Using Anger Mindfully
Many people struggle with anger and how to use it in a conscious, healthy way. Some people even view anger as a problematic emotion, and wished that their anger would “go away.” I believe that we have the capability to feel all our emotions. They are all there for an evolutionary reason, to survive as a species, and that no one emotion is better than the others. Some, like anger, are costlier in terms of their effects on our bodies, than others. People don’t generally go to the hospital with a joy or awe attack. The more stressful emotions – fear and anger – are important allies in times of danger or crisis, but when we are not in crisis, they are not as helpful.
Sometimes we are only aware of anger when it becomes very uncomfortable and overtly expressed. We might miss the early warning signs or actively suppress it when it does start to alert us. We might feel our faces flush with heat, our hearts pump more rapidly, our muscles tighten, and our breathing become restricted. Interestingly, some of these signals feel similar to fear, but we know it as anger because it is accompanied by aggressive impulses and thoughts. If we suppress the anger long enough, it may come out unexpectedly because we’ve been keeping it in so long that we cannot contain it any longer. Other people have frequent outbursts of anger and don’t bother to suppress it. Either way, it can cost us when we express it too strongly or frequently.
How does it cost us? We can lose friendships over it if we tell people off when we’re angry. It can cost us health-wise as well. If you want to read an excellent description of how our bodies respond to stress, check out Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. The stress hormones that are secreted when we’re angry or stressed are not healthy to have present for long amounts of time; as he explains, they are good for short bursts of energy to get out of dangerous situations or to defend oneself if escape is impossible. We need to use our big brains to decide when to listen to and use the energy of anger, and when to allow it to simmer down. Unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of training for that in our education and society. That does not, however, mean that we are doomed to remain ignorant of those skills.
A mindful approach to all our emotions is helpful, I believe. When we are aware of our feelings and also nonjudgmental towards ourselves for having the emotions, we can use them more consciously rather than be at their mercy. They are there for a reason, as stated above. We can embrace them and be grateful for them, because they signal that something is happening within us or around us that needs attention. The same can be said of physical or emotional pain, but that is a subject for another post.
If we have this new relationship with our emotions, then when they arise we can use them as information and energy. We can see that someone violated our boundaries or intruded upon us, or that we are in actual physical danger and need to protect ourselves. However, information from emotions is not always accurate. There is the interpretive spin that we put on emotions that can complicate their perceived message. If we see anger as a sign that we’re right and someone else is wrong, we might lash out at people and say hurtful things before we have all the information correctly assessed. That is why it is important to use our wise minds, as Dr. Marsha Linehan would call it, to bear upon these situations. Wise mind is a blend of emotion mind, that is experiencing emotion, with Reasonable Mind, which is the cool, logical part of our minds. When we develop mindfulness through conscious awareness of our emotions, we are in a better position to listen to emotions but not be captive to them or controlled by them. In the case of anger, we can stop and ask ourselves a few questions about what is making us angry:
· Am I in danger, physically?
· Am I in danger emotionally?
· What is the nature of the danger, if it is present?
· What can I do to get out of the danger?
· What is the real reason for my anger?
· What is at stake? Is it my pride, reputation, feelings, or something more abstract?
· Who is threatening me and how?
· Who is this person to me? Is it someone whose opinion I value?
· What am I bringing to the situation to make myself angry?
· Is my side of the metaphorical street clean? Am I behaving in a dignified, respectful manner?
· What do I want in this situation? How can I get that while still respecting the other people present?
· How can I express my anger (if that’s necessary) in a way that will produce the results I want while still respecting myself and others?
Okay, there are more than a few things to consider, but I think you get the picture. When we’re able to use wise mind to help us sort through our anger, sometimes it naturally simmers down on its own. Sometimes we have a chance to catch ourselves before making a big mistake, and sometimes when we’re humble, we see what we contributed to the situation to make it as bad as it was. I have been in that position and have learned that I need to check myself before acting on anger. I don’t always get it right, but the majority time I can manage that. When I do, I am grateful because sometimes I’m getting mad about something I created with my actions or thoughts.
Anger is not the enemy, but allowing your emotions to run our lives is. We can prevent that from happening when we cultivate a mindful approach to experiencing, thinking about and expressing our anger.