Coping with Anger
Updated: Sep 26
There are in my experience two types of anger; or rather two sources of anger. One is the one we tend to think of most often. Someone says or does something, or perhaps doesn’t do something you wanted them to do, and we get angry about it. It may be personal. It may be political. It may be work-related. It may be serious. It may be trivial.
The other is more deep-seated. From time to time, maybe every day, maybe twice a year, an unhappy memory appears in our mind and makes us angry. The original incident or action that caused the anger may be decades old. There are people in their eighties who still feel anger about something their mother or father said or did in the 1940s.
We probably all have both versions in us. How much or how little, how strong or how weak, is down to luck.
Some people are born with genes that makes them more likely to be angry, or to hold grudges. Others have genes that seem to keep anger at a very low level. And some people have extremely unfortunate, even brutal lives, creating a strong habit of anger inside them, while another group have charmed lives, where the things that anger us in life haven’t happened to them, so they haven’t built up the habit of being angry.
We can’t do anything to get rid of the genes we have, nor the life we’ve had up till now. And just hoping our anger will disappear by just hoping or wishing it will in the future, is equally unrealistic.
It is now that we can change our relationship with the anger inside us. It is now that we can start to tame, manage, maybe even soften or eliminate the habit of anger in our mind.
Looked at objectively, anger is just one of dozens of responses the human mind creates. Sometimes it creates them as an obviously response to something that just happened, but sometimes we have feelings or moods without any seeming cause at all.
Mindfulness asks us to notice this truth – that anger and all our other emotions are not true, real, justified responses to life events, but simply things the mind produces as a result of billions of years of evolution. It is really helpful practically to stop associating our feelings with life events. Instead, seeing them for what they are – ancient products of the mind – we can then start to use them skilfully to get what we want from life, rather than being swayed this way and that by whatever mood takes us over.
So how do you deal with anger when it arises?
First you have to notice that you’ve become angry. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s easy to feel angry and know that you’re angry, but it’s a different thing to calmly, objective really notice it. So you have to build up that skill by practising noticing each and every day, as often as you can. Doesn’t matter if it’s the rain that you notice, or flowers in a vase. Improve your noticing and you’ll improve your ability to notice anger and other emotions as they arise.
Then gently, subtly, change the direction of your attention. Move it to something soothing, peaceful, in other words, the opposite of anger. This way it will act like an antidote to the anger. The breath is perfect, because the in-breath is clear and fresh, and the out-breath is quiet and peaceful. You may find other things that soothe you or lift your spirits. If so, use them.
And that’s it. Keep practising to get better at noticing. Have confidence that this practice works. And keep gently moving your attention from anger – or similar negative emotions – to more peaceful, positive ones. Your ability to do it will increase over time.