The Anger Habit

 Do you turn into a monster when you get angry?  Photo by J Santascoy, T-shirt by Hans verschooten 

Do you turn into a monster when you get angry? Photo by J Santascoy, T-shirt by Hans verschooten 

Anger is a seductive emotion because it can feel powerful to get angry. But the price we pay for spewing anger is high: loved ones may get scared, thinking turns muddy and the biochemical changes can be damaging, especially over time. 

Because the Technique is largely based on changing the way you think about situations and movement, it is a good tool to use to work with anger and other emotions.

Here are four steps to help you change the anger habit:

1. Awareness of anger is the first step to changing it.

  • When do you get angry? Does bad traffic trigger your anger? How about waiting in a long line? Whatever the situation, notice when or what brings on anger.
  • What do you say to yourself? Most people tell themselves things that add to their anger. Here are two very common categories of self-talk to watch for: 
    • Labeling people. Do you say, “These people are stupid”? Labeling people as stupid (worthless or selfish) can cause you to overreact. “When you label other people, you invariably generate hostility (Burns, 40).” 
    • No time. Another very common way we fuel anger is to say to ourselves, “I don’t have enough time.” When we feel like we don’t have enough time we can become impatient and quick to anger. 

2. Don't judge or try to change your feeling of anger, just notice it. Notice that you are talking to yourself. It may sound like a movie script if you’ve been saying the same thing to yourself for many years. That’s okay, notice your script and move along to step three.

3. Stay with your feeling of anger. The idea is that if we don’t push away an emotion it has less of hold on us. “Staying” with an emotion may seem counterintuitive - we perceive something as being harmful or uncomfortable and we want to rush to stop it.

4. Say the Directions to yourself. Rescue yourself from your anger script by using the Directions: “I allow my neck to be free, so my head may balance at the top of my spine and my whole torso may lengthen and widen.” Notice how it is to be angry when you say no to tightening and yes to allowing expansion.

Buddhist theory can be helpful in understanding anger. Norman Fischer, a Zen priest at the San Francisco Zen Center, provides insight in his book, Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls:

“On close examination…most of the time anger is a mask for fear. We don’t want to feel fear, which is disempowering and uncomfortable, so we get angry instead. But, what are we afraid of? Things don’t go as we would like them to; the world is not cooperative with our wishes and needs. There is nothing we can do about this. This is a frightening fact. Furthermore, we know that we are vulnerable, subject on a daily basis to unwanted change and finally to death. Our situation is fundamentally shaky and this is terrifying- so instead of facing all this we get angry or irritated about this or that that has gone wrong. Fear is deep and fundamental…”

What is anger? It is the powerful urge to harm. This distinguishes toxic anger from what we might call “righteous anger,” which is a motivation to right injustice rather than to harm. The most important aspect of reflection on anger is to recognize its harmful nature; anger is destructive to self and others; anger never heals. The Zen precept is not “do not be angry.” It is “do not harbor anger.” Do not fan it or add more fuel (605).”

The Zen approach of staying with the emotion is similar to the approach I use in the Technique. Fisher says, 

“As much as possible try simply to be aware of the concrete unpleasant experience of anger without moving from it to blame and then to speak or act angrily (606).”

So, try out the steps above when dealing with anger and notice what happens. Emotional habits are some of the hardest to change, but the benefits of changing the anger habit are many - I’m sure you can think of some! 


Sources:

Fischer, Norman. Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls. North Atlantic Books: 2011. Pages referenced are on Kindle for iPhone. 

Burns, David. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: 2008.