Dealing With Anger – You Have to Understand It Before You Release It
It happens every summer without fail.
Once the heat settles in, the corners of the oppressive blanket tucked tightly around the city, the AC that is tasked with cooling the upstairs is simply not up to the task. The thermostat will be asked to lower the temperature to a bearable 75 and, although it tries valiantly to succeed, once the sun has reached its apex it simply cannot lower the mercury below a stifling 78.
Sometimes I have to laugh at my husband. He climbs the stairs to his upper-floor office and, after feeling the airless bear hug of the second floor heat, he lowers the thermostat from its usual 75 to 73.
As though asking the air conditioner, already running non-stop for much of the day, to try harder will somehow influence the ambient air.
Of course, it doesn’t work. The AC is simply doing the best it can in the moment. And once the sun finally nears its finish line for the day and the tall trees filter its last rays, the balance shifts and the illusive 75 is usually reached by the time I go to bed. And, if I so desire, I can even turn down the thermostat and enjoy even cooler air throughout the night.
Sometimes it’s not just about trying harder.
It’s about recognizing when it’s time to try and approaching the problem with the right perspective.
Often when I speak to clients or readers about anger, I find that they are acting like the AC on my second floor in the summer – trying with all their might yet still subject to the intense heat of their rage. The following is a hybrid synopsis of these conversations:
“I can’t seem to let go of my anger.”
I empathize. That was certainly my most difficult and frustrating struggle. Anger has claws. It’s tenacious.
Basically, an inability to release anger means one of two things – 1) You are not ready to let go of the anger yet or 2) You are trying to use the wrong tools to release the anger. Or perhaps you’re dealing with both.
“That doesn’t make sense – why would I want to hold onto anger?”
I know. It seems crazy. But that’s because you’re trying to understand a primal and instinctive motivation from a rational place. Initially, anger has a place. It’s a sign that boundaries are being crossed and it serves as a motivator to make changes so that the boundaries are reinstated.
But anger often overstays its welcome. Once the initial threat has been neutralized or left behind, the residual anger has no purpose and even begins to cause harm.
There are several reasons that people may attach themselves to anger. See which one(s) resonate with you:
It’s all I have left. Sometimes when we have faced great trials, we are left with nothing but whatever residue is carried on our backs. That may be anger. If that is the case, it can be scary releasing the anger because it feels like the only tie to your past and what was lost. Yet it’s a pretty ugly reminder, isn’t it?
I have a right to be angry. Yes, you do. Many of you have every right in the world to be angry. But just because you have the right, doesn’t mean you have to choose to exercise it. Often, this feeling is tied to a belief that by releasing anger, you’re also releasing the person that harmed you from their responsibility. Yet their path is not yours. How do your feelings impact their reality?
Wondering about the role of apologies (or lack thereof)? Read this.
I’d rather be angry than sad or scared. Being sad or scared sucks. But so does being angry. There are times when it may be beneficial to make this trade-off (like when undergoing the early stages of divorce when a little gets you up off the floor and encourages you to make a move). Yet, other times it’s a deal with the devil.
I feel like I need to punish myself. Anger isn’t always aimed outward. Shame, guilt and rumination are all signs of anger directed at yourself. And you cannot release the anger when you still believe you deserve the punishment. Yet yelling at yourself isn’t the most effective way to create change. Listening is.
Anger keeps me from being or appearing vulnerable. Our society respects anger more than the emotions that are perceived as “weaker.” Anger is often worn a shield, keeping others away and limiting further loss. Yet a life live in anger is eventually a life lived in isolation.
I like the energy of anger. Anger has a way of making us feel alive as it courses through our body and invigorates our senses (even as it dulls our thoughts). It can be an attractive feeling, especially when compared with the deadening of sadness or the hyperalertness of anxiety. Yet the energy is like the kind from too much Red Bull – it holds for a time and then only makes you feel sick.
“My anger is directed at the past. How does that hurt me now?”
Because anger is cannibalistic – it feeds upon itself. And the more you provide sustenance, the more it grows. It doesn’t matter where you aim it; it has a wide scatter pattern. If you’re entering into a new relationship, releasing any residual anger is your responsibility. Otherwise, it acts a nuclear seed in the new partnership.
“How do I know when I’m ready to let go of anger?”
You are ready to release your anger when the cost of holding onto it becomes greater than the hesitancy of of releasing it. You are ready to release your anger when you see the cause of your anger as separate from your emotions about it. You are ready to release your anger when enough time has passed for the intensity of the event to begin to fade (remember my upstairs AC unit?). And you are ready to release the anger when you are open to accepting responsibility – not for what happened, but for how it impacts you.
“What are some of the tools I can use to let go of my anger?”
One of the reasons that anger is difficult to release is that the tools needed are different for every person and every situation. The following are the general four strategies I recommend in the order that I suggest you try them. For much more specific advice, go here.
Movement I like to relate this to training a puppy. Any dog owner knows that before you attempt to teach the young dog any commands, you have to begin with a walk. A LONG walk. A tired puppy is calm and ready to listen.
Anger is the same. If you try to talk yourself down while your ears are whistling with steam, you will fail. Begin by releasing the physical manifestations of the anger by taking a walk. A LONG one.
Repeat as needed.
Humor Laughter has a way of disarming anger before the anger recognizes the threat and tries to fight back. Start by laughing at things unrelated to the cause of your anger. Then, see if you can even laugh at your situation. Gallows humor doesn’t fuel the fire; it helps to extinguish it.
Compassion The first step in cultivating compassion is to learn how to separate yourself from what happened to you. To not take it personally. It’s hard, I know. Remember I said you know you’re ready when you’re willing to do the work.
Next, apply empathy and strive for understanding while withholding judgement. If this happened in a fictional book and you were asked to describe the motivations of all of the characters, what could you come up with? Entertain the idea that the assumption that has been fueling your rage may not be the correct one. And even if it is, what is the harm in being open to other explanations?
Remember, compassion has to be accompanied by boundaries. You can allow yourself to feel compassion and still refuse to allow someone to hurt you any further.
And here’s a thought for you – if you’re holding onto anger, are you showing compassion for yourself?
Gratitude Gratitude and anger are mutually exclusive. If you can identify reasons that you’re grateful for your experience, there is no longer a need for anger. This can be a powerful exercise. I like to call it radical gratitude. It is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. And one of the most rewarding.
“Just when I think I’ve released all of the anger, it flares back up.”
I sometimes think of anger like those huge buckets at children’s water parks that fill with water until they tip over, releasing their cooling load on the squealing children beneath. Of course, once empty, the bucket returns to its original position to refill.
When you’ve released your anger, you are still vulnerable to refilling with rage if you return to your starting position without any changes. Think of mastering the tools that work to temper your anger like drilling holes in the giant bucket. The events and situations that cause you to become angry will still spill into your life, but the holes will allow it to simply flow through you.
Although the initial release of anger is by far the most challenging, letting go of anger is an ongoing process. It’s intentional. It requires recognizing when you are angry and, rather than allowing it to set up home, working to release it.
Remember the purpose of anger is to motivate change.
Make the change.
And then release the anger.
As for me, I’m going to head downstairs where it’s cooler:)