Anger and Contemplation

Anger is a difficult emotion to deal with in ourselves. People I work with usually have similar questions about anger and I answer some of those here.

These answers incorporate some of the contemplative skills I discussed in an earlier post.

What is the purpose of anger?

We can think of anger as a protective emotion. It purpose is to tell us that something we care about is being threatened by someone’s actions or refusal to act. We are angry because someone is doing something they shouldn’t or not doing something they should. We get angry with our children when they misbehave or do not do their homework. We get angry with co-workers if they are pretending to be busy but not really working. We get angry with friends if they betray our trust. We get angry with organizations if they are violating the rights of others. We get angry with ourselves if we make mistakes. In all these situations someone is being threatened or harmed by the action or inaction of someone. If our children do not do their homework then their ability to function is threatened. If our co-workers do not do their job then our ability to work is harmed. If friends betray our trust our relationship are damaged. If organizations violate the rights of others, then those others are harmed. If we make mistakes we are harming ourselves. So anger has the purpose of energizing us to take effective action to protect those who are being harmed or threatened. Unfortunately anger often leads to behavior that is ineffective or worse. I call this rage.

What is the difference between anger and rage?

When we feel angry our body responds with a strong activation. Anger is the emotion and physical activation, rage is an automatic behavioral reaction. Think of a mother bear and her cub. If a predator threatens her cub the mother bear will experience an immediate physical activation generated by the fight/flight response. Her pulse, blood pressure and respirations will increase, etc. This is anger. She will also explode into action, blind to every task except destroying the threat to her cub. That is rage. In animals these are tightly coupled because that increases their chance for survival. Unfortunately when our anger leads to rage we usually make things worse.  To work with anger we need to be able to explore our anger and seek out its causes without expressing that anger as rage. We can do this using the contemplative thinking processes of describing, exploring, asking and planning.

When I am angry I can’t think straight. How can I use contemplative thinking to work with anger?

To use the contemplative thinking processes we need to be reasonably calm. Since anger is so activating it is hard to think contemplatively about our anger without calming ourselves first. Sometimes we can calm ourselves by using breathing techniques, but if our physical response is very strong then breathing techniques may not work. It is like our adrenaline is flowing and we need to burn that off before we can get calm.  One method that releases rage is to engage in some intense physical activity that is non-destructive. The activity has to be intense enough to use up the adrenaline. And it must be non-destructive otherwise we are training ourselves to be destructive when angry. Examples of such non-destructive activities include:

  • going for a run
  • calisthenics – pushups, squats, jumping jacks
  • free-form dance
  • skipping rope
  • hard physical work – it will be safer if you avoid using power tools
  • tensing the whole body as you exhale and relaxing it when you inhale – this is a whole-body version of Jacobsen’s progressive muscle relaxation.

When you are releasing rage physically I advise against hitting objects such as pillows, or even kick bags. The movements involved in hitting a pillow or a kick bag are destructive and we need to avoid practicing being destructive. There is also a safety issue in that when we are expressing rage we often have poor technique and are more likely to injure ourselves if we are hitting a kick bag. It would be better to use the energy in an activity that has no association with violence. Then if we want to work out on a kick bag later we can do so safely.

Once the physical energy has been released we need to engage the contemplative thinking processes. If we do not apply these to our anger and simply enjoy being calm, then we are not dealing with the issue and are likely to become angry again.

Sometimes my body is calm but my brain is too full of angry thoughts. How do I deal with them?

If we find that our mind is so full of angry thoughts that we can not think in a helpful manner, then we can purge those thoughts onto scrap paper first. I call this cathartic writing. We get some scrap paper and something to write with and then write the angry thoughts as fast as we can without any regard to spelling, grammar, or penmanship. The writing generally happens in spurts and after a few minutes we are done. We do NOT keep or even reread the written material. We treat is as toxic waste and dispose of it immediately. Cathartic writing is like what happens when we have to throw up. We release the stomach contents that are making us ill, which generally happens in waves and then we feel better. We don’t keep the vomit around to review later. In the same way we treat the written material like vomit and get rid of it promptly. I recommend writing rather than typing because writing seems to help us get more of a release and we can do it without having to look at anything. If we are typing we usually have to pay attention to our fingers on the keys and that interferes with the cathartic process.

Contemplating the anger: Describing, Exploring, Asking and Planning

Once we are calmer and our mind is clearer we can start exploring the situation that has made us angry. We work on describing those involved, their actions and how those are threatening or hurtful. We explore and ask to get more information or clarify uncertainties. We can then use that information to plan how to respond in a way that will be protective without making things worse in the long run. Those responses are not necessarily “nice” and certainly do not have to make others feel good. In the examples above, the children may need to lose privileges for not doing their homework. The co-worker who is not doing their work may need to be fired. The friend who betrayed our trust may need to be confronted. Organizations that violate the rights of others may need to be changed. I may need to discipline myself to stop making mistakes. The key point is that the actions taken are not governed by rage, but by deliberate and methodical thinking about the situation from a variety of perspectives and consideration of both the immediate and long-term consequences of any planned actions.

As we contemplate our anger we may realize that it is misplaced. We may have thought that someone was being hurtful when they were not. We may have misinterpreted their intent, so that educating them will be more helpful than confronting them. We may also realize that what is being threatened is something that is not useful.   For example, if someone’s words are threatening my self-image, it may be more helpful for me to work on being less self-important rather than addressing them.

Working with anger successfully will help us become effective at finding helpful ways to confront others. The key points are to inhibit rageful behavior and speech, reduce physical activation enough so we can think, release angry thoughts, if necessary , using cathartic writing, then engage the contemplative thinking processes.

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