Working With Anger Mindfully

There's so much confusion around anger.  Is it justified? It is unjustified? Do I have the right to be angry?  What does this say about me as a person - especially if I'm a spiritual person? And even if I can admit I have it, what am I supposed to do with it? 

So .... we try to ignore it, or suppress it, or refuse to acknowledge it at all (and we don't even do this consciously).   

Actually, anger is a normal emotion that everyone experiences.  I love this expression by Jessica Morey (Inward Bound Mindfulness Education): 

Anger is a natural, life-affirming emotion. It lets us know when a boundary has been crossed, when our needs are not being met, or when someone we care about is in danger. But when misdirected, anger can harm our physical health and our relationships. Being mindful of anger means not suppressing, denying or avoiding it and also not acting out in harmful ways. Instead, connect with the direct experience of the anger, and then decide what action you want to take.

The trick is to stop denying our anger because we think it’s bad and to learn to work with it differently.  In a mindful way.

But first, I want to go through some of the (good) reasons we deny our anger:

  1. On a deep level, a denial of anger can be a denial of power.  If we don't allow ourselves to get angry (which is one of the most powerful emotions we are capable of expressing), we can deny we have any power at all.  We do this because that's what we were taught, and subconsciously we start to believe it - and then act accordingly. 

  2. We're afraid of it - of course we are.  We've seen or felt the effects of a parent's anger or rage as children. We may have witnessed mental health issues (especially depression) that manifested from anger turned inward.  We may have been in a violent, abusive relationship.  

  3. The myriad of messaging we've received about what it says about us. About 10 years ago, my husband and I went to marriage counselling.  I told the counsellor that because I was Buddhist, I didn't get angry; clearly, my husband was the one with anger issues. To this day, I don't know why the counsellor didn't call me out on this.  Maybe he didn't have a good understanding of Buddhism and didn't want to offend me, or maybe I was doing a great job of acting.  But I laugh about it now because I did have a big problem with anger - one which I handily projected onto my husband - because I had no idea how to deal with it myself.  By the way, I don't know any branch of Buddhism that says Buddhists don't get angry.  I just interpreted it that way because it worked for me.  Essentially, the correct interpretation is (as above) that everyone gets angry, and we just need to learn to work with it differently (mindfully). 

So how do you do that? Here’s a few tips and exercises I use when working with clients.

HOW TO WORK WITH ANGER MINDFULLY

  1. Try to sit with, so it can go.  Anger is simply energy - just like love, compassion or joy.  The difference is that those emotions feel nice and we like them.  Anger doesn't feel nice so we push it away.  But if you learn to work withit, and separate yourself from it, you can see that it's simply energy that can be transmuted into something else.  For example, if you acknowledge it and allow it to be there - seeing it as an energy that is in you but not part of who you are - that action allows you to separate from the anger.  Here's a technique I often use in my sessions:

    Rest your attention on the sensations of the anger.  What do you feel?  Where do you feel it?  What does it look like?  What impact does this have on your body (ie are you clenching your fists, or breathing quickly, or has your heart rate increased?) Can you see these as sensations that are there but that you don't have to act on? 

    Allow everything that's there and breathe into it - not with the intent to get rid of it, but with the intent for your breath to allow you some calm.  When you breathe directly into the emotion, it allows it the space to go.  We don't need to judge it, we just need to stay with it.  When your mind wanders, come back to the body.   

    Continue doing this until you feel the anger has dissipated.  

    When it has dissipated, and becomes less overwhelming, you can also investigate the message the anger has for you.  What is it really about?  Is there a story there?  Is there something underneath the anger?  What is that telling you? When you become clear on all of that, you can take appropriate action. 
     

    The last bit can be trickier to do on your own but it's an important piece in the long term healing process.  In the short-term, if you can't get to what's underneath, don't worry about it. The first part of the exercise will help you dis-identify with the anger and move on with your day.  That's the most important part to do regularly.

  2. Figure out if it's justified or unjustified.  If your anger is justified, you can act to right the wrong (in the most compassionate and courageous way possible).  If that's not possible, you can still speak what feels true for you, and this in itself is powerful.

  3. Uncover Compassion. Working with our anger mindfully allows us to uncover compassion - for ourselves and for others.  By allowing the anger, and allowing it to go, we're removing the blocks to that innate force within each of us, just waiting to be found again.

Often, anger is the key to you moving through something important, and allowing it in a healthy way is a major step on the journey.

Blog image: Photo by Autumn Goodman on Unsplash