He who can suppress a moment's anger may prevent a day of sorrow.               Tryon Edwards

I used to have a quick temper but finally learned that if I am angry, I am wrong. Anger, for me, means that I haven’t looked at the situation deeply enough, understood enough, or accepted responsibility enough. Does this mean that I think everything I do is wrong and others are always right or that I never experience anger? No and no. But it does mean that I recognize that most interpersonal conflicts have rights and wrongs on both sides, and anger mostly happens when one person thinks that they can do no wrong or doesn’t make the effort to understand the other person. Students tell me how harmful anger is to their home and work life so this paper is intended to help people become more free from this harmful emotion.

Many people’s lives are greatly harmed by anger, both theirs and others, whether as simmering negativity, blow-ups, or abusive interactions. Anger may cause us to lose control of ourselves, act in ways that embarrass or make us ashamed, or that harm our best interests at work, home, or with friends.

Suppression isn’t the solution to managing anger. Understanding and making smarter choices are better. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be angry with a mugger, con artist, or other predatory, bullying, or controlling person, just that there probably isn’t any benefit to doing so. Such situations call for correct action, but anger usually blocks clearly seeing best options or good decision-making.

It used to be considered smart to express anger, to let the other person know how you feel rather than bottling it in. People thought that not expressing anger would lead to ulcers and heart attacks, maybe even cancer, but recent studies have shown that expressing anger isn’t healthier and usually just leads to more anger.

I believe that it’s usually better to not let anger begin. This isn’t as difficult as it seems and has many benefits. Let’s explore the roots, myths about, and alternatives to anger. This paper won’t cover anger induced by alcohol (not related to any rational process), co-dependent situations (12-step programs and therapy are invaluable for both sides; Al-anon for the co- and AA or other A’s for the abuser), anger that leads to violence (just an extension of the delusions covered below), or displayed in sex games (not real anger).

Why We Believe in Anger
Anger is never without Reason, but seldom with a good One.                                                                                                                Benjamin Franklin

To people caught in the grip of anger, it seems unavoidable. Anger usually begins as an intense flash that has physical (increased heart rate and blood pressure and adrenaline surges {the cause of the “flash” feeling} that trigger the fight or flight response) and emotional (furious internal dialogue, imagining various reactions, chains of emotions from envisioning the other person’s likely responses to our reactions) components that quickly overwhelm every other thought, experience or even sensation happening before it started and typically engulfs our entire being. Although the physiological reaction is usually short-term if not perpetuated by ruminating on the source of the anger, the emotions stirred up generally continue to cause distress for quite some time or until pushed by rationality or outside forces.

Anger feels so powerful that many people can’t imagine being able to control or prevent it. People think that anger is inevitable when we are threatened, scared, belittled or insulted (as if our anger would somehow protect us from these experiences), that not becoming angry when certain events occur is unnatural. When we are forced to swallow our anger, it's often transmuted into long-term resentment that continually eats away at us as long as we are unable to voice our distress or upset directly. Many people live with anger so constantly in their lives that it becomes built into their personality, leaving them with fewer ways to cope with life and often driving others away. Some folks think that being hot-tempered is just an inborn trait that they can’t do anything about.

Yet the existence of people such as many Buddhists, Quakers, and some older folks for whom anger is a nearly alien sensation shows that learning to master this strong emotion is possible. Mastering anger is like managing any other emotion: it takes understanding, motivation, practice, appropriate techniques, and self-examination. Early training certainly makes learning meditation and emotional mastery much easier, but new behaviors and habits can be learned throughout life (they just take more work). If it were true that some people are just genetically more angry (doubtful), they could still learn self-mastery and to direct that energy in better directions and to better purposes.

Understanding Myths About Anger
You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.                                                                                                            Buddha

Expressing anger results from many emotional DELUSIONS:

1. Other people's actions, decisions, or behavior force me to become angry.
False. Anger is a choice, one of many possible reactions to any potentially anger-inducing situation. To see this, watch how different people (not members of the same group) react to the same situation (Candid Camera-type TV programs show how different human reactions can be). The fact is, human reactions to any situation are as unique as individuals are when they aren’t caught up in group-think, mob mentality, or social expectation. The moment of choice may be only a micro-second, but it is there. With practice and increased skill, this moment can be stretched out until the lure of anger disappears.

2. Being entitled to feeling anger means that it is beneficial to allow it.
Wrong. Being entitled to being angry doesn’t mean that it’s helpful or healthful. Few situations are not worsened by anger.

3. Anger is a primary emotion.
False. Anger is usually a cover for fear, feeling threatened, inadequate, scared, insulted, slighted, belittled, or sad. Anger isn’t primary, but secondary, a reaction to the primary reaction which is often buried. Knowing that anger is just a cover for a deeper emotion may help identify it and find better ways to deal with the original feeling.

4. Expressing anger is better than keeping it in.
Perhaps. But expressing your feelings through journaling first would probably be better – use “peeling the onion” (on my website) or other techniques to identify your part in the situation and discover the best way to communicate your feelings to the other person without making him/her defensive. Once either person becomes defensive, progress and better communication become nearly impossible and the chances of a mutually beneficial solution become microscopic.

5. Anger is more about the other person than oneself.
No. Anger isn’t really about the other person, even when s/he is clearly wrong. Anger is about our feelings, subjective judgments, muddled reactions, communication skills (or lack of them), our desire to have the other person either cease doing whatever angered us or feel badly about it, or to take revenge on him/her. Even when the other person’s actions are clearly wrong, our anger is still ours, still a choice, and still RARELY an optimal or necessary choice.

6. The other person deserves to know what s/he has done wrong.
Maybe. If improvement seems possible, after you have sorted out the situation, identified your role in the conflict, and found the most constructive tone and approach to take. If you can raise the issue without raising hackles or doing more harm than good, then perhaps some benefit can occur. If you can’t see your contribution to the problem, you may be in denial or delusion, lying to yourself, or haven’t looked deeply enough. You aren’t to blame for the other person’s intentionally cruel or wrong actions, but few situations are as clear-cut as victim and perpetrator, or where one person is totally right and the other totally wrong. (Clear-cut instances of all the wrong being on one side, as with a controlling or abusive person who blames others for his/her own faults or misdeeds don’t require dividing blame, just moving out of harm’s range.) In some cases the victim sends unconscious or unintended signals to the abuser that predictably trigger abusive reactions – both sides are locked into a dance that can only be stopped if one of them becomes aware of the game and opts out or there is outside intervention; these kinds of interactions are common in addict-co-dependent relationships.

7. Expressing anger will clear the air and improve the relationship.
Probably not. If you are wrong about the situation’s causes or lead-up (including not identifying your role in the conflict), expressing anger is more likely to make things worse. Anger muddles our ability to think clearly, sort things out, or see our part in an interaction. Since the other person is certain to have opinions and feelings about your behavior, unloading your anger will entitle him/her to vent those feelings also, usually leading to more distress for both parties.
This mutual distress can sometimes be resolved in a way that helps both people understand, but this usually takes a great deal of time (hours!), compassion, openness, mutual respect and listening, caring, and effort, and cannot be demanded, depended upon, or expected during any heated exchange. Chances are, resisting the impulse to vent your anger will lead to finding more constructive and beneficial ways to deal with the situation.
8. Anger says more about the offender than the person who is angry.
Not necessarily. Being angry doesn’t mean that you are right. People are entirely capable of being utterly furious while still being quite wrong, sometimes in every aspect of their beliefs about the situation. Neither the existence of anger nor its intensity proves that you’re right, only that you decided to vent your feelings. Strong emotions distort reality and make our beliefs and perceptions unreliable.

9. I don’t know who I would be without my anger.
Fear not. You can interact with others without being a ticking bomb. You would be someone who copes better, makes more rational decisions, is calmer and healthier, and has better relationships. Being brave feels better than being hurt, afraid, or angry.

10. Anger gives me energy for dealing with problems.
False. The reverse is true – anger sucks up a great deal of physical, emotional, and mental energy that could be better used for solving problems. Worse, prolonged anger creates new physical, emotional, and relationship difficulties that take time and energy to fix (if fixing them is even possible). Fixing anger-generated behaviors requires spending time and energy responding other’s reactions to your behavior as well as the coping required for the original issue.

11. Without my anger, I wouldn’t get my way as often.
Short-term maybe. But long-term, probably not. If you bully or throw tantrums to get others to do what you want, they will dislike or hate you, look for ways to make your life difficult, turn on you whenever they get a chance, and ultimately abandon you. The best way to get your needs met is to treat others with respect and consideration. Other people’s wishes are as important as yours. Being decent and reasonable will make others more likely to want to help you get or do what you want.

12. I have been angry with this person for a very long time. I should continue being angry.
NOT HEALTHY. Being angry for a long time isn’t a beneficial, healthful, or effective way of life. The other person still is whoever s/he is, doing whatever s/he does, and you are no further ahead than you would be if you hadn’t been carrying all that poison inside yourself all this time. Holding onto anger makes you worse off emotionally, physically, and spiritually while the other person is relatively unaffected. Not a good strategy.

13. This person really hurt me – I deserve to feel angry.
No. You deserve to be happy, and you can’t be happy while hanging onto anger. Your anger affects the person who hurt you LESS than it does you.

14. Getting angry shows I am human and normal. If I didn’t get angry I would be a robot.
Not really. There are many definitions of what it means to be human. A loose cannon that goes off at the slightest provocation isn’t one of them (animals get angry too, but no animal can rise above their anger). There are many other definitions of being human, including ones with more dignity and self-control. Someone who can’t control the expression of his/her emotions is not more human than someone who can. Not being able to control how you feel or express emotions is being a puppet, dancing to the tune of whatever demon (any negative thought or emotion that controls, or seeks to, behavior) or influence that passes through your environment or controls your mind.
         Compassion is the highest of all human virtues, but compassion isn’t possible while angry. Robots aren’t capable of compassion. Giving up anger for compassion makes one not only human, but a more evolved one.

15. My anger is a legitimate basis for making decisions and taking action.
Never. Anger is more distorting and deceptive than most other emotions. Decisions made in anger are nearly always wrong. Even if you are right about the issue, decisions dictated by anger are sure to be more poorly made than if rational thinking had identified other options, strategies, and approaches.

16. It’s okay to be angry as long as I don't show it.
Definitely not. Anger is an acid that eats away at the container that holds it (the person who is angry). Working it out is much healthier for you and probably the other person also. Anger is never really invisible, just subtle – it poisons the possibilities for healthy relationships and interactions.

17. Without anger, others would take advantage of me.
Not long-term. Anger doesn’t really make you better able to articulate your needs and feelings (usually worse) though it may sometimes enable expressing your distress when you haven’t learned to describe your feelings or stick up for yourself without blowing up. Self-assertion doesn’t require becoming angry, though some people find anger may supply a form of courage that they otherwise don’t know how to muster.

18. The other person hurt me so I am entitled to hurt him/her back.
Definitely not. Being angry doesn’t justify any action. We aren’t entitled to revenge when or because we are hurt – that’s what people do when they can’t manage their emotions.

The Value of Anger
Sometimes, you have to get angry to get things done.                        Ang Lee

Anger isn’t without its uses – it has many valid functions:

Using Anger Constructively
Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.             Aristotle

In a non-emergency situation, anger should make us step back and THINK:

What is the history behind this problematic interaction or these people?

What are the best short- and long-term solutions for both sides?

What is the healthiest pathway to change for everyone involved?

If the situation is an emergency, don’t waste time or energy on anger or analysis, just get away from danger as quickly as possible.

Preventing Anger
First, realize that you won’t be able to master your anger as long as you are justifying it. Never blame your actions on the other person. S/he isn’t responsible for what you did – you are. Use “I” statements to keep yourself honest.

     Both sides in any dispute have motives that usually aren’t immediately obvious because we all hide our deepest motives from ourselves as well as others. People aren’t often attentive, interested, or skilled enough to read each other’s motives but that doesn’t mean that unconscious and perhaps not-socially-acceptable motives aren’t there. Be curious about the drivers behind both your and the other person’s behavior, thinking, and emotions. Understand that other people’s anger is just as wrong, deluded, and off-base as yours (but you can’t control theirs, only yours). Remembering this will help you avoid anger, make you more compassionate and understanding, and enable you to not take other people’s anger too seriously.

You must believe that no situation requires you to become angry, that you can learn to prevent anger, and that it’s beneficial to do so. Nothing requires you to act in any given way based on someone else’s behavior. Your behavior is your choice. Realize that it's in your best interest in nearly all situations to be able to control your anger (and you need to be super-clear about those few exceptions before thinking you can use them).

The time to work on developing anger control isn’t when you are in an anger-inducing situation – at that point you probably won’t remember your resolutions, planned approaches, or motivation, and will likely act as you usually do. The time for practice is when you are calm, alone, and can non-defensively consider alternative behaviors. Replay situations when you lost your temper but with you acting instead as the most dignified, civilized, compassionate person you are capable of being. Whenever you slip and become angry, mentally replay the situation seeing yourself acting as you wish you had.

How much you will need to practice anger management skills depends upon:

Make amends to anyone you vented your anger on in the past – this will reduce your likelihood of losing your temper in the present and future.

Attend to your self-care, especially sufficient sleep and alone time. Anger is much more likely when we neglect our own needs. Take care of yourself first so that you can be a decent person for everyone around you, especially those closest who are most likely to be hurt by your anger. Anger often has less to do with the other person and more with feeling stressed (usually an indicator of insufficient self-care, especially sleep and meditation) which makes perceptions and attributions off-balance. Exercise, time alone or in nature, a bath, nap, massage, or other form of self-care may prevent temper outbursts when your self-control reserves are low.

The emotional tools below can reduce your anger demon’s power over you and force it to stop interfering with the rational operations of your life. Practice using them when you aren’t upset so that you will be skilled in their use when you need them. You will surely figure out more specifically applicable thoughts to suit your regular anger triggers than these generic examples.

1. Counter: poke holes in demon’s assertions, move, act, dance, sing
Anger will do more to harm my interests than to help. I will dance and stomp my rage away or sing about my anger.
Dismiss: reject a demon’s assertions or right to be talking to you 
This anger is trivial, petty, and does nothing to make my life better.

2. Distract: put your mind on something constructive or positive
I will focus on what I must do to keep my life working well. (Movies work well for distracting from anger – double features are good for major upsets.)

3. Laugh: laugh at the demon (they really are preposterous)
The person I am angry with reminds me of _{insert ridiculous image_} when s/he does that. (Even better: when I am angry I look like {insert ridiculous image}.

4. Gratitude: identify all the things you are grateful for 
I am so glad that I can better manage my anger than __{­person}___.
I appreciate my health, job, home, other ________________________________.

5. Transform: use the energy of the emotions to change them
Fast, aggressive housecleaning is a fabulous way to discharge anger. Exercise can also work but be careful to avoid injury (try a water workout – less risk of injury).
Avoid any seeming outlet for anger (like driving fast) that creates risk to yourself or others.

Reframing events and interactions to see them from other viewpoints or perspectives or to find harmful, delusional, or fuzzy thinking can be a great help in overcoming anger. Try imagining how a space alien would see the situation (could be a potential source of humor as well) or how the other person sees what happened. Try flipping your views on the situation or event around and see how it appears to you then. Imagine yourself in the position of the other person and see how you would feel or act. This technique particularly works for reducing the lure of frequent anger episodes with a specific person or situation, or de-constructing anger after the fact.

Adjusting language often helps to prevent anger from escalating or spilling over.
When we are upset, we may use dramatic language that is imprecise and inaccurate and inflames emotions further. De-escalating our language, that is, keeping it very neutral, not using any words that carry an emotional kick, helps us to see events and situations more calmly, clearly, and objectively. This is important not just with other people but with ourselves, to keep our self-talk level and steady, to not dramatize events or circumstances in our minds. Using dramatic language when trying to discuss an upsetting situation with the person we think set it off will nearly always make the situation worse and resolution less likely.
      Typical language that interferes with clear thinking is called catastrophizing or horribilizing – that is, describing events or situations to yourself or others as disasters, awful, or the worst, etc. These are rarely true, but they slant thinking in a way that makes it harder for us to stay calm, focus on solutions, manage our emotions, or interact beneficially with others, especially someone with whom we are (and are trying not to be) angry.

Become an effective advocate for yourself and others. Standing up for yourself, and not letting abusers (official and un-) get away with taking advantage of or hurting you or others will make you feel better about yourself and makes you stronger and more skilled. Yes, learning to safely confront people who abuse power takes time and requires accepting that you will make mistakes and enemies, but reducing or eliminating an unfair situation will feel great on many counts.

In the Heat of the Moment
Walk away. Leave the interaction or relationship. Acting out anger takes two, and if you remove yourself from the interaction, you will be less likely to make a hard- to-fix mistake. Go out in nature, commune with a flower, be uplifted by a bird, celebrate each tree, or expand your horizons at the beach – these all aid calming down and thinking more clearly (usually after a period of not thinking at all). When you are calm, ask yourself “what is the best way to handle this?” Come back (if at all) when you can be your best self rather than a bomb waiting to go off.

Counting to 10 allows time to calm down, reflect a bit, consider that your faults are probably as annoying to the other person as his/hers are to you, remember that anger is a choice and not a beneficial one, and finally, identify your role in the situation and what the other person's role and actions really mean to you. Below is my totally cornball way of making counting to 10 more effective and memorable; for each number, call to mind the point described:

This technique uses up so much time and concentration that you won’t have any left for being angry.

Other physical approaches to managing anger include:

People often become angry because of a misunderstanding: they don’t hear what was said clearly, they misinterpret the statement (usually because of projecting their beliefs and baggage onto the other person), make invalid assumptions about the meaning of the statement and become angry without checking on what was meant before freaking out. Always look for the most constructive and straight-forward interpretations of other people’s statements and try to formulate your own statements to reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding. When you hear something that sounds upsetting, check in with the other person, preferably quickly, to be certain you understand what was said and what is meant. Once you are clear on these, you can determine the best way to respond.

Avoid black-and-white thinking. This is the tendency to conclude that if a situation, event, or condition isn’t one way, it must be the opposite without recognizing that there are probably many shades of gray between the two poles. This tendency to skip over all the in-between points produces many errors in thinking and evaluation that are especially problematic when trying to prevent or defuse anger. Watch for this kind of polarization in your own everyday thinking and if you find it, stop and identify as many in between points that could possibly apply to the situation you are dealing with as you can. This practice will enable spotting relapses into polarized thinking when you are upset or when others do it during charged discussions.

After the Fact
Mentally re-play situations when you are less than happy with your behavior to practice being who you want to be. Practice being your best self rather than someone you don’t want to know.
Require yourself to make amends – not just say you are sorry, but to
a.  acknowledge that you were wrong,

Commit to following this entire routine any and every time you lose control of your temper. This practice will make you less prone to letting go of your temper in the first place. If it's hard to do, write it out before saying it to the other person, or, if you really can’t bring yourself to speak the words, say them in a note. But do it.

Ask questions. Ask the other person why s/he feels or acts that way? What are his/her motives for this behavior? Does s/he realize the harm that his/her behavior causes? This approach doesn’t usually work during the heat of the moment, but may help to gain insight afterwards.
       Situations like intrusive questions from strangers or rude statements from  someone who should know better should get an immediate questioning response, such as “Why would you do or say such a thing?” or, in the worst cases, “What makes you think such a question (or action) is acceptable?” (this may put a quick end to all questions and perhaps all interactions, which isn’t always a good idea). Anger usually isn’t helpful here but questioning the other person’s actions or motives is.

None of us can control the world or other people, and imperfections and injustices will always be with us. We should do the best we can to make the world and our lives better, but beyond a certain point, we have to accept that some situations can’t be improved further and we must make the best of it. We also need to accept that there is no point to getting upset about things we can’t change.

Although many methods of relaxation and centering are effective for calming, meditation also excels for gaining insight into the inner workings of our own and other people’s behavior and for making human struggles seem trivial. That’s useful because anger is nearly impossible when you see through the normal delusions of human life.
Life itself, and the life of every single person and creature is precious, and when meditation makes this truth a reality for you, and enables living more peacefully and deeply, interactions with others necessarily change (if they don’t, go back and sit some more or find another technique), and anger becomes rare and controllable because you will have greater control of yourself in many areas.

Re-consider relationships that regularly induce anger – perhaps you shouldn’t stay in them. If someone dismisses your feelings, belittles you, doesn’t stop a distressing action when you ask him/her to do so (that impacts you, not one where you are trying to control his/her life or behavior), or acts in any manner that harms your well-being, you may need to end the relationship. Be clear about your part in these interactions and change everything you can, but removing yourself from harm is always your right. NO ONE has a right to demand that you stay in a relationship that harms you. Even parents or children don’t have this right. Anyone who has no regard for your feelings, needs, or well-being is not a person you have any obligation to continue interacting with, supporting, or being loyal to, no matter what entitlement that person thinks s/he has. Anyone who commits physical or financial abuse doesn’t deserve your loyalty (emotional abuse is harder to sort out; it’s real and a valid concern but not easy to pin down).

Managing anger in face-to-face interactions or with people we actually know is hard enough, but managing anger on social media seems harder. We usually don’t know the people we chat with online, yet fleetingly interact on topics that may carry intense charges, such as politics or social issues, both often covers for an even hotter topic, religion. People react strongly to minor disagreements, and rather than think how to resolve a conflict constructively, launch into name-calling and insults with deteriorating interchanges following. Resisting giving in to anger, particularly if you feel personally attacked, can be challenging. But the effort is worthwhile because social media becomes progressively uglier when civility and rationality are lost. It’s never in anyone’s best interests to dismiss or treat others disrespectfully. Treating others with respect and listening to them, and hearing their fears, hopes, and beliefs, is the surest way to bridge the gulf, no matter how wide the disagreements between you.

Many people find that anger becomes easier to manage as they become older and you will likely experience this also. Knowing that anger lessens with age may help you deal with it in the present; after all, if you are going to get beyond it later, you might as well do so now.

Being susceptible to anger isn’t an incurable condition, nor is being oblivious to your own shortcomings. Examining both parties’ behavior nearly always reveals mutual blindness, failings, and poor conduct. We are all human, all have needs, flaws, struggles, and hassles to deal with, and all get lost and confused trying to find our way through the world. Whenever we try to deny or diminish someone else’s humanity by insulting or belittling them, we actually diminish our own and shrink spiritually.

This doesn’t mean you should be angry with yourself – no negative emotion should be left unchallenged in your mind – but that you need accept that you and the person you are angry with are both human, fallible, have much to be forgiven for, need to grow, change, mature, and become more deeply human, including having greater compassion for both of you (but you only have any possibility of control over your side of the equation).


{Footnote 1}  From the American Psychological Association website, an excellent description of how to use humor to combat anger:
"Silly humor" can help defuse rage in a number of ways. For one thing, it can help you get a more balanced perspective. When you get angry and call someone a name or refer to them in some imaginative phrase, stop and picture what that word would literally look like. If you're at work and you think of a coworker as a "dirtbag" or a "single-cell life form," for example, picture a large bag full of dirt (or an amoeba) sitting at your colleague's desk, talking on the phone, going to meetings. Do this whenever a name comes into your head about another person. If you can, draw a picture of what the actual thing might look like. This will take a lot of the edge off your fury; and humor can always be relied on to help unknot a tense situation.”

{Footnote 2} Diaphragm breathing would be best if you have this skill.

Recommended Reading
Understanding: Eliminating Stress and Finding Serenity in Life and Relationships, Jane Nelsen, 1988 (there may be a newer version available)

The Anger Workbook: An Interactive Guide to Anger Management, Les Carter and Frank Minirth, 2012

How Can I Forgive You?, The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, Janis A. Spring, 2005  
Don’t Be So Defensive, Sharon Ellison

Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Golemon


© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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