I've done personal work over the years to examine my anger and my reactivity, slowly gaining in understanding about both. While I don't know that one's work in such things is ever done, I want to describe my journey and the progress I've made along the way. This is up for me right now because anger has been one of my responses to the demise of my marriage last winter and I'm doing focused work this weekend to let it go.
Like many others, my introduction to anger wasn't very inspiring. I grew up in a middle class family where the expression of anger was not encouraged—it was viewed as a loss of control. My mother had a flat affect (she almost never got angry, or admitted to it) and my father generally sublimated it into sarcasm, scathing commentary, or nasty innuendo—since "mature" people didn't get angry. (Can you see my eyeballs rolling?)
So my temper tantrums as a child (and then as an adolescent) were framed as immature outbursts. There was a certain amount of tolerance and sympathy extended to me, but the main message was to get over it, or learn to channel it—into problem solving (from my mother) or into getting even (from my father).
While I learned a certain amount of self control and became a relatively high-functioning adult who didn't get angry often, I still did from time to time and it wasn't fun to be around when my volcano erupted. The trigger could be a number of things, none of which are unique to me:
o Moral outrage; a blatant abuse of power (how could they have done that!)
o The perception that my integrity was being called into question (for example, claiming that I had misused power)
o My being treated unfairly (the application of a double standard where it was OK for the other person to do a thing that they'd criticized me for doing)
o Cursing my poor luck; railing at the gods (how could nine be rolled five times in a row?)
o Simply a sense that somebody done me wrong.
The first step in my road to recovery was learning that feelings were OK—even though my entire upbringing had reinforced the message that they weren't. When I reflect on a fork in the road that I faced in my early 20s: go to law school or explore intentional community, I shudder to think about the arrested development that would have followed if I had taken the road more traveled. Law school almost certainly would have reinforced all the wrong things in me (competitiveness, dominance of rationality, fierceness), while intentional community led me to discover the path to becoming a more whole and integrated person (emotional sensitivity, heightened awareness of intuition, openness to spiritual inquiry).
Recovering my emotional heritage as a human being and welcoming it into my life was by no means a simple process. It took years and the path was rock-strewn and bumpy. Not coincidentally, this personal work corresponded with the advance of my capacity as a professional facilitator, where I learned to work with energy just as deftly as working with content. On my way to developing a national reputation for working constructively with conflict, it was absolutely essential that I could work accurately and empathetically with feelings as they emerged in the dynamic moment—something that I didn't have a clue about how to do as the 24-year-old who helped start Sandhill Farm in 1974.
Lesson #1: Denying anger doesn't work
If it is not acknowledged as it occurs, it does not go away for lack of oxygen; it just goes anaerobic and leaks elsewhere, infecting otherwise healthy dynamics.
OK, suppose you get this far and learn to recognize and acknowledge reactions as they occur. While that alone will put you ahead of the curve of the general population, it will not get you to heaven. In a mainstream culture that lionizes rational thought, feelings are either denied, or tolerated as a weakness—until we can return from the interruption to our regularly scheduled rational conversation.
To be sure, when feelings are mishandled bad things can happen. People can get hurt and relationships can suffer damage. It can get ugly. But it doesn't have to be that way! In fact, the full expression of feelings can be a huge positive in two regards, which are the substance of the next lesson:
Lesson #2: Feelings are not inherently good or bad
They represent information and energy. The former can be applied to understanding the issue at a deeper level. The latter can be harnessed in service to problem solving (a fire hose can be dangerous and destructive if water is jetting out the nozzle chaotically; in contrast, it can be highly beneficial if someone is directing the stream of water at a conflagration).
Lesson #3: You are far more likely to be able to hold the fire hose if you can establish that you welcome the expression of emotions, (I'm angry!) while object to aggression (You're a jerk!)
Though the upset person may feel that those two statements are equivalent, they aren't. The first is a straight reporting of their feelings; the second is an attack on the person who's words or actions triggered the anger. Nobody wants to be attacked.
So let's suppose you've now made it to the third rung of the ladder and are able to recognize your feelings as they occur, to appreciate their potential value as a source of information and energy, and to express them cleanly. Now what? The next advance is understanding that a feeling is not an action imperative.
Lesson #4: Feeling anger does not necessitate that you act on it
Just because you always raised your voice and turned red in the face whenever you expressed anger as a child doesn't mean you have keep doing it that way as an adult. You have choices. In fact, it's possible to become angry, recognize, and not react to it.
I'm not sure I would have believed that last sentence was possible until I learned how to be less reactive as a deliberate goal of couples counseling two years ago [see my blog EMDR to the Rescue for more on that]. Today I'm no less likely to become angry; yet I'm far less likely to feel compelled to express it (as a result of which everyone around me breathes a little easier).
It's one thing to have an angry reaction, and to ride the tiger. It's another to make the tiger your pet, so that you can ride it whenever you like.The art of anger management is navigating the space in between, where you don't try to fight the feeling, you recognize and acknowledge it, yet don't let it own your soul.
The object is not to extinguish anger. It's to not let it run you.
Lesson #5: Knowing when it's time to forgive and move on
Blaming someone else for your outrage is completely disempowering, as relief is in the hands of others, who may not care a fig for you. In fact, they may not know that you're angry. Or even if the do, and would otherwise be inclined to help you out, they may be pretty attached to the behavior or position that triggers you. Ugh.
The good news is that you can change your feelings. I'm not saying this is easy, but it can be done. Once you see that anger can be a dangerous drug—that you are at risk of becoming addicted to its flames and righteousness—there comes a time when you should examine persisting anger to see how it's serving you, if at all. If you find yourself stuck on play repeat whenever you think about the triggering person, there's a good chance that you're simply feeding the monkey and it's probably time to move on.
I am not talking about walling off or performing a feelingectomy; I am talking about forgiveness.
I'm talking about the self-healing power of finding a way to see the actions (or non-actions) of the triggering person(s) as being done innocently and forgiving them for whatever role they played as an agent in your misery. In the end, no one else but you is responsible for your feelings. I'm not talking about you being naive or a milquetoast; I'm talking about getting out of the swamp of self-misery you've built around yourself.
The beauty of this approach is that it is something that you can do all by yourself and is therefore entirely in your control. It entails emotional alchemy, transmuting anger into sadness, grief, and acceptance—ultimately leading to liberation and recapturing the capacity to love.
Though it's taken me the last 40 years to get this far in my journey with anger, and I've had to learn each of the above five lessons the hard way, it's been worth it.