Anger… sixty seconds’ worth of distance run

It can be one of the ugliest emotions. It can ruin any situation. If it lurks deep inside and curdles, it can make us sick. It also has awesome power.“ Barry Boyce (Mindful Special Edition, 2018)

I recently saw a precious clip on YouTube called “Just Breathe” by Julie and Josh Salzman (Mindful Schools). The expression in the young sad boy’s face who said: “I don’t like being angry” stays with me. So many times, anger is the main reason parents and teachers refer children to my practice… or why couples decide it is time for couples’ therapy… And yet, anger is the gift that helps us to create healthy boundaries when unfairness has been done… the signal that our needs are not met… or the necessary step in the mourning process after a loss which eventually leads us to meaningful acceptance.

Hopefully, by now we don’t label difficult feelings as dysfunctional anymore. We start to realize that they are gifts – and when we become aware of them without reacting automatically on them or suppressing them, they are there to help us – even if we do not like them so much.

Unhealthy anger has many faces. According to W. Robert Nay (The Anger Management Workbook -2014), anger can be expressed passively or actively. Both can be equally damaging” Sometimes we experience and show our anger in a passive way: we withhold praise, attention or affection. We can also show anger by being sarcastic: making “humorous” or cutting remarks or revealing personal information to others or engaging in public humiliation. Cold anger can often be minimized, while still doing a lot of harm: it includes withdrawing from the other, avoiding intimacy or avoiding emotional discussion. Hostility during stressed times means visible signs of frustration and annoyance with others, without the intent to hurt or harm them. Lastly, aggression would include acting out intentionally by means of verbal abuse, cursing, name-calling, pushing, blocking or hitting.

So how do we start to deal with our unhealthy anger… Whether we learn our patterns of dealing with our anger from the re-visiting our past or present, we can start with the next few steps:

1. We must become aware of our feelings without judgement, or trying to change them immediately. When we become aware of anger, instead of ignoring or reacting on it, we could start by rating it on a scale from one to ten. We can decide then whether it is healthy or unhealthy anger. Sometimes our anger is a secondary feeling, while we actually are experiencing fear, sadness, pain, guilt or shame (primary feeling). In a safe relationship, we should rather express our primary feeling to our loved ones, rather than only focus on our anger.

2. We must become aware of our thoughts, without judging them or trying to change them immediately. During times of anger, we should remember that we can’t believe everything we think. Our thoughts are just here to teach us how we are doing. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations for ourselves, others, or life – for example, we think that people are not supposed to make mistakes and life should be perfect. Sometimes we take things personally although it wasn’t meant that way. Sometimes an old complex is triggered, and we lose sight of reality.

3. We must become aware of our bodily sensations, without judging them or trying to change them immediately. Anger involves the fight-or-flight response. You may notice tension in your muscles, increased heart rate or changes in your breathing. These sensations are just here to tell us that we are angry. We may then apply progressive relaxation – a procedure that Edmund Jacobson developed in the 1920’s to teach patients to discriminate between tension and relaxation within their bodies. So, when we become aware of tension in parts of our body like our jaws, neck, hands, shoulders, stomach or legs, we can tighten these muscles for five counts as much as we can, and then relax.

4. We must become aware of our needs. When we know of the needs that take us forward and help us to be okay, we can learn to communicate these needs instead of blaming others for their imperfect behaviour. Always keep in mind the need for self-care and self-compassion in spite of our most difficult, imperfect moments.

5. We need to take a few deep breaths. We need to detect whether we breathe form the diaphragm (and not the chest) by putting our hands on our stomach, just below the rib cage, and notice if our hands move outward (and not inward).

When we become aware of our pattern of dealing with anger, we can start planning our next steps with a lot of grace, patience and compassion for ourselves.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –

Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

  • Rudyard Kipling (The Poem: If, 1895)

Dr Mariki Smith

August 2018