Controlling Anger — Before It Controls You
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Inside Out is a funny, witty, and clever movie portraying the role of human emotions in a very touching sensible story. The story is about a life of a girl who is facing a significant transition in her life. The core emotions of human beings are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. These emotions are learned emotions; these emotions exhibit themselves in one’s life based on one’s experiences and learning in relationships. Anger is one of the five emotions controlling Riley Andersen’s mind. He lives in her brain and works with the other emotions.
When Joy and Sadness literally get lost in Riley’s mind, he and the others have to keep Riley’s head on straight until they get home. Next to Joy, he may be the most abrasive to Sadness. Anger is introduced when Mr. Andersen tells a young Riley that she can’t have dessert if she doesn’t eat her broccoli. He is enraged but calms down when Riley’s dad says that the broccoli is an airplane. When Riley and her family move to San Francisco, Anger, along with the other emotions, is disappointed when he sees their new home and creates some negative memories. He lightens up when Joy starts coming up with ideas on how to decorate the place but is infuriated when they find out that the moving van with all of their belongings hasn’t arrived yet
Of all negative feelings people can experience, anger is probably the most common everywhere. We live and see a society of millions of angry people, we see it on television, parents experience it with their two year old, with people shooting innocent people for not reason, with teenagers, I know of many siblings who have held anger for years because of an ill treatment done to them by a member of their family. Anger is demonstrated in every corner we turn, we see it on our streets through the graffiti drawn on city buildings and businesses, we hear on the radio through the music sang, we see it on riots, on demonstrations and wars in Syria, in places where hurricanes and other natural disasters have hit.
What anger management professionals tell us is that anger has a personal dimension, it can be the fire that burn inside us and when provoked it cab lead to more damage, it is a flicker of fire that can destroy an entire with one strike. We all get angry, about things that are unfair or when things don’t go the way we expect, but here I want to engage us in a discourse to talk about that explosive anger that overwhelms every bodily vein. Where your mind seems unable to focus, where nothing exists except the pressure waiting to explode. This is the anger that all of have experienced at one time or another. It’s a hard feeling.
I remember having this episodic anger one Sunday afternoon when I was about 14 years old or so, back in Kenya. I was fixing our family bicycle, which was the one mode we had for the extended family of sixteen children, and I needed a screwdriver to complete a task. I asked my younger brother Isaac to get it for me. He refused or was slow to get it for me, as the older brother in my family it is expected that when you send a younger child they should do what you ask them to do without any question. I was very angry with my brother for refusing or delaying to follow my orders, in great anger I took a log and threw it at him. He ducked it and ran away. Whenever I get flashbacks of that incident I feel bad for my immaturity at the time, I would have injured or even worse I would have killed my brother just for refusing or delaying to follow my orders. In that moment I was allowing my outburst emotions to control my destiny, to control my thought process for no reason. I have since changed and I now act better in similar situation.
I have learnt that anger is an extremely powerful emotion and if you feed on it frequently others will avoid you like the plague. On the other hand, if you keep it bottled up inside and you become a pressure cooker that will inevitably blow its top leading to actions that you will later regret. Here, I would like share some examples where anger went out of control:On July 5, 2000, a hockey scrimmage took place at the Burbank Ice Arena in Reading, Massachusetts. It was a scrimmage for 10-12 year old boys. Michael Costin’s three sons were playing on one team and Thomas Junta’s son was on the opposing team. It was a scrimmage, it didn’t even count, but the events that transpired radically changed two families. The two men got into a scuffle during the game because of a disagreement they had over the roughness of play by the boys. Following the scrimmage Mr. Junta and Mr. Costin got into it again and Mr. Costin was beaten to death. Today, Thomas Junta is sitting in prison while Michael Costin’s sons are left without a daddy. As we can see from this case, violence comes from anger and must be defused in a healthy manner. Otherwise, coupled with daily stress and occasional relational problem, a sense of rage would plant deep inside one’s emotion and could explode anytime.
The question is not what if it explodes, but rather, when it explodes. For this reason, we are seeing more and more senseless murder-suicide cases recently. There is almost never a day gone by without hearing on the news of murder-suicide. It seems to be a thing to do to solve problems. I believe this is a reflection of people who are under extreme frustration and stress without having hope in sight.
Mental health professionals tell us when someone insults us or does something unkind to us, an internal formation of emotions is created in our consciousness. If you don’t know how to undo the internal knot of destructive and anger emotions and transform it to something positive, the knot of destructive and anger emotions will stay there for a long time. And the next time someone says something or does something to you of the same nature, that internal formation of emotions will grow stronger. As we add knots or blocks of pain, anger in us, our internal formation of emotions start to have the power to push us, to dictate our behaviour, to want to be released or explode.
After a while, it becomes very difficult for us to transform it to something positive, to undo the knots, and we cannot ease the constriction of this crystallized internal formation of emotions. It imprisons us, there is a poignant story about two Buddhist monks who encounter each other many years after being released from prison where they had been tortured. The first one asks, “Have you forgiven our captors?” The second one replies, “I will never forgive them! Never!” The first says, “Well, I guess they still have you in prison, don’t they?” This story vividly illustrates the tyranny of anger.
Every one of us has had episode of anger in our lives, we sometime feel a sense of threat, real or imagined, usually arises out of a perception of oppression, humiliation, injustice, physical danger or just a lack of control over our environment and circumstances. Guilt can also trigger anger. For example, if we know or feel that we’ve violated the law (biblical, moral, or civic), we may live under a cloud that God or the police who is about to get us. That lack of control over our circumstances can make us angry.
Of course, this territory of human psychology is not a recent discovery. People have always struggled with these issues. Rage exploded into murder in the very first family. So it may be useful to step out of 21st century thinking and literature and seek the more classic wisdom of the Bible on anger. For some of us those emotions no longer imprison us but for some we still have business that we need to take care of. With the practice of meditation, seeking help from others or mental health professionals or engaging yourself in intentional mindful reflection, we can undo these knots and experience transformation, healing and new insights into starting a new journey of hope. Anger is our built-in alarm system alerting us that something is wrong, out of harmony, off balance. Some event has clashed with our expectations, our beliefs or our spirit. We can gain vital information about ourselves and what we believe about the world when we look honestly at our anger. But when we react unconsciously, repress our anger or get caught up in it, it becomes counterproductive and negatively affects our health and relationships.
According to Brandt, when you’re able to tap into your anger — or any emotions — you’re able to examine the message, before you figure out how to respond. Feeling your feelings may not be easy. It may not come naturally to you — especially depending on your earlier experiences. However, you can learn to feel your emotions in safe and healthy ways and to process them in safe and healthy ways. Mindfulness is a great practice that everyone should focus on. When I became aware of the positive and negative emotions, it helped me get into touch with my inner most strengths and insecurities. When I recognized my strengths, I was able to grow those and build confidence. When I recognized my insecurities, I was able to self-soothe and face them head on to sort them out in a healthy way.
I have begun to be able to identify situations that induce anxiety, fear, stress, anger, etc. As soon as I feel any of those emotions coming along, I ask myself “what is causing this and what can I do to put this feeling at ease?” It can happen in a split second, so it is important to begin identifying trigger points and begin self-soothing right away. It is just as important to identify situations that bring joy. I know how hard it can be to take a situation for granted and not luxuriate in that moment. Getting into the practice of taking a moment to breathe in the air, listen to the sounds around you, taste the entirety of your food or drink will ensure that you are living in the moment. There is nothing more important than having gratitude for the things that you are doing in the NOW. In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” And sometimes you are right to be angry because you are experiencing a true wrong. Then the problem is not the fact of getting angry, but how you express that anger. It’s not right for someone to tailgate you, recklessly and aggressively endangering you and your family. It’s not right when your spouse is indifferent or inconsiderate. It’s not right if your boss treats you unfairly or your child refuses to obey. It’s not right when you are abused or attacked. Anger has been given to us by God as the way to say, “That’s not right and that matters.” In our broken world, you will have many good reasons to be angry. But, because we are part of the broken world, we express our anger at true wrongs in the wrong way. We blow up. We get irritated. We gossip. We complain. We hold a grudge. We shut people out. We get even. We become embittered, cynical, hostile. Something really wrong happened … and we become really wrong in reaction.
By acknowledging our feelings and simply observing our thoughts, we are better able to make a conscious choice of how best to respond to life’s occasional frustrations. Remember that we were all born to be free; it’s a gift from God. We’re not to be free from responsibility, but free to be led by God’s Spirit. Any time our freedom is taken away or given away, we experience anger. Are we willing to go through whatever it takes to be free, or do you want to stay in the mess you’re in for the rest of your life? If you and I want to be free, just start doing what God wants you to do, one step at a time, and you’ll eventually walk out of your anger mess.
Brandt writes in her book Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom writes, “Recognizing our true feelings makes it possible for us to change behaviours and situations that do not support us — leading to a more honest, satisfying life,” according to Brandt. Andrea Brandt grew up with anger. As she writes in her new book, we first learn anger at home. In her case it was from her parents, and primarily her mother. Her journey into healing began with a meltdown as a client in a group therapy session with her then-husband, followed by withdrawal and tears. She is an expert in anger from firsthand experience, but then we all have firsthand experience. What is different with Brandt is how she chose to handle it.
Brandt’s experience of overcoming her own histories of anger suppression does not follow this “slow and steady realization” model. One day in a group therapy session with her husband, she recounts, the anger she had kept deeply hidden all her life suddenly burst out of her in a screaming, purse-swinging fit of aggression, directed at another group member. The outburst, so uncharacteristic of this quiet, repressed woman, shocked everyone, including her, and ultimately led to a divorce. However the immediate effects of this fit of anger were the most personally telling and significant for Brandt’s evolution as a psychotherapist: she reports that days of sobbing, as she released the decades of hurt, were followed by a profound sense of freedom and lightness–a euphoria of post-expression liberation.
A clinical psychologist, Brandt came to realize that anger is our friend. It is there to try to protect us. The difficulty is when we act blindly and use the self-talk that we learned as a child. We act as soon as the emotion rises without really taking the time to listen to it and get to know it.