Anger can be described as a complex of thoughts, feelings and urges that show up when things don’t go our way. It’s pretty simple to understand; we just want to be happy. Unfortunately, we believe our happiness is contingent on things turning out according to our likes. Problem is, everyone else feels the same way.
But what’s wrong with wanting things our way? Well as it turns out, quite a lot. Bare with me here and think about this idea: suffering results from not liking what we have and from wanting what we don’t have. It’s a little nugget of wisdom that’s pretty hard to disagree with. But how can we be happy with what we have and lose our attachment for wanting things to be different?
It’s all about wanting things to be different
In an interesting way, working with anger puts us in direct contact with this red-hot urge to have it our way. The only way to work with this urge is to experience it in broad daylight, to come face to face with it’s attachment to outcome and gently ease into the exploration of coming to know the true nature of ‘wanting’, itself. Fortunately, the experience of anger willingly supplies us with all of this.
How we get triggered
Imagine this scenario… we see our mate has just left the cap off the toothpaste, yet again. Here comes the surge and we move into full-blown red-faced anger in a split second. We’re pummeled with rapid fire thoughts: thoughts about inconsideration, rudeness, thoughtlessness, stupidity; ideas about his plausible negative intentions and passive-aggressiveness; memories about all of the past transgressions; self-righteous indignation and feelings… really bad feelings.
All of this happens so fast, we find ourselves moving into action before the dust settles. Later, we console ourselves with the idea that the other has made us angry. If he had simply conformed to our standards, we wouldn’t have to feel this way. What’s the matter with him?
What part of this is do I own
Perhaps a better question, or at least a question more likely to have an answer is, “what’s the matter with me”. How did all this energy arise from simply seeing toothpaste without a cap? How did this uncomplicated visual wind up having so much extra meaning?
Well, although not always so obvious, the extra meaning comes from the thinking mind. The nature and flavor of your particular meaning comes from your personal experience… from birth onward. Since there’s not much we can do about changing past experience, the logical place to work is with changing our relationship with past experience. So, how might this work?
Working with angry thoughts and feelings
Imagine the same scenario again, but this time fortified with the willingness to stay with the heat and urgency of anger, without suppressing, denying or acting out. We see the cap off the toothpaste and the full catastrophe kicks into action. But this time, we catch ourselves in action; we observe our thoughts and see them for what they are. They are just part of a pattern we enact when faced with painful feelings.
We gently tell ourselves we are “doing” our pattern; we encourage ourselves to hold our seat and just stay. We breathe deeply into our felt body sense and let go of the thoughts. The thoughts come back; we breathe and let go again. We re-fortify our commitment to stay present with the immediacy of our experience… for as long as it takes.
In reality, we are teaching ourselves on the spot, using our own natural warmth, intelligence and compassion. Slowly, the feeling passes, we put the cap on the toothpaste and get on with our lives. Sometime later, we discover our mate has become more considerate, warmer and happier. This isn’t rocket science… but, it is hard work, because it flies in the face of what we believe is right.
It still doesn’t seem “fair”
Although we may have toughed it through the above scenario, we’re still plagued with a sinking sense that we’re doing all the work and it’s not fair. Why does he get off scot-free? Doesn’t this mean, he’s won and I’ve lost? Again… all this stuff is extra meaning we’ve attributed to the situation based on past experience.
If you grew up with a critical or abusive parent, you may have learned that anything less than perfection is wrong, and you’re bad for being imperfect. We carry these unconscious beliefs into relationships, but they aren’t truth and furthermore, they carry within them seeds of suffering. Therefore, staying with angry feelings has the effect of tapping into old familiar feelings that are painful, scary and sometimes traumatic. You’ll recognize that the anger has been a strategy to avoid going to this very place.
Ending suffering at the source
Now is your chance to heal suffering at the core. Feel it fully, let it wash over you, let it move you and shake you up. Recognize this feeling is the way you’ve learned to protect yourself from overbearing caregivers; at least being angry kept you safe from feeling rejected, abandoned and alone.
Allow this growing sense of understanding and compassion for yourself ventilate the atmosphere and bring fresh air and spaciousness to your experience. Recognize your parents did the best they could with the skills and resources available to them at the time. Let forgiveness, empathy and healing widen the space even more.
Next time you swing into unconscious anger, you’ll notice that there’s more time between stimulus and response, the space is wider, newfound kindness and a sense of the bigger picture show up. As you continue practicing this skill, one day you’ll look back and notice small things no longer bother you. You’ve changed, softened, and grown up. And, all this from a toothpaste cap!
How therapy can help
- Learn to experience angry feelings without suppressing, repressing or acting out.
- Understand the nature of triggering events and end the tug of war with anger.
- Separate thoughts from feelings.
- Develop tolerance under fire.
- Replace habitual behaviors with flexible intentional actions.
- Cultivate willingness, patience, compassion and forgiveness.
My approach helps you work with unwanted emotions without letting them rule your life. By slowing down your ordinary process and looking closely at the places you feel stuck, you can begin to unravel the fear and pain behind angry emotions and behavior and move on with the creative business of living your life.