The Anatomy of Anger
the way that a gardener knows how to transform compost into flowers,
we can learn the art of transforming anger, depression, and racial
discrimination into love and understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh
culture, men are encouraged to express their anger. Might makes
right, we are told, and righteous anger is so sweet. Men are not
encouraged, however, to admit to fear or pain. Big boys don't cry;
they are tough, sturdy oaks that feel no pain and fear no one.
you have grown up male, these messages live in your body. They were
passed on to you by your father and other men, more by temperament
than by teaching. If you have grown up female, you may have been
denied your anger, encouraged to disown it or, when faced with another
person's anger, to withdraw, escape, or give in. Our families had
many unspoken rules about anger and other strong emotions, and we
as children learned them well. Our challenge now is to pass on more
inclusive and less violence-provoking messages to the children we
basic violence prevention message about emotions is: All feelings
are okay, yet all behaviors are not. Everyone is entitled to the
full range of emotional experience. The more we accept our feelings
and allow them to move through us, the richer and more peaceful
our lives become. So let them flow, and let them go. Any behaviors
they trigger in passing are yours to channel. How you express your
anger is far more important than the fact that you have itor,
as is more likely, that it has you, firmly in its grasp.
extends along a continuum ranging from irritation to annoyance to
fury to rage. Each person has an internal anger meter that is set
at a thereshold somewhere along this continuum. A peron whose meter
is set at "rage," for example, will express anger by speaking, acting,
or moving without restraint: mindlessly violating anything or anyone
in the vicinity; or shaming others, if not physically wounding them.
At this end of the continuum, anger seeks to dominate the brain,
blurring all distinctions between right and wrong action.
most vulnerable to rage are children and adults who do not have
well-established protective boundaries. Physiological conditions
may also play a role. When we are hot, cold, hungry, tired or in
physical pain, our threshold shifts, causing otherwise congenial
encounters to become a source of irritation.
anger good or bad? What one does with the energy of anger may be
good or bad, but anger itself simply is. It lives in the body as
a million-year-old survival response to life-threatening conditions.
To defend itself against annihilation, the body gears up for action:
the heart rate increases, respiration deepens, pupils dilate, blood
shifts away from the digestive tract to major muscles, and stress
hormones as well as blood sugar levels rise. In response, the person
will either do battle or take flight. Curiously, the fight-or-flight
responsea mechanism that initially helped our species survivenow
threatens to destroy us. Our most promising option is to learn new
ways of dealing with this energy.
Anger Gets Stuck
we hold on to anger, it tends to get stuck inside. More often than
not, it surfaces in the form of resentment. Our resentmentswhich
are nothing more than held-back anger that we keep relivingfeed
an escalating cycle of vengeance. Here's what happens: we get angry
at someone, keep it to ourselves, wait for the person's next move,
then pull out our red-stamp resentment collection to justify our
onging anger at this person.
hurt us; they wreak havoc in the body. They also hurt our offspring,
because the unresolved, undirected anger is forever on the verge
of exploding forth. With the passage of time, anger rooted in the
unhealed wounds of one generation spills over onto the next generation.
most vented anger is a layer of fear and grief. A father I know
lost his child in the supermarket and became furious upon finding
him. Outwardly, this man expressed anger; inwardly, he had been
terrified that something had happened to his child. If we, too,
begin getting inappropriately angry, especially if this happens
habitually, we would do well to explore the fear or hurt that keeps
fueling the angry energy.
identified the triggers, we will be able to focus on expressing
the emotion that really needs attention, instead of continually
venting. Anger tends to arise from one of four causes: an unmet
expectation (you ask your child to do something, and she does not
respond), an undelivered message (you have something to convey,
and the other person either does not hear it or does not permit
you to say it), a blocked intention (you are looking forward to
a long weekend, and the boss says you have to work, or the car breaks
down as you are leaving), or a perceived violation of personal boundaries
(you step outside and notice a bunch of teens sitting on your car,
or a neighbor's trash is strewn about your property). Never can
another person "make" you angry. To the contrary, your feelings
of anger are generated by your body, and are therefore your responsibility.
The attitude most likely to set the stage for anger is an entitlement
view of the worlda sense that other people, and life itself,
"should" treat you in a paticular way. This perspective, in conjunction
with the stresses of daily life, is almost certain to send sparks
When stuck anger comes to the fore, it is likely to target loved
ones. Why? First, because we feel safer and more secure expressing
anger to loved ones, as opposed to strangers. Second, frequent contact
provides increased opportunities for venting anger. Third, the cumulative
effect of a loved one's irritating behaviors can be encumbering
and distressing, eventually registering "hot" on our anger meter.
Then, too, we may be unconsciously motivated to have our loved ones
alter their ways. Anger, in this instance, may signify a secret
desire to "get them to change"a desire that is not doing anyone
pick up on early signs of anger, tune in to your body. You may feel
a tightening of your jaw, or a sensation of heat in your abdomen,
or tension in your shoulders or neck. Aware of the wake-up call,
stop whatever you are doing and initiate a coping strategy to defuse
this potentially destructive force.
Healthy Ways to Cope With Angry Energy
develop a constructive expresson of anger, allow the feelings to
rise to the surface, all the while appreciating the energy of this
emotion and your willingness to accept it. Greet it as you would
an uninvited guest who has just made his way into your living room.
Then right away articulate the anger as honestly as you can: tell
the person you are upset with exactly what is bothering you. While
explaining the situation, silently applaud your abililty to be honest
healthy ways to cope with anger in the moment include the following:
Positive self-talk to help you feel in control.
2 Time out and stepping away from the situation.
3 Tensing and relaxing various muscle groups.
Visual imagery directed at seeing the other person
as a hurt child.
Physical exercise, such as running, jumping rope or
walking the dog.
Writing in a journal, drawing, painting or working
Using "I" statements, such as "I feel ___ when you
___. And I'd like ___."
Sending a "heart flash"a mutually agreed upon
signal reminding the other person of your love.
goal is to attend to the anger as quickly as possible. With practice,
you can become so sensitized to the early signs of anger and so
adept at responding to them that irritations and annoyances will
no longer escalate into full blown anger.
to Do When Angry Energy Is Directed at You
confronted with other people's anger, raise an inner shield or envelope
of protective light, and stay centered. Get out of the way of thunderbolts,
and keep a safe physical distance at the first inkling of violence.
Realize that the vehemence is their stuff, and tell them you know
how angry they are. This will at least prevent them from getting
angrier to convince you of their ire.
When angry words come your way, listen without interrupting, seek
to understand the cause of the upset, then reflect back on what
the person had said to you. Call a time-out if needed. Keep your
boundaries, and refuse to carry the energy that has been released.
angry person will often try to provoke anger to create a shared
state of temporary insanity. And indeed, anger is infectious. But
you can insulate yourself from it by realizing that just as the
other person's thoughts generated the fury, their thoughts will
dissipate it. All you can do is foster their desire to calm down,
and then deal with the underlying practical issue. It is impossible
to solve problems when anger is present. So, like Captain Picard
in the television series Star Trek advocates, "Shields up, and open
people mistake the energy of anger for that of life itself. They
view hostility as a protective friend and source of vitality. A
person consumed with personal grievances knows they are alive. Swept
up in their rage, however, they do not know it is destroying their
peace of mind and their ability to center on the injustices that
exist beyond the confines of their mind.
cannot fight your anger or control it. But you can, with time and
patience, accept your anger, process it, treat it with tenderness
and kindness, get to know it, and heal the pain and fears that gave
it life. Your anger will then be transformed into a more creative
form of energy, or will gradually wither away.
La Cerva 2000
Victor La Cerva, MD