Attention: The Most Powerful Antidote to Destructive Anger
Attention makes the difference between healthy and destructive anger.
Posted Aug 16, 2020
In his book Focus, noted psychologist Daniel Goleman asserts that attention is our most valuable resource for high performance and life fulfillment (2013). Through focused attention, we become conscious of others, the world in general, and of ourselves.
Our attention can vary from being global to being highly focused. For example, we may listen to music as a background to our chores versus listen to the lyrics, the rhythm, and the beat, or we might glance at a painting in a museum or get up close to observe the colors — their hues and saturation — as well as the direction and texture of the strokes.
Thankfully, many of our daily activities are rooted in habits, behaviors that require little attention, as they are automatic in nature. However, the richness in our lives very much depends on our capacity not only to attend, but also to be able to consciously choose what we wish to attend to.
Full presence, with a person, an object, a skill, or the world in general, requires attention. Most importantly, full presence with ourselves — having self-awareness of our feelings, thoughts, and sensations — depends on our conscious attention to our internal landscape. However, we are daily subjected to forces that compete with and seize this valuable resource.
Forces that can undermine our attention
Marketing, political campaigns, social media, the workplace, and the news media do all they can to grab our attention. Additionally, family and friends may also have an agenda regarding how we should devote our attention.
And while constantly subjected to external demands, internal forces can also sabotage our freedom for conscious attention. One of them is destructive anger, a powerful force that can cause us to focus on the person or situation that has contributed to anger arousal, rather than on those internal factors that powerfully influence when and to what degree we become angry.
Anger is experienced as a threat to our system. It evokes within us a defensive readiness that undermines our ability to pause for self-reflection regarding our feelings, knee-jerk conclusions, expectations, and key desires behind our anger. In effect, destructive anger hijacks our capacity to pause for self-understanding as well as brainstorm about how to manage such anger.
When destructive anger constricts our freedom of attention, we fail to recognize and honor those negative feelings that might prompt it, feelings such as disrespect, anxiety, diminishment, guilt, shame, or powerlessness. Similarly, when anger seizes our attention, we fail to recognize that we might be rigidly holding on to expectations of how things “should” be. Additionally, we may be unable to notice how we consciously cling to conclusions we make about an event or knee-jerk meaning we attribute to the event.
When anger directs our attention to intended punishment, attack, or revenge, we may also fail to discern how our current reaction to a triggering event is, in part, influenced by our personal history. For example, if we’ve cultivated habitual thoughts of feeling inadequate, we may be especially sensitive to any action that triggers that feeling in us. If we’ve come to view ourselves as being unlovable, we become more prone and reactive to events perceived as confirming or highlighting our being unlovable.
Suppose we become angry with a driver that cuts us off as we drive on a highway. Some anger may be warranted. However, ruminating about or acting on that anger can easily distract our attention from self-reflection. Such reflection may yield the recognition that our predisposition to feel taken advantage of by others has fostered our overly intense anger.
Or, we might recognize that our anger with the driver is further intensified due to our long-standing disappointment and pain that people are not as caring, considerate, or compassionate as we wish they would be. Further, reflection might reveal that we already do not feel sufficiently good about ourselves, perhaps characteristically feeling “less than." In this case, reactive anger distracts us from recognizing that pain.
But destructive anger can also be directed inward. It may be reflected in our highly critical internal dialogue or in self-talk that rebels against that voice that calls for attention to what is in our best interest. It might similarly lead to a lack of self-care fueled by attention to feeling unworthy of it or overly focused on fighting the feeling of being controlled — even by ourselves.
In effect, lack of attention to our inner landscape leaves us vulnerable to both external and internal forces that can more easily snatch our attention. To the extent that we lack attention to our attention, we become puppets on strings controlled by our anger — or any other force that has captured our attention without our full awareness.
To the degree that we lack attention to connect with ourselves, we react out of habit. And yet, real individual freedom, while influenced by external factors, very much depends on being able to flexibly attend to and embrace our feelings, thoughts, and sensations. By doing so, we become tuned into our values as well as core desires — such as those for connection, physical and emotional safety, trust, validation, and even creativity. Self-discipline for attaining any goal or adhering to any values in our lives is grounded in this capacity to experience choice in how we use our attention.
With regard to anger, our freedom to choose where to focus attention is key to healthy anger. For example, one client with whom I worked reported how such flexibility of attention helped him resolve conflicts with his partner. When angry, he consciously conjured up images of loving moments he had previously experienced with her. This response was not an attempt to ignore or deny his anger. Rather, it was an effort to attend to the “big picture” — in place of demonizing her through the lens of his constricted attention. Being able to enlarge the scope of his attention freed him up to reflect on his feelings, thoughts, and sensations that further contributed to the intensity of his anger. This reaction strengthened his freedom to choose how to respond rather than react out of habit.
Expanding your attention
Only by learning to harness our attention can we consciously define our values, desires, and how we wish to be and behave. Learning strategies to practice healthy anger calls for practicing skills in expanding our attention. The following are several strategies that can be helpful in meeting this challenge.
1. Develop visual cues to remind you to expand your attention. For example, one of my clients entered “Staycalm” as a password for his phone. Another client wrote “peace” on his arm and later as a tattoo to remind him to pause when angered. I’ve cultivated the awareness to say “constructive or destructive” when angered and deciding what, if anything, to do about it.
2. Practice mindfulness meditation promotes an increased capacity to be flexible in choosing thoughts and feelings to attend to and those that do not deserve our attention.
3. Practice informal mindfulness. For example, take your emotional/physical pulse several times a day. Simply stop what you are doing and reflect on your feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations of the moment.
4. Play. All too often, I’ve found that individuals prone to anger arousal fail to engage in non-judgmental, joyous play. Play forces us to attend to the moment and the pleasure that comes from it.
5. Savor positivity. Pause and attend to it whenever it occurs. Our evolution has led to heightened attention to the negative as being essential for our self-protection and survival. However, all too often, due to our personal history, we may overly attend to the negative and even ignore or push away the positive. I call this “playing Ninja to positivity." Shame, specifically, might capture our attention and inhibit our capacity to savor positivity, whether from others or ourselves.
Destructive anger robs our attention, inhibits self-awareness, and steals our time. Learning to harness our attention is essential for choosing healthy anger over destructive anger and for assertively creating a more fulfilling life.
Goleman, D. (2013) Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York, NY: HarperCollins