Anger is the most polarizing emotion we have. People either seek it, and believe deeply in its power or they avoid it like the plague, believing that its emergence is likely the end of happiness as we know it. Because anger comes with so much conflict, it would be great if we could avoid it, but there are just so many great things about which to be angry.
That guy cuts you off in traffic. Boom. Anger. You wait all day to get your favorite food, but the restaurant is closed. Boom. Anger. Someone talks louder than you in conversation to make their point. Boom. Anger. Your significant other takes the bathroom when you need it most. Boom. Anger. So many reasons to be angry, and I haven’t even talked about religion, politics, or lifestyle. Are you serious, you are not going to talk about religion, politics, or lifestyle?? Boom. Anger.
Anger is Unwelcome
The toughest part of feeling angry is how unwelcome it is, and how painful it is to stuff it. Think about it. Most of the time no one will stop you from being sad, lonely, happy, surprised, disgusted (well maybe disgusted but I think you can get away with calling something gross), afraid, embarrassed, or trusting. As soon as anger emerges, people get pretty frustrated. Hey! What the heck is that? What is that lady’s problem? That guy is angry for nor reason! C’mon already!
We stuff anger because we know that most people find it unacceptable. We begin to feel frustrated, disappointed, and stressed, and anger shows up to say what’s the big deal here? We sense this disruption, and accommodate our environment by swallowing hard, and hoping that the anger will dissipate. It doesn’t dissipate though does it? Instead, it finds a nice piece of land in our unconscious, and sets up a condo next to other angry feelings that have recently been stuffed until one day there is overcrowding.
As you can imagine, anger does not like to live too close to all the other angry feelings. So when you have tried to swallow yet another frustrating, stressful encounter, and the landscape of your unconscious becomes overpopulated with angry feelings, they all make an untimely exodus. During this departure, you become overwhelmed by anger and unleash the hounds of hell on the nearest person to frustrate you (likely a safe person who loves you), and they get days, week, months, or perhaps years of anger all in one helping. I call this the Anger Supernova. Much like a star that has recently exploded, your anger burns brighter and hotter than it has in recent days. Not surprisingly, people respond badly to your anger supernova, and the stuffing recommences.
Effects of Stuffing Anger
We already mentioned the external effects of stuffing anger, so lets take a moment to underline the internal effects. Holding anger in causes stress, which in high doses leads to a negative impact on your nervous system and memory function. Anger that is turned inwards also feels like extraordinary anxiety, which can manifest into panic. Can a lot of anger really cause a panic attack? It sure can. Perhaps the worst part is that you feel that you cannot express a genuine emotion when it comes to you. It is hard to be in a sincere relationship, while acting without sincerity. Doing so only makes us feel that we are unworthy of these relationships, and deserving of shame for all of our anger.
Anger as a Weapon
Some people are reading this, and thinking that it is not them. They quite enjoy being angry. Anger can actually be pretty addictive, as others may fear your anger and give you social status that validates your ego. There are two problems with this. First, it is not realistic to experience anger so much, so anger is probably taking the place of other emotions that are coming up. When other emotions are not processed, they too become stuffed and you may find yourself having a very sad (the emotion that gets stuffed the most for anger) day. Being angry all the time also takes a toll on your nervous system, and can affect immune response, sleep, digestion, and memory. Second, you too are trying to modulate your emotional response in a way that controls your relationships (whether trying to keep people out or in), which will concern you about the sincerity of your relationships.
Stuffing and wielding anger are processes that have long-term negative effects no matter how great the short term effects. In mindfulness work, no emotion is more important than another. They are all experiences that describe how the body is currently responding to the environment, which understood over time can give us insight into our experience. They are all necessary to live a full, meaningful life. This is why they exist.
The only way to include anger in your life is to accept that it plays a role (however important) in helping you live a life of well-being and purpose. It is a great way of communicating to yourself or others that something is not right in your world, and requires an attentive eye and some deliberate calibration. If you do not let yourself and others no what your needs are, you will never be able to meet them. You will also never have sincere relationships in which you feel completely accepted for being you.
Behind most anger is miscommunication and disappointment. In life, these are givens. They are also great opportunities to grow in our self-understanding, and in our understanding of others. At its very base, be kind to your anger. It is just trying to protect you from accepting less than you need with respect to how others treat you and how you treat yourself.
Self-Compassionate Response to Anger
Before we get to this work, be kind to yourself. We all struggle with anger in some fashion. No one gets it right every time, and the social pressures that we have to hide it or wield it are substantial. We come by our difficulties in expressing anger honestly. These difficulties cause us great suffering, and, as such, are worthy of our compassion.
Ok, the good stuff!
If you can, take some time to sit quietly. Follow 6 count breaths in and out 10 times and begin to notice your body relax. As you are able to pay better attention to your breath, and find yourself a little more aware of your body, I want you to think of something that recently caused you to feel angry. Notice which parts of your body tense up, and get to know the feeling. Notice it like an interested child, full of wonder and warmth. Then, let this feeling pass. This exercise can be really helpful in enabling your body and mind to get a sense of when anger is beginning to manifest in the future. These indicators will give you a heads up when anger begins to manifest so that you can opt for a more helpful response than your default one, and begin to feel successful in working with your anger.
If you do not have time to sit quietly, the next time you become angry (if you can) notice how it feels in your body. Knowing where anger lives in your body will give you an opportunity to try out a more adaptive way of managing it than you use presently. Also, see what you can do to make this feeling worse. See what you can do to make it feel a little better. Trust your body’s ability to sincerely respond to anger and our attempts to diminish or heighten it. Then, let the anger pass. If you are feeling particularly able, try to express it in a healthy way by letting someone or yourself know what has caused you so much frustration and disappointment. Then, pay attention to how they respond.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Reward yourself as you embark on this journey. Notice the small changes. Be as proud of the short-term progress as you are of the long -term progress. Give yourself permission to make mistakes or to find yourself faced with someone not quite as evolved as you who feels too unskilled to deal with any anger. Remind yourself that engaging in this process alone is a form of self-compassion and self-acceptance, and the effort by itself will do wonders for your nervous system and your relationships.
Even after all this work, you may have some anger supernova days or you may swing your anger around like a hammer connected to a very long rope. Notice these responses, and be kind to yourself. Acknowledge how difficult the circumstances must have been for you to fall upon old behaviors that never really worked for you. Focus on the process, and remind yourself that all your efforts will result in more sincere, healthy, accepting relationships with yourself and others. Even if you forget, you are worth it.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 47. In the Books.