If asked to name the one greatest adversary to our happiness, I would easily respond, Anger. Anger, (followed closely by its favorite partner in crime, Fear) is overwhelming our society. It pervades our homes and our relationships, manipulates our thoughts, and seek to control every decision we make.
As we go about our jobs, send our children to school, or surf social media, it’s not hard to recognize this wicked attribute’s influence on our society. But perhaps it’s greatest, and most vile accomplishment is the way it infiltrates our homes and relationships.
Understanding how anger operates in our lives is the only way to control it before it controls you.
Does Anger Serve Any Purpose?
Some psychologists believe that there is an evolutionary basis for anger. That, because it causes a surge of adrenaline and increases the blood flow through our body’s extremities, it is literally helping us defend or protect ourselves. Thus, anger has become a “protective” or “defensive” mechanism.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Can you think of a time when you or someone you care for felt threatened and you felt that surge of adrenaline course through your body? That is anger protecting you.
But what about when you felt emotionally threatened? How about when a loved one offended you? Did you respond angrily, only to regret your actions later after that adrenaline surge passed? This is the problem with anger: the drive to act often causes us to do so emotionally and without rational thought, which leads to regret.
The Anger Iceberg
In the same way our evolutionary responses utilize anger to protect ourselves from a perceived threat, we also use it to protect more vulnerable emotions.
This is referred to by Dr. John Gottman as “The Anger Iceberg”. Just like the vast majority of an iceberg lies hidden underwater, we too hide our emotions well below the surface. Anger, we allow to show above the surface because it protects us from having to expose more fragile emotions like embarrassment, shame, helplessness, and anxiety.
“Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.”Eckhart Tolle
The problem is, we are also very effectively keeps those who could help us far, far away. The only way to overcome anger is to be willing to be honest. First, be honest with yourself by appropriately naming what emotion you are really feeling. Second, melt the anger you are using as a defense-mechanism and be honest with someone in whom you can confide and tell them how you are really feeling.
Stop using anger as a shield. It creates contention in relationships, encourages thinking contemptuously of others, deteriorates your health, and if left unchecked, will eradicate your happiness. Yes, it is that powerful.
What Does Anger Do to You?
Anger isn’t content to play its compartmentalized role in your tapestry of emotions. It wants total control over you. Anger seeks to make all other emotions subject to it. And the truth is, it does so very easily. When we allow even the littlest bit of anger into our thoughts, it takes over. Anger does not share.
“What we say to ourselves in the privacy of our own minds, matters.”Marie Forleo
Anger easily takes over our thoughts. The other day, I was driving home from a number of errands I had run. As I was driving, I had the thought that I wasn’t in any hurry, and that I could be more patient with my fellow drivers. I had several instances in the short drive where I was able to exercise such patience. As I sat at a 2-way stop and waited for the woman across from me to go straight so I could make my left turn, I thought about how nice and pleasant I felt. I waited…and waited…and waited…and waited…and waited…for what I thought must have been at least 5 opportunities where I could have gone, until I suddenly yelled out, “C’mon! Are you kidding me?!?!”
Immediately after I yelled, I started laughing at myself. All that patience and goodwill towards my fellow men up in smoke! When anger is a familiar friend of ours, it’s that easy to flip the switch and hand over control of our emotions to it.
Anger manipulates our thoughts by distorting reality. When operating under its umbrella, our thoughts default to thinking negatively of others, assuming the worst, perpetuating cynicism, and anticipating future problems. Anger acts like a magnet—it likes to surround itself with “bad company”. Therefore, when angry, we see the worst in every situation. We seek out and “feed” it with evidence to support and justify our angry feelings.
Your Words & Actions
Because of the inseparable link between our thoughts, words and actions, anger can gain control over your words and actions almost as quickly as it can your thoughts. We cannot think one thing and behave differently. We cannot be angry that our children forgot to take out the trash, and nurture them.
Every day words unintentionally “slip out” when we are angry—words that we regret. The thing is, if the thoughts weren’t angry, the words wouldn’t be either. Fear and Anger rely on that indivisible link between thoughts, words, and actions. In order to keep our actions loving and kind, we must first purify our thoughts.
When we act out angrily, are we really acting or reacting? Are we reacting to a threat to expose the emotions we are hiding below our icy surface? Do we push others away when they threaten to expose that we are embarrassed or feeling threatened? Do we react angrily when we feel that someone is acting maliciously towards us?
The Snake and the Saw
One day, a snake entered a carpentry shop. As it crawled to the corner, it passed by a saw that inadvertently cut it a little. Perceiving this as a threat, the snake turned and bit the saw. Upon so doing, the saw severely cut the snake’s mouth.
Not taking the time to understand what was happening, the snake then coiled itself around the saw to destroy the perceived threat. In its anger, the snake squeezed the saw tighter and tighter, neglecting the pain and suffering he was feeling, until it was cut to pieces and killed by the saw.
Fueled by anger, the snake neglected all else, including its suffering, until it died.
Empowering anger does nothing but perpetuate misery. Anger never solves problems. Communication, forgiveness, empathy and humility do.
John Gottman also talks about the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in our most personal relationships. The most damaging, and nearly unrecoverable one of these four insidious traits is contempt. When contempt exists within a partnership, that partnership is on a crash-course towards failure.
But relationships don’t suddenly sprout contempt overnight. Contempt is built, nourished even. Every time we repeat in our mind how we were wronged; every catalog of things our partner did to disappoint us; every claim we stake that we were the offended party nurtures contempt.
Once we have surrendered our thoughts and actions over to the control of contempt/anger, it is very difficult to regain control over ourselves and re-establish love and harmony in our relationships.
The antidote for contempt in our relationships is replacing the negative thoughts we have about our loved one, and seeking out opportunities to perform small acts of service.
“True love blooms when we care more about another person than we care about ourselves.”Jeffrey R. Holland
The Good News
The good news is, Anger, for all its bravado and greed, is usually a big show. Because more often than not, we are not actually angry, but are exhibiting anger to mask another emotion. As mentioned above, anger is just the tip—the very visible tip—of the iceberg. It takes great emotional maturity to pause and ask ourselves, “why am I really upset about?”. It takes even greater strength to come clean with someone we may have hurt, and confess how we were really feeling. The blessing of such confession is that empathy often prevails. The person we may have hurt with our rude and callous actions can more easily forgive my understanding what it really was that caused us to lash out in the first place.
In order to overcome anger, we must understand how it operates in our lives:
1. Understand how anger works on you and others around you.
Being emotionally mature enough to recognize that you’re submitting your will over to the greed of anger will help you wrestle back control of your emotions. If you have acted angrily, trace the action back to its corresponding thought—it’s there!—and actively, consciously, replace the negative thinking.
2. Identify what emotions you may be feeling hidden under the cover of anger.
Be honest with yourself, even if you aren’t ready to be honest with others. More often than not, we need to be more gentle and accepting with ourselves. It’s okay to feel scared, frustrated, disappointed, even guilty. But anger benefits us nothing.
3. When we act in anger, apologize as quickly as possible.
Anger is greedy. As stated above, it seeks to make all other emotions subject to it, and isn’t content until you have submitted your will entirely to its control. Anger can subsist for days on the smallest infraction. Apologizing eradicates that anger, heals wounds we have caused others, and opens the door back up for all good and healthy emotions.