Nephew: You once said anger is a wonderful emotion to have. Why would you say something like that?
Uncle: Because it’s true.
Nephew: How do you figure that? Anger causes heaps of trouble. You only have to look at the news.
Uncle: Poorly expressed anger causes problems, yes. That’s why anger has such a bad reputation. But if the people making the news had expressed their anger in a healthier manner they wouldn’t be making the news. They and their victims would have suffered less, and they might have solved their problem while earning people’s respect.
Nephew: But anger does cause all sorts of problems.
Uncle: No, people cause all sorts of problems with their anger.
Uncle: Anger helps subjugated people revolt. It gave women the vote. It can help you stick up for yourself when you are bullied. It’s a good motivator for when change is needed. Yet many of us believe anger is a bad emotion to have because we have seen on the news what angry people do. Or, as children we may have endured a violent, raging parent, and concluded that anger is bad.
Nephew: My parents punished us kids when we expressed anger. We were taught that getting angry is bad.
Uncle: Yes, that’s common too. Whatever the case, many of us avoid being angry, afraid that if we let ourselves become angry we might lose control and do something awful. At the very least, we might look undisciplined and foolish. ‘Good people don’t get angry’, many of us think, so we aim to never be angry.
Nephew: Isn’t that a good thing?
Uncle: Anger is a normal, healthy part of being human. If we become angry and pretend to ourselves that we are not angry, our anger can squeeze out in unwanted ways.
Nephew: Like . . .?
Uncle: Masked anger. Instead of expressing our anger with the thing we are actually angry about, we might mask that anger by becoming angry with something else. Or, by becoming angry with ourselves.
Nephew: How do you mean?
Uncle: A person with masked anger might slash train seats, or pick street fights, or snipe at their spouse . . .
Nephew: Or fart in an elevator . . .
Uncle: . . . or become a chronic complainer, or punish someone with silence . . .
Nephew: Or climb Mt Everest . . .
Uncle: I wish you’d take these talks seriously.
Nephew: Sometimes it’s difficult. You said something about turning our anger on ourselves?
Uncle: Yes, that’s when we become bitter. Or become harsh with ourselves.
Nephew: Or self harm?
Uncle: Yes. And then there is averted anger. Instead of allowing ourselves to become angry, we become a doormat.
Nephew: How about a bathmat?
Uncle: If you like. Bathmats let people walk over them because they’re fearful of how they might be perceived if they stood up for themselves. They don’t want to be seen as troublesome or unco-operative.
Uncle: Or, they are fearful of being quashed in a confrontation. Either way, the bathmats put their own needs aside and undermine their life and relationships in the process. Worse, their sense of powerlessness can lead to anxiety or despair.
‘Trying not to get angry affects relationships as well. If you can’t get angry, you and those around you don’t know who you are. They don’t know how you feel, nor do they understand the limits of your tolerance. Anger gives you borders and definition.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’.
Nephew: When my sister gets angry at work she cries, but instead of taking her anger seriously, the staff think she’s weak.
Uncle: I’m not surprised. Crying is another unhelpful way to express anger.
‘Often with anger there are other emotions underneath that a person either hasn’t been able to face or they don’t have the permission (from others or themselves) to face or they don’t even know are there. My question comes from a sense of curiosity about why they think anger is a bad emotion in the first place. So, if a person says “I think anger is a bad emotion to have” and if I ask what is bad about it . . . I will get some information. Valuable information. If I ask them to use another word it can give an insight into the feelings underneath the anger. A person might equate anger with losing control; another might equate anger with cruelty; another might equate anger with being unfeminine, weak, scary, childish, overpowering, inadequate – these are all different and thus provide different ways in to help someone deal with their anger.’
Gay McKinley, psychotherapist.
Nephew: Well, thanks for all that.
Uncle: And there’s explosive anger. Some anger-avoiders suppress their resentment until they eventually explode at something trivial. They lash out physically or verbally and surprise everyone, including themselves. Then they feel ashamed and guilty, which reinforces their belief that to be angry is bad. As a consequence they strive even harder to avoid feeling angry, bottling it up even more for the next explosive outburst.
Nephew: I’ve met people like that. You feel like you have to tread carefully around them.
Uncle: Yes. Though not everyone lashing out feels ashamed; some people enjoy the adrenaline rush. They and their loved ones live troubled lives.
Nephew: All these angers. Let me guess: there are thousands of them?
Uncle: There’s chronic anger, which has been inside the person for so long it no longer feels like anger; it feels normal. The people suffering chronic anger are the grumps, the unforgiving, the righteous.
Nephew: Where are you heading with all this?
Uncle: When we are not aware of our anger we are destined to remain grumpy, or stressed, or be bathmats. But when we can accept that anger is a normal, natural part of being human and allow ourselves to be angry in a healthy, constructive manner, we can make considered choices and change what needs to be changed. Further, we become less stressed and more relaxed than someone who doesn’t allow themselves to be angry. That’s because we aren’t afraid of our anger – we know we can handle it.
Nephew: I know where this is going.
Uncle: Paradoxically, when we master our ability to allow ourselves to be angry, we becomelessangry in life. We become more easygoing and relaxed.
Nephew: Less angry?
Uncle: When we can manage our anger effectively, it becomes easy to conclude that an incident isn’t worth being angry about – not because we are bathmats, but because we don’t give a hoot. In a calm state of mind our perspective remains healthy. We might even conclude that displaying tolerance and compassion, rather than anger, is a more appropriate response to a situation.
Nephew: I don’t get that. Why wouldn’t we give a hoot?
Uncle: When we master our ability to express our anger in a healthy, constructive manner, we gain that inner authority we have talked about, and become calm. We know we can handle the situation, so our anxiety evaporates.
Nephew: I knew you were going there. What about violently angry people? Where are they in the mix?
Uncle: Those people are fearful, fearful of a violation so tumultuous all they can see is the yawning abyss. That’s my point: when we learn how to express our anger effectively we come to learn that we can handle a situation, whether or not we actually solve the problem. It’s that knowledge that we can handle life, it’s that confidence in ourselves, which allows the turmoil to evaporate.
Nephew: The yawning abyss is still there.
Uncle: It becomes a divot.
Nephew: What rubbish.
Uncle: And there’s a bonus: when we realise that anger is not such a bad emotion to have, we cope better with another person’s anger. Instead of dismissing their behaviour as bad and irrational, we can focus more on what they are actually saying.
Nephew: That all sounds very good except for one thing: anger creates conflict, and conflict creates stress. We don’t want to feel stressed.
Uncle: If you avoid a necessary conflict with another person you will develop an even harsher innerconflict, and get stressed anyway. That’s the last thing you want. No one likes conflict, but if you have the capacity to meet it head on in a constructive manner, problems get solved and you get over the discomfort.
Nephew: I’ve heard people being called ‘anger-avoiders’.
Uncle: Yes. They’re the people I have been talking about: the people who won’t allow themselves to be angry.
Nephew: Is the Dalai Lama an anger-avoider?
Uncle: From what I understand, Buddhists don’t repress or avoid feeling their anger, and nor do they indulge it; rather, they don’t allow it to arise in the first place. They train their mind to be alert to their emotions, and they become aware of their anger as soon as it begins to form. When it does begin to form they observe it in a detached way, then address it using a number of methods, until it fades. One method is to consciously replace it with a cultivated compassion, or loving kindness, called ‘metta’.
Nephew: ‘What’s the metta?’ they ask. ‘Nothing’s the metta!’ they reply.
Uncle: (Sigh) Each Buddhist aims to one day be able to cut off anger entirely and feel only loving kindness. ‘This is, if nothing else, a beautiful ideal to aspire to,’ said one teacher I spoke with.
Nephew: You’ve spoken with Buddhists? What do they think of your claim that it’s okay to express anger in a healthy, constructive manner?
Uncle: They disagree with it. They claim that even when anger is constructively expressed it is still a toxin to the holder of the anger.
Nephew: Who is right?
Uncle: Anger management methods are relatively easy to learn and apply, whereas the Buddhist methods require training and persistence. If they work, well and good. My main concern with the Buddhist view is that if the teachings are not applied by the student properly, the student might become an anger-avoider. But I could be wrong.
Nephew: Can I get that in writing?
Uncle: To answer your question, no, the Dalai Lama is not an anger-avoider because he is not avoiding anger. Instead, he has become adept at being aware of any anger growing within him, and adept at dealing with it before it gets a chance to grow further. If you can do that, fine.
Nephew: You said that anger is a good motivator for when change is needed. If the Buddhists quell their anger before it arises, what do they use as a motivator for change?
Uncle: I don’t know.
Uncle: I don’t know.
Nephew: Speaking of the Dalai Lama, I’ve heard that punching a punching bag is a good way to release anger and stress.
Uncle: Stress perhaps, but I wouldn’t punch a punching bag to get rid of anger.
Nephew: Why not?
Uncle: Because you first have to recreate the anger within you before you can begin to release it. Do that often and you will become good at creating anger within you. That’s not a good thing.
Nephew: I feel better after punching a bag.
Uncle: It’s the adrenaline and endorphins you are creating that make you feel better. Yes, punch the bag, but don’t first bring up the anger.
Nephew: Yes, boss.
Uncle: Besides, rather than aim for a simple release of your anger, why not look into yourself to discover precisely what is angering you? What buttons have been pressed? What shoulds have been violated? Then focus on rectifying the problem.
‘If you are angry at your spouse or partner, hours of workout at the gym are not going to be nearly as effective as letting your partner know how you feel.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.
Nephew: That sounds like hard work.
Uncle: That’s the healthy expression of anger. Tell me, what does the Dalai Lama have to do with a punching bag?
Nephew: I picture his face when I’m punching it.
Uncle: Why him?!
Nephew: He’s not going to fight back.
Nephew: So your message is: it’s okay to be angry provided we express it properly?
Nephew: But if we practise being angry, won’t we become angry more often?
Uncle: If you practise being angry inappropriately, yes, that will happen. Yelling and throwing things about is unhealthy, and you can end up saying or doing something you wish you hadn’t. Worse, you will develop a short fuse. No, I’m suggesting a healthy expression of anger that aims to rectify the situation.
Nephew: Screaming and shouting can be effective. It gets results. A squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Uncle: Thanks for that cliché. Yes, you might get compliance, but you haven’t truly solved the problem, so it’s a short-term victory. The respect you will lose will be far more significant. And, from then on, the other person will lie to you to avoid your anger. You don’t want that.
Nephew: Fair enough. But yelling and throwing things about can be enormously satisfying.
Uncle: Yes, it can be a release, as can swearing. Some people believe that yelling is the best way to get results. It’s their default response. They work themselves into a ranting fit, believing it’s required to solve the problem.
Nephew: You’ve mentioned them. They end up living in their car.
Uncle: Yes. Iinstead of aiming to reduce the intensity of their anger by yelling or swearing, they aim to increase it by yelling and swearing. Each time they work themselves up they get better at it, and eventually get good at becoming angry. Then they get angry over trivial things. So, yes, a good, brief yell at no one in particular can be enormously satisfying, but don’t yell at someone. Don’t vent. If you vent on someone it’s not fair on them, and their reaction can exacerbate the situation. And, you don’t want to develop a short fuse and get angry often.
Nephew: What about controlled venting? With a friend as a soundboard? Sometimes we need to vent to open things up, to find out what is going on inside.
Uncle: Fair enough. Just make sure you have a plan in mind and have the other person’s permission.
‘One problem with merely venting anger is that the raw emotion may contain memories of many violations and humiliations. You may be angry with many people and for many reasons. To vent this conglomerate of feelings in the presence of a single person is to swamp that person with all your accumulated feelings, most of which have nothing to do with him. Rage turning into violence feels impotent and accomplishes nothing, because you aren’t dealing with the real object of your anger. You are simply giving other people good reason to be angry at you.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’.
Nephew: When is it okay to be angry?
Uncle: It’s always okay to be angry. If you’re angry, you’re angry. That’s fine. You can feel any emotion you like, whenever you like. Remember Charlotte? Charlotte allowed all the Dark Emotions to be with her. That’s how she learned how to deal with them. So yes, it’s okay to be angry. What is important is how it is expressed.
Nephew: I mean, when is anger a good thing to have?
Uncle: When change is needed.
Nephew: I feel angry with my neighbour, Jason. He did something unacceptable and I’ll be having a word with him. According to you I need to express my anger in a healthy, constructive way. What do you suggest?
Uncle: The first thing to do is the most important thing of all. And, it’s the easiest. It’s . . . what?
Nephew: Label it? Give it a name tag?
Uncle: That’s it! And make sure you’re specific. Find the right word. Do you feel furious? Annoyed? Miffed? Peeved? . . . Finding the right word will help reduce the turmoil you feel, and help you see the incident in a healthy perspective. Even more importantly, that acknowledgement sets you on the right path towards dealing with your anger effectively, and solving the problem.
Nephew: What happened was . . .
Uncle: Then remind yourself that Jason isn’t making you angry, you are. That means you take responsibility for your anger and how you express it.
Nephew: Yeah, okay. Fair enough, but he . . .
Uncle: Then ask yourself, has he pressed one of your buttons? If so, you might want to rethink things.
Nephew: I reckon what he did would press anyone’s button!
Uncle: You might also ask yourself: ‘How important will this be to me in a week from now? Or a year?’
Nephew: Great advice. The thing is . . .
Uncle: Then after making sure you have the facts right, figure out precisely what needs to happen from now on. Because that’s the purpose of anger: to make changes.
Nephew: Sounds good. I’ll tell you what he did . . .
Uncle: If you can, do what you are doing now: talk with someone. But don’t exaggerate; don’t describe the situation as awful when it is merely inconvenient.
Nephew: Fine . . .
Uncle: And consider his qualities and past kindnesses . . .
Nephew: There aren’t any.
Uncle: Then look at the incident from his point of view. What drove him to do what he did? What shoulds does he have? Is it possible he is feeling pain too?
Nephew: Hardly. He was grinning.
Uncle: Remember, we all want the same basic things: encouragement, recognition, affection . . . None of us want loneliness or anguish. Everyone wants happiness, so if he is acting badly it’s because his method of getting through life is mediocre. Remember, we are all in this boat together, in this stormy sea.
Nephew: Are you on his side or something?
Uncle: You can also remind yourself that your anger is just a creature from your Dark Forest trying to help you, and it requires your guidance.
Nephew: Forget the creatures of the Dark Forest! It’s pretty simple . . .
Uncle: Consider writing a letter listing the things you want to say, and what needs to happen.
Nephew: A letter?! What, with a postage stamp?! He lives next door!
Uncle: But . . .
Nephew: What a shame we can no longer send telegrams! And, what with the unreliability of carrier pigeons . . .
Uncle: You don’t have to give him the letter! Just writing it will help you get your thoughts in order.
Nephew: No, posting him a letter is a good idea! He might collect stamps!
Uncle: Well, yes, to send a letter, or an email, can in some instances avoid an escalating conflict. Jason can digest your letter and hopefully give you a measured response.
Nephew: I’d rather do it face-to-face!
Uncle: That’s good too. You can observe his body language. And, if you both discuss the issue constructively you can cover each aspect of the discussion as it arises.
Nephew: You make it sound like it’s a business meeting. I’m angry with my neighbour Jason and I want to let him know about it!
Uncle: It needs to be like a meeting if your intention is to change his behaviour in the future. If you just vent, you won’t get far; you’ll only increase the divide between you.
Nephew: Yes but . . . Sometimes I want to throttle you!
Uncle: Write me a letter.
Uncle: In your letter to Jason, try to anticipate his response. What might he say in response to your complaint?
Nephew: I have a fair idea and I don’t give a stuff.
Uncle: And just before you confront him, forgive yourself for the mistakes you will probably make. Don’t place pressure on yourself to ensure it all goes smoothly. It rarely does. These things can get messy.
Nephew: You’re telling me? Jason peed in our letterbox!
Uncle: When you do confront him . . . .What?
Nephew: Jason knew my birthday cards were in there.
Uncle: Oh. . . . Well, when you do confront him, slow yourself down. That will help you choose your words carefully. State how you feel, state your concerns, and explain clearly what needs to happen from now on.
Nephew: I know what needs to happen from now on. A blood nose.
Nephew: So, that’s your advice, is it? That’s how I should express my anger? In a healthy, constructive manner. That’s your advice?
Uncle: I guess so. And after the encounter you could congratulate yourself for confronting him and doing your best to express your anger in a healthy, constructive manner.
Nephew: Oh. Great.
Uncle: Praise yourself for the things you did right, because then you will be more likely to do them next time you’re angry. For example: Tell yourself, ‘I handled that well. I didn’t raise my voice too much and . . .’
Nephew: But I want to raise my voice with him! Yes, alright, I won’t give him a blood nose. But stuffing about with those steps of yours would be pointless.
Uncle: And yet, it wouldn’t. Get into the habit of following those steps and you will become skilled at dealing with anger. And with that skill you will make positive changes in your life, while earning people’s respect.
Nephew: Yes, but it wasn’t your letterbox. Or your exam results.
Uncle: Lastly, aim to one day let go of the incident.
Nephew: I’ll aim to one day let go of his throat.
Uncle: The importance of all this is that when you feel confident you can express your anger intelligently, you will lose your fear of being angry. That’s because you know that you can use your anger to effect change, rather than be a victim of it. That confidence adds to your resilience.
Nephew: That’s all very good, but did you hear me? My neighbour Jason peed in our letterbox!
Uncle: Be grateful he only peed in it.
‘The anger avoider’s pledge: Beginning today, I will allow anger to be part of my family of emotions. Anger has a place in my life, along with sadness, joy, and all my other feelings. I promise to listen to my anger, to use it to help me figure out what to say or do, and to let go of my anger when the situation is better.’
From‘Letting Go of Anger’, by Ron Potter-Efron.