One of the most uncomfortable emotions for so many of us is anger. According to Buddhist Psychologist Tara Brach, anger can be viewed as a “wise discriminator“. As with all feelings, anger is an indicator – it lets us know that we need to protect ourselves from a possible threat. The problem is, anger is one of the most visceral emotions, and one of the emotions that we find ourselves most “hooked by”. Our minds get caught on our anger, and we often find ourselves being highly reactive when angry, losing our ability to stay calm and mindful and present. We mindlessly lash out, saying or doing things we later regret, because anger is so hard for us to sit with.
But sitting with it is usually the necessary first step to moving through it. As with all thoughts and feelings in the context of Buddhist psychotherapy, anger itself is never the problem; the issue lies in how we relate to our anger. Especially in the context of American society, anger is a feeling that very few of us are taught to manage well: both men and women seem trapped in terms of the ways in which they’re socialized to deal with anger. For men, anger is often one of the few “acceptable” emotions – rather than expressing sadness or fear, boys are taught to express anger (and then grow into men who are told they have “anger management” issues!). Women, on the other hand, don’t seem to know what to do with anger: girls are taught to be good and nice, so anger is an emotion we don’t express. Rather, women often internalize anger (whereas men externalize) – we engage in self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders and substance abuse and hurt ourselves (rather than risking hurting others).
So what do we do about this conundrum? Buddhism, and Buddhist psychology, offers the following:
- First, (as always), say “yes”: Don’t invalidate your anger or push it away! Accept that you feel angry and that it’s valid…know that anger is simply a wave in your ocean, it’s not who you are (and it’s not permanent!). Give yourself permission to feel your feelings!
- Second, stay with it: Meditation and yoga help teach us ways in which we can stay with our experience. Our mind always wants to run from pain and find pleasure; but in order for a feeling to move through us, we must feel whatever arises.
- Next, get curious: Ask yourself – with a ton of compassion and no judgment – where anger lives in your body. All feelings are physiological sensations that we can learn to experience in our bodies (not our minds!); do a body scan, from your toes up to your head, and ask yourself where you feel anger. What does it feel like? Is the sensation dull or acute? Is there a temperature, color or texture you associate with it? Does it mutate and move around or stay in one spot?
- Finally, breathe: Deeply inhale and exhale as you experience the anger in your body. Feelings only persist when we continue to feed them with stories. Be mindful and present and the feeling will slowly begin to lessen and dissipate.
Once the intensity of the emotion subsides, you can ask yourself if there’s something you need to do or say. Is there a boundary that needs to be established? What is the anger trying to tell you? If there’s something that can be done about it – even if you simply express your needs but ultimately can’t control the outcome – do it. If there’s nothing that can be done, then simply feel your feelings. Anger is a secondary emotion and most often, is masking pain or fear (or both). You’ll know if this is the case if you simply stay present with it; the anger will melt into sadness (or whatever is underneath it) and then your task is simply to stay present with your pain. Presence, according to Buddhism, is love…and only love heals.
So get angry! Feel it, process it, take whatever action is necessary (when possible – think “Serenity Prayer”). And then let go, surrender and return to love.