Fanning the Flames of Anger

Life can transform when we develop a new relationship with this emotion.

Posted Nov 13, 2017

She was mad. No, not just mad; she was enraged. She’d walked into my office for the first time just 20 minutes before, and shortly after launching into her story about why she’d sought therapy, her anger reached its boiling point. She was seething. After finishing a particularly pointed sentence about how furious she was over her husband’s “stupidity,” she looked up to find that I was sitting with my hands folded in my lap, breathing peacefully and looking at her with compassionate interest as she shared her story with me. Upon seeing my expression and posture, she became even more angered and said, quite passionately, “Ughhh! Seeing you sitting there so calm like that just pisses me off even more. It’s exactly what my husband does when I’m yelling at him. It’s like he doesn’t even care that he hurt me.” I gently stopped her then and asked if she could remember and repeat the last three words she’d just said.

“He hurt me.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, her eyes welled up with tears. Her rigid posture softened, and her once tense shoulders slumped down. She leaned forward with her hands in her lap and cried quietly, allowing herself to express the new set of emotions that my question had invited. Then, suddenly, she began to laugh. She looked at me with smiling eyes and tear-stained cheeks and said, “Damnit! It’s so much easier to be mad than sad.”

It is, isn’t it?

Anger is a normal human emotion. Like fear, it’s typically a response to some stimulus in the environment that activates our nervous system and triggers a fight or flight reaction. Whereas fear tends to invoke a flight response, anger gets us into fight mode. It creates a surge of activating energy that’s sometimes accompanied by a motivation to act out on the emotion and somehow discharge it. In this way, anger is energizing and emboldening. In the English language, words such as “fiery,” “hot,” and “burning” are used to describe it, evoking a sensation of heat that is often associated with the emotion. If you’ve ever been overcome with anger—the way my client started out when she arrived at our first session—you know how intense the scorching flames can be.

Contrary to what some psychotherapists will tell you, anger is a legitimate emotion. It’s not, as some would argue, a cover-up for fear and sadness. It’s important to understand this distinction, because acknowledging what we’re feeling and accepting its legitimacy is an important part of managing, relieving, and overcoming it. I didn’t tell my client she shouldn’t be angry, nor did I ask her to tell me what was beneath or behind all that anger. Instead, I kept her company while the emotion surged through her, making space for it and remaining curious about her experience with it. That’s because I understand that as with any emotion, the first step to letting anger pass is acknowledging its presence.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Because the heat of anger has such an activating effect on us, we can easily become consumed by it. It can erupt in an aggressive outburst or spawn a desire to get revenge. But as the Buddha so wisely pointed out, whenever we hold on to the emotion with the intent of using it to cause others pain, we’re the ones who wind up hurting the most.

The trouble with anger isn’t the anger itself; it’s the automatic assumption that just because we feel it, we have to do something about it. Simply allowing the emotion to pass through, without attaching to it or acting out because of it, gives way to a process that can teach us a lot about ourselves. You see, although anger is more than just a secondary emotion, it usually doesn’t operate alone. As my client discovered, anger is typically associated with other emotions. If we can sit with it long enough for the flames to die down, what we’ll likely discover is a host of accompanying emotions like sadness, frustration, humiliation, disappointment, and fear. What my client realized was that she wasn’t just angry at her husband; she was also feeling hurt by him. The anger, as she explained, was easier to feel. So long as she was charged up with rage, she didn’t have to experience the vulnerability that comes with feeling hurt. But once she made her way through the complex emotions she was experiencing, she was able to get some clarity about her situation. By the time she left my office, she had a better understanding of what happened in the encounter with her husband and what she wanted to do about it.

Anger can teach us a lot about ourselves. It can help us gain access to places inside of us where we otherwise might not travel. If my client had ignored her anger or simply acted upon the impulse to lash out at her husband, she likely wouldn’t have accessed the hurt and sadness underneath it. It was through the process of being with and peeling back the many layers of her emotional experience that she came to a sense of clarity and resolution. Had she dismissed her anger, this process would have been cut short, failing to yield any useful understanding or awareness; had she exploded because of it, she wouldn’t have learned much and might have acted in ways she’d later regret. If we let it, anger can become the source of deep self-awareness and exploration.

In his book Anger, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers the following perspective: “Embrace your anger with a lot of tenderness. Your anger is not your enemy, your anger is your baby. It’s like your stomach or your lungs. Every time you have some trouble in your lungs or your stomach, you don’t think of throwing them away. The same is true with your anger. You accept your anger because you know you can take care of it; you can transform it into positive energy.”

Every emotion we feel is an opportunity to become better acquainted with our inner world. And it’s through this self-understanding that we learn how to navigate life’s challenges, guiding ourselves with the wisdom of our own experiences. What if the next time you felt angry, you embraced it? What if instead of dismissing or discharging the anger, you listened to it?  What might you learn about yourself? What might you discover?