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Using Anger Wisely

Anger has a lot to teach us if we are willing to welcome it.

Key points

  • Anger contains information that helps a person survive and thrive.
  • Welcoming anger can help one gain wisdom and respond to situations skillfully.
  • The ego tends to get stuck in "stories" of right and wrong, which prolongs anger and leads to unskillful reactions.
Photo by Evelyn Chong for Pexels
Source: Photo by Evelyn Chong for Pexels

Anger is something we all experience now and then. It is an evolutionary necessity and provides us with powerful information that not only helps us survive but even helps us thrive. For example, anger can motivate us to leave a threatening situation or unhealthy relationship, or to think more deeply about an issue that triggers the emotion. Even while we accept this as truth intellectually, anger generally feels quite uncomfortable and unwelcome. It can leave us restless, sleepless, irritable, and, left unchecked, aggressive.

Buddhism teaches that anger is a destructive emotion that hinders our freedom and happiness. Any of us who have been hounded by mental loops of angry, ruminative thoughts can appreciate that sense of being stuck and unable to get our minds off what angers us. This is indeed an unhappy state! And yet, it would be wrong to interpret this as evidence that anger can or should be avoided. We need anger, as we need all emotions, to learn and grow. Luckily, there are ways to encourage the upsides of anger while minimizing the discomfort and the likelihood of secondary damage due to reactive behavior (think: angry reply email to your boss!)

How to Move Through Anger

So how do we deal with anger when it arises? Here are three steps inspired by Buddhist teachings to help you move wisely through your next angry experience:

1. Recognize and label your emotions accurately.

Often, anger causes us to get caught up in a spiral of blame and shame. We get stuck in the “story” of what happened, of how we were wronged, how it’s unfair, how we could retaliate, etc. The first step is to notice the emotion you’re experiencing and give it a name. Stop and say to yourself, “this is anger.”

2. Investigate and embrace anger.

Try to tune in to the way anger is manifesting in your body: Is your heart racing? Are your legs feeling restless? Are there sensations in your stomach or chest? Also, notice where your mind is going. Forward to retaliation? Back to past events? Investigate your anger in as much detail as you can, as if you were a scientist objectively documenting the experience.

As you do so, welcome the anger like an old friend; one who’s visited before and will most certainly return again. Avoid the (understandable) tendency to try and push the anger away or to speed through the process. Instead, remind yourself that it is a powerful ally to your survival and your growth. This is a concept beautifully explored by Rumi in his poem, "The Guest House."

Once anger has made itself at home in you, ask it: What are you here to teach me?

3. Allow anger to depart when it’s ready.

Although we often wish for anger to pass quickly, many of the mental habits we engage in while angry (venting, blaming, justifying) actually prolong the experience. That is, we stoke the flames of anger by indulging our stories about being right and being wronged.

It’s important to note that it would be unwise to skip over “the story” altogether. Skillfully addressing a situation by asserting our needs or setting boundaries with others is an important and healthy aspect of the anger experience. This is often precisely where wisdom is gained and connection and repair take place. This requires thought, preparation, and intellectual processing, so it’s very healthy to explore meanings, perspectives, and paths toward healing as components of this process.

What is less helpful is the ruminative rehashing of events that feeds our ego’s narrative about being right. These ego-driven thoughts reinforce mental schemas of “us vs. them” and create more separation, angst, and need for self-protection. These behaviors yank anger back into the house just as it’s trying to walk out the door.

So how do we know when we are clinging to anger and when we are just processing events and developing solutions? Ask yourself these questions: Do I feel the need to be right? Is this about my ego not being able to tolerate being wrong? Often, in the early stages of anger, the answer is yes.

Once we notice this, we are usually able to drop the ego and gradually turn our attention toward the wisdom within our anger. We can tell we are ready for productive processing when we no longer feel threatened, can see various perspectives (even if we don’t agree when them all), and are able to identify what repairs are needed in order to move forward.

You Got This

This process requires patience and practice. Anger is one of the trickiest emotions to tolerate and respond to skillfully. You may wish to try a R.A.I.N. meditation as you practice these steps. (This style of meditation works for other intense emotions too.) I promise the practice is worth the effort. You got this! I wish you patience and wisdom on your journey.