Can You Be Mindful and Still Feel Angry?
Mindfulness will not turn you into a feel-good Zen zombie
Posted January 15, 2017
If you struggle with dysregulated (addictive/impulsive) behavior, you might have heard that mindfulness can help you overcome the behavior.
In fact, you have likely seen numerous articles on how mindfulness can help you with pretty much every problem you have ever had (Dysregulated behavior! Anxiety! Relationship issues! Work stress! Ingrown toenails!). You may even have been pressured to practice mindfulness by friends or colleagues.
And you may be feeling a little irritated—or just plain angry.
- You may be tired (very tired!) of reading about mindfulness. (Many people are.)
- You may not WANT to stop feeling strong emotions—even uncomfortable emotions like anger. (Nor should you.)
- You may not believe mindfulness is the cure-all it is sometimes proclaimed to be. (You are right to be skeptical.)
- You may think mindfulness is just a cheesy type of relaxation technique. (It does sound a bit cheesy, doesn’t it? But it is not always relaxing–nor is it meant to be.)
- You may even think that practicing mindfulness sounds so difficult that you would never be able to DO mindfulness. (You are partially right: Mindfulness can be difficult. But you are partially misguided. More on this later.)
You are not alone in having doubts. And you are not alone in feeling irritated, or even angry.
Nobody should be forced to practice mindfulness. But before writing it off completely, I urge you to read the following.
Note: Yes, I realize I just acknowledged that many people are tired of reading about mindfulness, but then immediately asked you to read about mindfulness. Seems sort of like saying, “Of course you’re sick and tired of eating mashed potatoes. Now here’s a second helping of mashed potatoes.”
However, if you struggle with dysregulated behavior, you have probably had times when you felt like you would try almost anything that might help overcome that behavior. Thus, I urge you to make sure you know the facts before deciding whether mindfulness is—or is not—something you would be willing to try.
What Mindfulness Is and Is Not, Part I (Subtitle: Here’s a Big Helping of Those Mashed Potatoes You Were Already Tired of Eating.)
Mindfulness is not:
- Pure peacefulness
- An absence of negative emotions
- An altered state
- An out-of-body experience
- Sitting in a circle singing Kumbaya
- Being unfazed by any situation like some sort of Zen zombie
Instead, mindfulness involves the ability to experience your emotions, without
- Feeling controlled by those emotions
- Feeling like those emotions are so unbearable that you have to engage in dysregulated behavior (substance use, overeating, self-injury, etc.) to "turn them off"
For example, have you ever felt angry about a situation, and then ruminated about the situation until you felt tied up in knots inside? Perhaps you even had trouble falling asleep at night? Or focusing your attention on anything else?
Or have you ever felt so angry (or sad or anxious) that you felt you had to engage in dysregulated behavior just to get some relief from the emotions?
Or have you ever said things in anger you regretted later? Or become angry at a social media post and typed something you were embarrassed about later? (Not that anyone has had any disagreements on social media lately. Ahem.) Perhaps you ended up hurting someone you did not want to hurt, or even harming a relationship?
Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness will not keep you from feeling anger–or any other emotion. That would be scary. Emotions help us function. Anger helps us stand up for ourselves and motivates us to fight against injustice.
Instead, mindfulness, when practiced with a mental-health professional, can help anger and other emotions feel more tolerable and easier to manage so you are less likely to feel controlled by your emotions. In other words,
- You will be less likely to feel tied up in knots inside
- You will be less likely to feel compelled to engage in dysregulated behavior to "turn off" the emotions
- You will be less likely to act impulsively, so you will have more of a choice of how you want to react.
- For example, if you decide to express the anger, you may do so in a way that fits your values, instead of lashing out.
Note: For an explanation of the methods by which mindfulness can help you feel less controlled by emotions, check out the Psychology Today series on Mindfulness and Dysregulated Behavior: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
Future posts will continue to discuss the common doubts about mindfulness, including: 1) why you are right to be skeptical of mindfulness as a cure-all, 2) why mindfulness is not just a cheesy relaxation technique, and 3) how to "do" mindfulness even if you think you cannot "do" mindfulness.
Until then, remember:
Practicing mindfulness does not mean you will never feel uncomfortable emotions.
- You can be mindful and also be angry, or sad, or anxious!
Practicing mindfulness can help you
- feel less controlled by your emotions, and
- react in ways that are less likely to hurt you in the long run.
Thanks to Cameron Pugach and Nancy Burns for their contributions to this post.