. But making behavioral changes without changing deep-seated beliefs and attitudes will not bring about long-lasting change.
In my next post, I shall discuss some of these behavioral changes.
In the meantime, I invite you to share your insights and experience with managing your anger :-)