Words by Jen Woodward
In this series, we’ll be exploring some of our most prominent emotions, starting with one of the most human and primordial responses we have - anger.
When we get angry it’s difficult to think rationally and, ironically, this emotion tends to be more destructive to us than the person or thing we are angry at. We know that shutting anger down and ignoring it doesn’t work and doing nothing allows it to run wild. Anger can impact our experience of joy, damage relationships and affect our well-being. We can allow our rage to destroy us from the inside out, or we can feel and acknowledge it, listen to what it is telling us and even express it in powerful new ways.
Here are some tips for containing that temper before you erupt.
Getting Anger Under Control
A reflection that may help us to deal with anger is to acknowledge that it is a transitionary, impermanent state. Though it consumes us in the moment, acting on it may be damaging, particularly as the choices we make whilst angry tend to not be the most rational decisions we’ve ever made.
Pausing - so we don’t get too caught up in our anger - is often helpful. Try greeting your anger like an old friend, although it may sound silly, next time you feel annoyed a quick ‘hey anger, welcome back’ in your head does wonders.
Just the process of recognising and naming your feelings provides a pause for thought. This takes some practice but works well for other emotions too – ‘hey anxiety buddy, what’s new?’ and ‘woah, happiness, old friend’.
Whilst feeling annoyed our inner voice can take over and tell a distorted story. Within The Buddha’s Discourse on the Forms of Thought, he discusses five options for dealing with unwelcome thoughts.
Think of the positives
As you go about your day-to-day living, try and get into the habit of noting some positive things about the people close to you. Later you can remember these when you start to cast them in a negative light.
Try and distract yourself
It’s important to reflect on where the anger comes from but before you can explore these feelings you may need to get your temper under control. At times it can be useful to distract yourself, watch a movie or do some mindful breathing. Though do notice if this is an occasion when you may need to address those feelings and resolve them.
Consider the results of your thoughts
Because anger causes you more harm than the person you’re angry at, consider whether it’s worth all this energy just to burn yourself. Your angry thoughts will not only affect your wellbeing but also every time you choose to respond in anger it will condition you to respond in a similar way in the future.
Think of the alternatives
Have a go at questioning your feelings – why am I thinking these angry thoughts? How did I get here? Are there any alternative ways to think about this situation?
Use your willpower
If we are really determined, we may be able to challenge any negative or unhelpful thoughts. A simple, ‘let go’ may be enough, or consider how important a particular relationship is to you.
The most useful part of these strategies is that in any given situation we can choose the one that resonates with us at the time. Rather than always trying to think of alternatives, or always distracting ourselves, we can use our judgement to decide which one is most valuable to us in our angry moment.
Once you have gained some degree of control over your anger it’s time to figure out where it comes from. According to the Tibetan teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso - in his book Transform Your Life - he writes that anger has three components: First you perceive something unpleasant, then you exaggerate the perceived harm, and finally you develop a wish to harm.
Try thinking about what has made you angry and then what your exaggerated fear may be. Say, you’re on your way to work and the bus driver stops the bus, they’ve finished their shift and you have to wait for the next one. They spew you out onto the pavement, the cold, harsh air hits you and you feel annoyed. You’re angry - pause - why are you angry? Are you imagining your lateness will cause you to lose respect from your colleagues, or you’ll miss a meeting, perhaps a co-worker will overshadow you, or does another late start put your job on the line? If you can determine exactly what your fear is, you can start to unpick where those angry feelings come from.
What about all those times where you haven’t managed to keep your cool and have acted on those feelings of anger? Try and take responsibility and admit you were at fault. Admitting that your response wasn’t helpful and there might have been an alternative way to deal with your feelings is helpful. An apology goes a long way too.
Every angry moment is an opportunity to practice these skills. But, if you do get angry and react, don’t beat yourself up too much. That anger that you felt will bring along some clarity. Forgive yourself and move on, showing compassion to yourself first and foremost will allow you to show compassion to others.