A universal human emotion. Often a daily occurrence. Not fun. Usually not pretty.
For all our apparent evolution as a species, we have not figured out how to eradicate, let alone manage, this all too common of emotions, and so it's worth asking: what is the best way to deal with anger?
This is incredibly relevant in my work helping parents understand and communicate more effectively with their teenagers, but also translates to countless other human interactions.
First though, a brief definitional detour might be in order.
We can split hairs on the exact definition of the word, and if you ask twenty people what it means you'd likely get as many definitions. Often what you get in place of an actual definition is an example about what makes them angry or a description of the bodily sensation they feel when angry. Very often it's something we just 'know' but have difficulty articulating outside of our own immediate experience.
So let me offer a very simple, yet practical definition. Anger is the emotional response that says "I don't like this." This can happen in reaction to another person (our husband/wife/boss/kid saying something disrespectful) or circumstance (sitting in traffic). It even happens sometimes with our own thoughts (ruminating on unwanted scenarios). Anger is wanting things to be different than they are. You could say it is "arguing" with the reality of what we experience in a given moment.
So what then, is the best way to deal with it?
In a word: compassion.
Because it's the most straightforward, let's first talk about the anger that comes up in relation to other people.
Somebody says or does something that we don't like. We're angry. Typically this kicks off a series of angry thoughts where we replay the event in our head, feel wronged, righteous and vindictive. Sometimes we lash out directly and raise our voice. At the extreme this can lead to violence.
Anger is very often a knot that gets wound tighter with every angry thought we think. The more we replay it, and feel wronged and entitled to retribution, the tighter the knot gets. We're like a mouse in a maze, getting more and more lost. There is no cheese to be found.
Ironically, the closer we are to the person we're angry with, the angrier we tend to get. It's much easier to let go of our anger with a stranger than the people we love the most.
The way out of this painful maze is to recognize the other person is behaving the way they do because they are human and fallible just like us, are struggling themselves, and to want them to be free from their challenges. In other words, have compassion.
Consider this idea: each of us is doing the absolute best we know how, in this moment given the resources, knowledge and insight we have, to be happy.
Recognizing that, and genuinely wanting them to find a better way, is compassion.
Here are 6 steps I have found to be extremely helpful in dealing with anger in a healthy way:
- Acceptance. This first begins with the acceptance that we are feeling angry. It is the reality of the situation right now. I may not be pleasant, but it is ok. Sometimes we beat ourselves up for being angry. If you follow my definition of anger, we get angry at ourselves for getting angry. This only makes it worse. So begin with acceptance.
- Breathe. Deeply. It just helps.
- Be Willing to Let Go. Next we must have the willingness to let go of our anger, to lay down our arms so to speak. In order to do so, it's helpful to realize that we are the one our anger harms the most. It may be unpleasant for others, but it harms our body and mind. Often this letting go is difficult to do because iit means we must be willing to let go of feeling right and justified. But there just isn't enough space in the same room for both compassion and anger to co-habitate. Somebody's got to pack their bags and move out.
- Practice Compassion. Turn your thoughts away from anger and assigning blame to patience and understanding. Look beneath the surface to see how this person's own pain, frustration and limitations cause them to behave this way. Forgive them for not being perfect. Want the best for them.
- Confront? It's important to realize that having compassion does not conflict with confronting others. Part of moving on may involve putting others in check for their poor behavior. Regardless, approaching this from a place of compassion will almost certainly lead to a better outcome.
- Rinse and Repeat. Keep doing this. It takes time and patience (sometimes a great deal of both) to build a new habit around it.
So this is an overview of how to best handle the 'big' anger we feel towards another person. But what about the 'little' anger - the annoyances and impatience - that might pop up like a Whac-A-Mole several times throughout our day? You're sitting in traffic feeling agitated. Your internet connection isn't working. Or your computer is beach balling. Or what if it's your own annoying, self-defeating thoughts, something most of us deal with at one point or another?
I have found the best way to deal with this is similar. I'll tweak my steps from above:
- Accept. This is reality. Stop fighting it.
- Breathe deeply. It's a great tonic.
- Accept that the universe is imperfect. It's not conspiring to screw us over, it just doesn't always work impeccably. Recognize that you, as part of said universe, are flawed and imperfect too. Be nice to yourself about this.
- Be compassionate and accepting to others, yourself and general circumstances. Forgive others (and yourself) for their imperfections. This too shall pass.
Anger isn't fun, but it isn't going away either. I have found time and again however, the more I patiently catch myself and interrupt the anger knot from getting tied tighter and the more I'm understanding and forgiving of my and other's imperfections, the less real estate anger owns in my day. I hope these suggestions help reduce its place in yours as well.