“The single clenched fist lifted and ready, or the open hand held out and waiting. Choose: For we meet by one or the other.” — Carl Sandburg
In my practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen people experience so much pain around anger and it breaks my heart. It’s an emotion that either sits in us like a cancer eating away at our happiness and peace, or it explodes out into our closest relationships causing distress and disharmony to all involved.
And it’s not just the anger. When we come to our senses, we’re often consumed with shame and regret about how we’ve reacted.
Anger feels so out of control, we just don’t know what to do with it. So let’s bring anger out of the shadows and explore it. In my own life and in my work with clients, I’ve discovered how essential it is to form a friendly relationship with anger. I know what you’re thinking: “Why would I ever want to be friendly with my anger?”
But here’s the truth. When we let anger run wild it wreaks all kinds of havoc on ourselves and the people we care about most. It’s a powerful force that separates us and sucks us dry of joy and well being. Unexamined anger keeps us on lockdown with no choice about how we react.
And when we approach anger with intelligence, we rise above it to see clearly. We become curious about it so it’s no longer the raging beast that’s driving us.
Becoming familiar with our experience of anger brings flexibility, openness, and heart to challenging situations and helps us to formulate a practical plan for how to deal with it when it appears.
How does anger stir you up? Below are descriptions of different ways you might feel stuck and suggestions for how to practice the alternative: the intelligent, conscious choice that frees you from the prison of anger.
But realize that none of these suggestions is going to be the magic bullet that takes away your anger. If you’re interested in befriending your anger, see it as a journey back to your whole, peaceful, loving self. And, believe me, the journey contains gifts you could never imagine. Know that it takes time, and have patience with yourself.
How you’re stuck: Your anger feels out of control.
Conscious choice: Be super honest with yourself and reflect on what you really want—in your life, in the situations that trigger you, in your relationships. Keep reminding yourself of these priorities in the morning when you wake up, after each episode of anger, and before you go to sleep.
Surround yourself with people that support them. Orient your whole life toward what you really want.
How you’re stuck: Anger seems to come suddenly from out of the blue.
Conscious choice: When you’re not angry, reflect on what triggers you. Is it a particular person or situation? Or an internal state such as stress, loneliness, or fatigue?
Prepare how you’re going to deal with the situation before it happens. Take good care of your needs so you’re not cranky, making sure you’re well fed and relaxed. Take deep, conscious breaths when the anger starts to fire up. Graciously step away, if that’s helpful.
How you’re stuck: You get caught in your mind in a story of blaming someone else. You compulsively believe that things should be different than they are.
Conscious choice: Know what anger actually is. It consists of a story in your mind about what shouldn’t be happening and physical sensations in your body. Repeating the story endlessly and ignoring your body only keeps the anger firmly in place.
When the story starts running, know that it won’t help to release you from the anger. Shift your attention away from it, and instead make a space to feel the sensations in your body—which might be very intense. Every time, as often as necessary, let the story go, and bring your attention to your body, letting the physical sensations run their course.
Even if the story feels justified, you get to make a choice for your own peace and happiness. Do you want to be right and keep the story going? Or do you want to be peaceful?
How you’re stuck: You feel guilty and ashamed for how your anger affects others.
Conscious choice: Have compassion for yourself because now you’ve embarked on a journey to do something about this out-of-control emotion. See each anger episode as an opportunity to loosen its grip on you.
And make amends. Saying a heartfelt, “I’m sorry,” that you truly mean is a good start because it acknowledges you’re taking responsibility. Show empathy for the other’s upset and suffering.
Don’t just vow to be different. Make a plan for consciously dealing with your anger and continually take action on it. Now you don’t have to feel so guilty about what you’ve done because you’re beginning to make better choices.
How you’re stuck: You’ve seriously tried to implement these tools without much success.
Conscious choice: Often, people find it easier to be angry than to feel the painful feelings of sadness, fear, and despair. See if there are feelings hiding underneath the anger that are fueling it. With curiosity and great compassion, begin to bring these out into the light of conscious awareness. They are now part of your journey to freedom.
How you’re stuck: You stuff anger.
Conscious choice: You can’t really hide anger. If you’re stuffing it, it comes out in unhappiness, unskillful life choices, and even physical illness. Begin to turn toward the anger with friendliness and curiosity and bring it out of the shadows. If you’re afraid it will overwhelm you, don’t hesitate to get professional help.
How you’re stuck: A part of you enjoys the experience of anger.
Conscious choice: Reconnect with what the wisest, most sane part of you really wants. Let that guide you.
And don’t give up on the power and energy of the experience of anger, which can feel incredibly alive. Channel this passion in more harmonious ways.
How you’re stuck: You feel like doing damage or hurting someone.
Conscious choice: Try a “conscious rant,” suggested by my friend and author, Robert Masters. Go to a private, soundproof place, and for a few minutes express your anger in exaggerated ways. You can scream, stomp, say words or make sounds, wave your fists, beat a pillow, anything that lets every ounce of the anger be expressed. Make sure it’s over the top.
In a very short time, you’ll feel finished—and enlivened. It’s so extreme, you’ll be laughing, as I can tell you from personal experience.
And if you genuinely want to hurt someone, please seek out assistance from a professional who can help you address these urges.
Now that you have some ideas about befriending anger, make a plan. How are you going to get back control when you’re in the grip of anger? How can your lifestyle choices support inner peace? How can you be kinder?
But don’t assume you’ll get rid of anger. Hopefully, it will lessen, but that will happen because you’re now dealing with it in conscious, supportive ways when it turns up. Once you’re in control, and not the anger, it won’t matter that it arises because you’ll have confidence that you’ll know how to respond.
See your anger as a gift. What wondrous things does it have to teach you?
How do you get stuck with anger? What have you learned from it? Please feel free to share your own anger plan in the comments.