And it’s hurting more than you realize
A lot of us are angry. A lot of us are angry and don’t know it. A lot of us are perpetuating our own struggles — and adding to others’.
Anger doesn’t always look like “anger”
We often repackage and abstract it into other feelings:
Sarcasm, annoyance, irritation, skepticism, criticism, jealousy, selfishness and distance are all anger, too.
So, you may not think of yourself as an angry person, but if you demonstrate these, you still are. I was in this boat up until earlier this year, when I realized I never had an answer when I asked myself, “how are you feeling?” (“KG, you can’t always be ‘fine!’”) I looked up the “feelings wheel” and realized that I was angrier than I thought.
You should care about anger because it affects everything else you care about — namely, your health, your relationships, and your effectiveness with pretty much everything else in life, including work.
You may not care about anger in and of itself — hell, you may even pride yourself on your anger (or “sarcasm,” or “criticalness,” or “logic,” or how everyone else is mediocre at best) — but if you wonder why you don’t have more of the things you want in life, the answer, at least in part, comes from resolving anger.
How to deal with anger
First, let’s talk about our favorite methods — all things that actually don’t work for effective emotional management:
- Bury it. Shove it into a tiny box deep inside yourself and deny its very existence until the end of time. Deny ever having the emotion; deny even understanding what the emotion is.
- Express it. Act out in whatever way seems fitting, and if you aren’t sure, err on the side of “more.” Hit a punching bag, kick a wall, scream into a pillow. You get the idea.
- Fix it. Preferably, by seeing a therapist, who will happily take your money for the privilege of guiding you through how you’re “flawed,” “bad” or “wrong.” Talk about your anger, but then focus more on the causes — who, what, where, when, and of course why — effectively framing yourself as a victim who needs to be “helped” (even if only through him or her self.)
The problem with all of these is that they don’t actually resolve the anger.
Burying it will only cause it to bubble to the top in other ways — not just “big explosions,” but more commonly countless little “lash-outs” like the emotions listed above.
Expressing it only exacerbates anger, and gives us nothing by way of tools for effective management. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “not only does the venting ritual fail to reduce anger; it serves as a rehearsal for physically expressing anger (violently) in the future.” Nothing rational has ever been done out of anger.
And the language around “fixing” it implies that we are “bad,” “damaged,” or “victims.” It does much more to cement our self-loathing than it does to fix the problem.
So, what’s the solution?
First: in the moment anger happens:
- Acknowledge anger. As it happens, just as you might glance at someone who’s just entered the room.
- Do so without:
- Giving in to it (expressing it or lashing out)
- Judging it (or yourself)
“Whenever our [anger] comes up, all we need to do is recognize it and call it by its name.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Hello: Jealousy. Fear. Irritation. Anger.”
Honor the fact that they are there.
Because when you honor your emotions, but do so without throwing yourself at their feet and lashing out, you also honor yourself.
Overall: understanding that anger is always caused by unmet needs
And the need is never “to be angry.” So if that’s what you’re “giving into” or focusing on, you’re only abstracting yourself further from what you actually need.
Think of “hangry” as the clearest example. When we feel “hangry,” we’re not actually angry with whatever we’ve channeled negative emotions at. In reality, we’re just hungry. And the fix isn’t to ignore it, or shout “express” our anger. The solution is to eat.
As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,
“When a person’s speech is full of anger, it is because he or she suffers deeply. Because he has so much suffering, he becomes full of bitterness.”
The third step is compassion
If you read Thich Nhat Hanh, you know that compassion is a major theme in his work (and, well, all of Buddhism), and I agree with it. But I err on the side of caution with this step because we so often fuck it up, either circumventing it entirely on basis of skepticism of its importance (see above), or going balls to the wall on it, all in too hard and too fast, losing ourselves to codependency in an effort to resolve our anger by “giving more.” Which is ineffective.
So, I agree with compassion. But I add a huge caveat: the person we must first (and always) show compassion and care for is: us.
Compassion for others is part of it. But we can’t show anyone anything close to compassion if we don’t first understand what it looks like by showing ourselves. And we can’t connect with others by receiving their compassion and letting them help with needs if we don’t first make an effort to identify and manage them on our own, and then effectively communicating this as a package.
“When we do this, our [anger] can no longer dominate us… We have liberated ourselves.” — Thich Nhat Hanh