Anger is a difficult emotion

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy – Aristotle

Very often people struggle with knowing what they are really feeling when they are angry. On the one hand, anger is universally recognizable and understood. On the other hand, anger is a very complicated set of emotions with layers of feelings. Anger, for a lot of people, is the go-to emotion when they are hurt, afraid, disillusioned, misunderstood, or even embarrassed.  Since many people are unable to understand the complexity of their anger, they are even less likely to care for, or manage, this emotion in a constructive manner.

Most of us associate anger with rage, being out of control or being destructive. Thinking of anger, as a constructive emotion, is often difficult because it feels corrosive and uncomfortable. Yet anger at the unjust world is what motivated the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Women, more often than men, are likely to suppress or mismanage their angry feelings. Women, in most cultures, are socialized to hide or sublimate their angry feelings. Where as men typically let out their anger in recognizable ways, women tend towards internalizing their anger or expressing it in more complicated ways. Although it may seem unfair to generalize, research support that across the board, women from different socio-cultural backgrounds, tend to use passive aggressive or manipulative means of managing or expressing their anger. For example, women are more likely to use the internet or emails as a weapon for attacking or for bullying from a safe distance. The book Mean Girls, Meaner Women, written by two psychologists, Dr. Erika Holiday and Dr. Joan I. Rosenberg, addresses this issue in greater depth and detail.

Popular wisdom about how to deal with anger is also often problematic. It is not uncommon to hear people say that they scream into a pillow or punch a punching bag to let out their anger. Unfortunately many of these strategies can have the opposite impact on our bodies, minds and relationships. Anger tends to have many physiological effects on the body, e.g., elevated heart rate, raised blood pressure, and tightening of muscles. Anger can evoke the same “fight or flight” responses in our body, as when faced with a scary situation. The strategies of punching or screaming exagerate the very feelings that we are attempting to temper. Also, a common way of dealing with anger, is expressing anger verbally in the name of communication. “You have to let it out”, is the common bias in this culture. Not all communication is effective and self- restraint is confused with being weak or passive.  Letting the anger out, very often provides support for the angry person feeling even more justified in being angry. The most ineffective form of communication or of expressing anger tends to be when one is the angriest.

Interestingly, not letting out the anger, can be equally destructive. Since our minds and bodies are intimately related, unmanaged anger often shows up in the body as aches and pains, stress and even diseases like depression and anxiety. It is easy to see the link between the need to soothe difficult emotions and substance abuse or eating disorders. The more effective ways of dealing with anger requires a lot of self evaluation, changes in attitudes, re-evaluating relationships, one’s role in the relationships and cultivation of new habits. Thich Nhat Hanh provides a compassionate way of looking at anger in the book Taming the tiger within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions. In his infinite but simple wisdom, he says, “If you get angry easily, it may be because the seed of anger in you has been watered frequently over many years, and unfortunately you have allowed it or even encouraged it to be watered”. To stop watering this seed of anger, therefore, we probably have to focus our energy elsewhere, learn new coping skills and cultivate other qualities.

One of the ways of better understanding our anger and dealing effectively with anger continues to be effective communication. Unfortunately, we over use the word communication but misunderstand the essence of it. Anger gets communicated without words even more palpably than with words. Slamming doors or silent treatments are loud examples of non-verbal communication. The most important aspect of communication that is often neglected is “listening”. We are more likely view the act of listening as the time spent waiting to express our side of things or gathering up more evidence to assert our point of view. Listening with the intention of truly understanding the other is challenging and takes practice. It takes many years of training as a psychologist or a therapist to listen with unconditional acceptance.

Forgiveness is another profoundly helpful strategy to deal with unresolved or long term anger. Perhaps because it is associated with religiosity, forgiveness is also a widely misunderstood concept. People sometimes equate forgiveness with giving someone else permission to continue to wrong them or with forgetting bad events. Forgiveness is, simply, a conscious act of acceptance of the realities as they exist, and allows for healing and unburdening. It takes practice and it happens in small increments, like watering the seed and watching it sprout and grow into a healthy plant.

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