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Dealing with Anger

by Jorge Waxemberg


Who does not feel annoyed when something does not turn out as we planned? When our annoyance increases and persists, we say we are angry. None of us likes to be a victim of our anger, but if we let ourselves get carried away by anger we multiply our problems. Although there may be no one formula against anger, we can still learn to relate with it. This relationship allows us to get to know ourselves better, to acquire control over our reactions, and to relate with others in a positive way.

We can isolate two aspects in our discussion of anger: the effect anger produces in us and the people around us, and the relationship we establish with anger itself.

When we are angry we let ourselves become immersed in aggressive feelings. The torrent of inner emotions that whirls inside us focuses our attention on the source of our irritation. It becomes difficult to think about anything else. Even if we do not physically assault the person who made us angry, we attack with violent thoughts and feelings which we do not usually have. Pouring out our anger in criticisms and bad manners tends to feed the fire of our anger and also creates resentment in our relationships with others. If we allow anger to grow it can reach the point of becoming rage. When that happens we are no longer fully conscious of what we say or do.

Even if we are able to control ourselves exteriorly, anger makes us suffer and we look for someone to blame for our deep annoyance. We justify our anger by thinking we are right and we keep on arguing to prove our point. We rarely ask ourselves if it makes sense to react in the way we do. On the contrary, we come to believe that our anger is necessary, a "holy wrath," the cure for evil. We think that by reacting with anger we are doing something good, such as clarifying a situation, revealing the truth, or punishing a culprit.

Yet when we are angry we do not act or think sensibly. We are tense and we may actually be physically and emotionally unbalanced. In most cases our anger worsens the situation. To react with anger adds a greater problem to the one we already have, and this self-created problem is the one that does the most damage. To be angry is a form of vengeance which turns against our own selves.

Moreover, anger undermines our spiritual foundation. It actually moves us to act in the same way as the person we are reacting against. The very attitudes, actions or reactions that made us angry in the first place are now fueled in ourselves by our own anger. We might not necessarily throw a fit or a temper tantrum, but we still demonstrate that we don't have mastery over ourselves. Any anger implies the loss of exterior control. For this reason many spiritual directors teach that anger and resentment can be thought of as leaps backward in unfoldment: they cause us to wipe out with a single stroke what, over a long period of time and with great effort, we thought we had realized.

Compare, for example, what we feel and yearn for in moments of spiritual elevation with what we think, say and do when we are angry. We are like two different people. Even the most ordinary encounter can produce these angry feelings: How often has it happened that a person says something that irritates us, and then goes on her way without giving another thought to us or to what she said? Meanwhile, we remain so involved in the incident that we mentally attack this person for a long time; we keep up an inner dispute with someone who does not even suspect that we are angry. Without realizing it, we act in the same way that we criticize.

Anger also produces a kind of inner alienation. We not only react against those who irritate us, but, since we are upset, our way of expressing ourselves is aggressive and wounding to everyone around us. How frequently we discharge our reactions upon people who don't have anything to do with the cause of our anger! We are not aware of the wounds we produce in others with our reactions. When we regain our composure it is already too late. The network that sustains our relationships with others is very delicate. Each of our reactions profoundly affects it and can ultimately destroy it. By reacting with anger, even our relationships with those we love deteriorate, and a moment may arrive in which we find ourselves inwardly alienated.

If we are quick to anger, it is probable that little by little we will lose the capacity to relate with anyone. Who wants to keep a relationship with someone who has the habit of discharging his irritations? It is good to remember that all we do and say is irreversible. Even if we get over our irritations and apologize, try to patch things up and forget what has happened, nevertheless, what is said is said, what is done is done, and we cannot do anything about it. Wounds may heal but they always leave a scar. Once there has been anger, nothing can ever again be what it was.

Therefore, in order to control the effects of anger it is necessary to establish a relationship with anger itself. First, we place a distance between ourselves and what happens to us; second, we learn to recognize our weak points; and, third, we develop the capacity to choose the way we will react when faced with contradictions.

To learn how to keep a distance between ourselves and our anger, we can perform a little exercise: we try to see ourselves from the outside, as others see us. We make a mental image of how we look to others. Of course, in order to do this well, we first need to separate our reactions from the ways in which we justify them, to stop, for example, our eagerness to prove that we are right. If we set aside our reasons for the way we feel, we can then concentrate on working objectively on our anger. This is a way to give ourselves some distance from what is happening to us and, although we may not be able to control ourselves completely, we will be able to keep enough objectivity to better understand the total situation.

Although at first the distance we are able to make between ourselves and what happens to us is very small and lasts only a short time, it is the first step that allows us to contemplate the events of our life with greater magnitude. It is hard, for example, to appreciate a work of art if we hold it close to our face. The same thing happens to us when we want to appraise a situation; in order to understand what happens we have to learn to observe ourselves from a distance. If, for example, we are able to keep ourselves from reacting to criticism, we can contemplate the situation in the same way a friend who is with us sees it: from a distance. We can understand his advice—not to turn the matter into a personal problem but discover in ourselves what makes us react. Although at first glance this exercise does not seem to be so difficult, for many people it is a real triumph to be able to do it; it actually implies a fundamental step in the development of relationships.

To the degree to which we gain objectivity, we discover our most vulnerable areas—those which need no more than a light touch to awaken a strong reaction. We all have "sore spots" which we are not always ready to acknowledge. To accept our weak points is a fundamental step toward understanding our reactions. For example, if we recognize that we do not like to be shown our shortcomings, instead of becoming offended when someone points out our mistakes, we learn to listen and learn from them. When we accept the fact that we react and we know why we react, then we are less inclined to justify our anger. It shows us how we are and how we can improve our way of relating with others.

But is it possible not to react at all when something does not happen as we want it to? Of course this is not what we are attempting to achieve. Every healthy organism reacts when it is stimulated. However, we do believe that it is possible to recognize that we do not have to respond in an unconscious and aggressive way. We can choose responses that promote our equilibrium and unfolding.

Even if we become aware of our weak points and know why we are angry, this does not mean that difficult moments and unpleasant events will disappear. But to achieve a distance and to recognize our way of reacting gives us a solid base from which to choose at each moment the best way of responding. If we learn to control ourselves, we have options. To gain distance, to know our weak points and the effects the latter produce in us are part of the method; they give us effective mastery over the situation. This control allows us to discover options where before we only saw inevitability.

Anger is not a passion that necessarily has to dominate us, but an aspect of our personality to which we may give the form and orientation which is most advantageous in every moment. The simple fact of having options at our disposal gives us the opportunity to continuously improve our relationship with the different people and circumstances we encounter in life. To learn to direct our feelings, to transform our irritations and anger into healthier and more positive attitudes is a good way to smooth our path and to learn how to hurdle obstacles that otherwise tend to overwhelm us. 

Reprinted from Living Consciously.