I Love My Anger
But I’m no longer addicted to it.
Robert Thurman is an icon of American Buddhism and co-author of the book, “Love Your Enemies,” with longtime friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. This is a paraphrase of something I heard him say on the topic of anger and self-compassion:
“We’re very switchable in our moods and minds. The key is — the hopeful thing for some people who like their anger (and some do) — that the energy of strong, powerful heat can be ridden in a different way to heal ourselves, developing inner strength and determination. In Buddhist psychology, anger is connected to intelligence — to analytic and critical intelligence. This is something work being ambitious toward in our anger.”
Do you know how long it has taken me to say, “I love my anger?” I was raised in a household of clandestine chaos. The fights were quiet or hidden; the tension wrapped in cellophane with ice cream dates for distraction. The defining moment that arises in my therapy sessions, time and again, is a traumatic memory from eight years old when the pot finally boiled over and left us all burned. Anger was never honored; it was dismissed as dangerous.
But anger is a secondary emotion. It shows up as information for us to notice that something is not right, and needs attention. Cultivating our emotional intelligence around our anger — rather than choosing to avoid it for any number of reasons — is the primary ambition of grief work around the topic of anger.
And finding the freedom to admit what anger brings to me is where I can find strength enough to choose a different outcome. Where it may initially feel satisfying to unleash a barrage of verbal abuse in my anger, the adrenaline crash and long-term fallout are not worth the rush.
Reconciling myself to a place of appreciating anger as information did not happen overnight, nor have I fully arrived at a conclusion. Part of the work to accept anger as a type of healthy response meant going inward. Over the last few years, I’ve chosen to investigate my baseline characteristics and passions. Am I inherently an angry person? Not at all, but my most basic reaction to what I perceive to be injustice is almost always a quick rise to anger.
Learning that I am not angry, but I feel/experience anger is the first step for me to learn how to embrace the emotion. Outright rejection of anger is what led me to allow outbursts in the first place. The rush of rage, coursing through my thoughts and finding expression on my lips was too easy. Each outburst felt like a childish response; which brought its own form of shame and frustration along for the ride.
When this form of shame and frustration arise, I am presented with an opportunity to become critical or curious. Part of my self-development involves investigating my behaviors and motivations through the lens of the enneagram. I carry a lot of energy in the enneagram eight arena, which is known as the challenger. I can be abrasive, confrontational, assertive, and often downright aggressive. This tool has brought those observations about myself to the forefront not for the purpose of shaming me into softer behaviors, but to allow myself to unpack why I respond in certain ways.
For the angriest among us, we Hulk-out as a self-protection. The vulnerability of being seen and potentially misunderstood can be too much to bear. However, even in my rawest moments, I value self-control. Too highly to sacrifice it for the momentary expression of anger. This is where I have a choice. We have mere seconds to choose observation and curiosity toward our reactions over condemnation and explosion.
As a griever and grief expert, I consistently remind myself and my clients that it is normal, welcome, and reasonable to feel great fury over our losses. There is no timeframe that releases our anger, nor a process by which we can “let go” with certainty that it will never return. As grievers, we simply learn to navigate our anger in a way that does not burn down the bridge we’re crossing.
In that space, after the emotion of grief is felt, we are faced with a decision. The adrenaline crash waves over us, and we become emotionally exhausted; physically drained. And yet, this is our moment. This is when we can exercise our choice to become ambitious, like Thurman says, and lean into the analytic work of observing and becoming curious about our stories.
Anger addiction is real. A short fuse, repeated cycles of regret and remorse, or bouts of violent social, emotional, or physical behaviors are all big indicators that we are not in a healthy relationship with anger. When you read that catchy social media phrase, “I woke up today and chose violence,” this is what they’re referring to. It’s the indulgence in allowing anger to speak first (and often, the loudest).
I’m no expert, but after practicing a closer look at myself, I recognized the pride I felt at my anger’s ability to destroy another person. Whether the words were spoken aloud or simply meditated upon, I always knew exactly what witty, cutting comment could shred the ego and character of another.
There is a neurological reward associated with anger and pride. Don’t get confused — the two are bedfellows. In my anger, I experienced an inflated sense of self, as if I alone could be accurate. I alone held the correct information. But I found myself alone in self-righteous arrogance.
The dopamine blast from performing a satisfying behavior repeatedly is morally neutral. It’s not a negative, or harmful thing. It’s a natural process our body uses to reinforce our chosen habits. But too often, I find we are choosing habits that lead us out of our integrity and into murky waters of disconnect from the people we want to become.
One time, my family and I were camping at a local lake in the mountains. It’s a popular resort with paddle boats, ice cream, and all the sunblock you’ll need to fend off the onslaught of mosquitos. While I tend to prefer less crowded spaces, we wanted to spend an afternoon in the designated swimming area, so we setup a blanket in the shade and waded in.
Almost immediately, I was horrified. The water was gross — full of bird excrement, flotsam, seaweed, mud — exactly like you’d expect most highly trafficked lakes to be. With each step, our ankles sunk deeper into the silt, stirring even more into the water. I cannot tell you how long it took to stop gagging as we eked away from the shore, truly believing it would get better.
I wish I could say that I sighed and focused on enjoying my family and sunshine on my face. But the truth is, I complained and got out of the water before it hit my waistline. The volume of people meant the silt would never settle, and I didn’t want to deal with that much literal slime across my body.
As you may imagine, I complained and whined for the rest of the day. I won’t deny it. I allowed my frustration and anger to overtake the beauty of the day. Don’t judge my reaction; we’ve all become disproportionately angry over things we can’t control. I returned to our campsite early, cranky and wishing the weekend would end. But I often think back and wonder what could have been different if I’d exercised my choice?
It’s really hard to read this story and not minimize every detail. It seems like such a small concern in the context of life, especially in the middle of global wars, pandemics, and more. But in the simplicity is a gift of sight. What would have changed for me if I’d recognized my anger and instead of reacting, became curious and allowed a different response?
This is the value of pursuing a deeper emotional intelligence. When we take the time to observe, evaluate, control, and use our emotions in a positive way, we are able to overcome our addictions to anger, to melancholy, self-sabotage, pride, and more. Through practicing emotional intelligence in my daily life, I am able to recognize the emotion and allow it to become information. What is this anger trying to say? What threat is this anger protecting me against, real or imagined?
I want to offer a quick mindfulness tool to help you identify your own anger. While this may feel quite silly (again), do not minimize your emotional need. Our feelings are not facts, but they can point to very real circumstances or experiences that deserve a little more attention.
Step One: Get Angry About Something
Step Two: Notice… Oh snap, I’m angry!
Step Three: Let yourself feel the anger (try not to cross to the darkside and smash things/people/establishments/cookies). But feel it. Give it some space to be valid.
Step Four: Grab a cuppa tea, coffee, or water and a notebook (you knew I would make you write something down) and write down why you’re angry. Seriously. Doesn’t matter how you’ve judged your anger to be irrational or unjustified. You’re angry about something, and that’s normal, my friend!
Step Five: Now… reread what you’ve written as if it were an admission of pain from your loved one. Your child, your best friend. Someone to whom you would offer your last breath to save their life.
Step Six: Make margin notes about any judgmental thoughts that arise. For example, “This is silly to be angry about,” or, “I have no right…”. You do have the right to be angry. You’re an emotional human, and that’s good.
Step Seven: Practice Emotional Intelligence. Ask yourself, “This anger… it’s guarding something in my life that I don’t want to touch but needs attention. Am I angry at injustice? At my innocence being taken? Do I feel dismissed, or taken advantage of? How is anger protecting me from vulnerability right now, and what needs to be seen?”
Step Eight: Write down your answers. Again, try to keep the judgments aside and just respond to your letter as if you are reading the truest admission of frustration and pain from a loved one. Speak the way you would want to hear from another; not the way you’re used to minimizing and stuffing your anger away.
Step Nine: Breathe, dammit! Did you hold your breath during much of this exercise? Me, too. Even while writing it. Let’s pause and invite our breath back to the process. Maybe you can visualize yourself exhaling those judgmental thoughts and words about yourself and your anger. Those are worth releasing.
Step Ten: Reflect. How do you feel about your anger NOW after going through this little “10 Step Program to Appreciate the Intelligence of Your Anger”? Hopefully, you have come to a place of calm (even if it is mild and seems tenuous) around the trigger for your anger.
And before you carry off into the next interaction, I want to offer you a bit of perspective. The majority of people will dismiss this work as fluffy, overwrought, and perhaps even find it meaningless. But you know better, because something here resonates within your own experience of anger. Somewhere, you can trust that a more insightful, ambitiously courage version of yourself is coming to the surface. Offer yourself a moment of gratitude for choosing to switch your mind away from the addictive heat of anger and move toward wholeness.
Mandy Capehart is an author, small business owner, editor, certified grief and life coach, and creator of The Restorative Grief Project. The Restorative Grief Project is an online community focusing on one another’s stories and new methodologies for grief, creating a safe environment for our souls to heal and our spirits to be revived. To learn more, visit MandyCapehart.com or follow her on Twitter. She thinks she is pretty funny. The jury is out.