Angry, peeved, irritable, annoyed, pissed off, ensconced, fuming, enraged, insulted. No matter how you refer to it it's an emotion that we all have to varying degrees. Some people own their anger, some wear it like a badge, some stuff it in places it doesn't belong, others throw it at people who don't deserve it.
Anger has gotten a bad wrap and I can understand why. Anger has toppled cities and decimated countries. But anger itself isn't the problem. It's identification with it that can be harmful. When we become angry we can sometimes allow the energy of it to run us instead of the other way around.
Anger is a powerful motivator for many people while others find it completely undesirable and "bad". Women in many cultures are taught not to express anger, because doing so could have dire consequences for their position as caregivers and nurturers (roles not all women want to take).
Men are often socialized in away that freely allows the expression of anger, and is even encouraged in certain arenas where anger expression is desirable (football, boxing, mixed martial arts, film and television).
In my opinion the number one mistake we make with anger is not recognizing the hurt and fear underneath the angry emotion. Anger, sadness, happiness, fear are emotions which are triggered by thoughts. Emotions are transient energetic frequencies that resonate in our bodies and are reflection a thought we are believing at any given moment. They aren't good or bad they just are (the same goes for thoughts by the way). It's what we do with them that matters.
When we are angry we are almost always hurt. With anger there's always a feeling of being diminished, ignored, minimized, overlooked, violated, threatened or disregarded in some way. We believe on some level that we shouldn't have been treated in a certain way. A violation has occurred, or is about to occur, and we are usually protecting a part of ourselves we see as vulnerable. But what has been violated is not the essence of who we are but the ego itself.
The ego is very good at taking everything personally. In fact, that's its main job. We are transgressed and we respond in a habitual way to that transgression. Some people are more reactive and may become explosive, blaming, ridiculing, belittling or sharp tongued.
Others repress, gloss-over, ignore, sublimate or placate. There is no right or wrong way to be angry, and much of this depends on our personality style and relative level of consciousness. Obviously the more violent our anger expression the more consequences we face, and the more people we effect. But anger, when not understood and constructively vented, is always violent; whether your punching yourself or someone else, it's still an assault.
Analyzing the real reasons for our anger can help to understand and dissipate it more quickly. Some of us move straight to rationalizing why we shouldn't be angry, and this doesn't work either. When we do this we end up building up a reservoir of resentment that will at some point erupt, which is often followed by guilt.
Some of us think that showing anger is wrong, bad, inappropriate, weak or stupid and when that is the case we must challenge our beliefs about anger itself so that we can move into expressing it without judgment. Then we can move into analyzing the angry thoughts themselves.
Some of us are more comfortable complaining, being irritable, transferring anger into sadness, eating, sex, work, sports, or some other displaced location but underneath the other behaviors is the emotion of anger, and underneath that is the hurt ego.
So how do you work with anger in a way that cuts through all of the distortions and deepens your understanding and compassion? First, if you need to distance yourself from the angering stimulus, please do so.
When the part of our brain that regulates emotion is in anger it's very difficult to make rational decisions, so if we are hyper-aroused (typical signs are caused by adrenaline and include dry mouth, feeling not, tense, feeling as though we are going to cry or scream, shaking, etc) it's time to step back. When our body sends us these signals we need to distance ourselves from the situation/person so that we can regain a more reasonable state of balance.
Once you've done this you can then start questioning the thoughts that triggered the anger. This may take some practice for some people, particularly those who are very reactive because it feels like the anger comes too fast and there is no thought associated with it...but where there's intense emotion there's always thought.
Below is a dialogue I had with a client that revealed the underlying thought/belief behind a common angering situation: road rage. In this exchange I use a combination of the "deep inquiry method" I learned from my mentor Katherine Fauvre and The Work of Byron Katie to process with the ego beliefs within the angry thoughts.
Try it yourself on any thought that's causing you pain. It's always good to do this with a trusted friend, partner or counselor who can support you and not judge your responses. However, you can dialogue like this by yourself with nothing but a piece of paper and your thoughts.
Thoughts About Road Rage
Client: I'm pissed off because this idiot cut me off on the highway and almost clipped my car.
Me: Why are you pissed about it?
Client: Because, I hate bad drivers and that person is an idiot and they have no regard for anyone else.
Me: Why does that bother you?
Client: Because people should think about other people when they drive!
*Anytime you hear the word "should" come up in a thought, you should take notice. Anger and resentment are not far behind.
Me: Is that true?
Client: Yes! It keeps us all safe.
Me: So 'people should think about other people when they drive', why is that?
Client: Because that's what smart people do...I think about other people when I'm driving.
Client: Because I want to be safe and I don't want to die or kill anyone else.
Me: So you're angry at them because you don't want to die?
Client: Well, I don't think anyone wants to die! Well...most people don't want to die.
Me: No, I get you...and that person could have killed you which makes you mad...so what if you had died?
Client: Well...I'd be dead?
Me: And if you were dead?
Client: I couldn't be here anymore and my life would be cut short, I'd have to leave my family and life behind.
Me: And if you left your family and life behind?
Client: (long silence) I don't know what to say to that...(starts to tear up)
Me: Yeah, and that's a scary thought...
Me: Well how do you know your life would be "cut short"? If that's when you died then wasn't that when it was supposed to happen. It couldn't be any other way, right?
Client: Yeah, I guess if that's when it happened then that's when it was supposed to happen.
Me: So that person shouldn't have cut you off, is that true?
Me: Can you absolutely know that it's true that they shouldn't have cut you off?
Me: So how do you feel when you think the thought, "they shouldn't have cut me off" and they did?
Client: Angry, irritable, annoyed, rageful.
Me: So who would you be, how would you feel without that thought?
Client: Calm, peaceful...I'd be okay, not amped up like I am right now.
Me: So can you think of a stress free reason to keep the thought "they shouldn't have cut me off", especially after they already have?
Me: So are you more angry that the person cut you off, or that you could have died?
Client: I guess that I could have died. That scares me. But it makes me mad that they weren't thinking about other people's safety.
Me: I hear that and it makes a lot of sense. Do you think that person was trying to kill you?
Client: No. They were just being careless.
Me: Have you ever cut someone off before?
Me: So, you two have something in common...
Client: (laughts) Yeah, I guess so.
Me: Did you feel bad about it?
Client: Sometimes yes, but I'm sure I've done it and haven't noticed.
Me: Okay. So turn around the statement "that person shouldn't have cut me off" and make it about you.
Client: I shouldn't have cut that person off?
Me: Yeah, Is that as true or truer than the other statement?
Me: So are you mad at them or your projection of yourself in them?
Client: I guess I was taking it personally, and it probably had nothing to do with me as an individual.
Me: Yes, at the beginning of the conversation this person was an inconsiderate, careless, murdering idiot...how do you feel about them now?
Client: They're just like me, (hahaha). I guess I'm just as much of an inconsiderate, careless, murdering-idiot as they are!
Me: Yeah. So how's your anger now.
Client: It's gone. I'm a little more mad at myself. I guess I understand that on one level I was really angry with myself, and I was more scared than angry.
Me: Yeah, in my experience when we get clarity about our thoughts they don't torture us. It's not that I think you should be mad at yourself, but people are doing the best they can at any given moment. Sometimes we are careless because we are taking care of ourselves, and someone else may not like the way we do that, it could come off as down right unsafe or irresponsible. But we all are doing the best we can.
Client: There's always a judgement, a "should" behind my anger...people shouldn't have done this or that to me or society as a whole...but I guess I'm really judging myself when I judge them.
Me: Yeah, that's all we're ever doing. Everyone else is just a mirror for what we don't like. Work with the projector not the projection. It's the quickest way not to feed the cray! And when we realize that the ego is just a scared child trying to stay alive, then it loosens the grip of the fear and we don't worry that other people are trying to kill us, even when they are...they're just confused, listening to their own egos.