Oh, anger

This week I had a little anger episode mushroomswhile teaching yoga. Yup. I am ashamed even to say that. (Which says a lot about the expectations I/we have around anger. And yoga:))

Email, coffee talk, and phone calls on my recent Emotions 101 post have been so engaging, and discussions thus far focus on anger more than on grief, fear, or joy. For good reasons, which I will get into later. But first, this example from my life:

I teach yoga at the local community college in the basketball gym. It’s not a typical yoga space! But I like to think that I can be all zen enough to handle the huge space, people running on track above, loud sounds, variable temperatures, etc. Early this semester, people started walking through the gym during our class to get to the locker rooms and offices at the other end of the gym.

At first it was one person, so I didn’t want to cause trouble, and it wasn’t much disturbance, so I didn’t say anything. But it kept increasing. Tuesday, about 7 minutes before class ended, when the students were resting in corpse pose, a whole cluster of folks walked right though our midst. I stopped the meditation I was leading — in mid-sentence — and held out my hand and frowned and said “No. Don’t.” Them: “What?” Me: “Don’t walk through here during our class. Please wait til class is over.” Them: “But we have to get to the locker and change before practice or we’re in trouble.” Me, taking breath, collecting self: “Fine. I will talk to your coach.”

Now, I didn’t yell, point my finger in their face, insult them, or pull out the full-fledged and terrifying whammy that my brother and I spent a lot of time practicing when we were kids. But I felt those icky angry cortisol hormones roil in my system. And everyone else did too I suspect.

Anger has dire consequences

Anger can cause real, immediate and /or long-term, concrete damage if someone lashes out verbally or physically.

If someone bursts into tears of sadness or runs away afraid, we do not suffer physical wounds.

Because of the threat associated with anger, we are fundamentally nervous around people who have displayed anger. we can’t help it our — our cave person genes are sure to make us stay that way out of a survival instinct. And that goes both ways:

You may wilt in embarrassment or you may suffer the consequences of other peoples’ judgement if you publicly show grief or fear, but likely neither of those emotions will wreck connections with others as much as anger will.

Anger can be confused with sadness or danger… but it IS its own thing 

Some argue that anger is a secondary emotion.

Some of those folks say all “negative” emotions are sub-categories of fear.

And it’s true anger can move us into fear. But the reverse is also true.

Others say all “negative” emotions are a form of grief. I think this is closer to the truth int that:

Grief is the emotional response to loss.

Fear is thinking there will be loss in the future.

Anger is blaming someone for a loss.

But the healthy way we handle each of these three “negative” emotions is so different that it pays to think of them separately.

 Grief: replace what’s lost or mourn irreplaceable loss

Fear: run away if you don’t want to do the scary thing or minimize danger and act in the face of fear if your desire points you in that direction

Anger: eliminate injustice by changing an external situation or changing yourself so you get what you need or get rid of a situation you can’t tolerate.

Because anger cannot be ignored or willed away.

Lots of hopeful discussion points to becoming such a zen person that you don’t get angry, but the thing is there will always be injustice in the world. We NEED a mechanism to change situations so we can avoid the hurt that comes from the presence of something we can’t tolerate (like child abuse in our towns or like your neighbor blocking your driveway) or the lack of something we need (like equal pay for equal work no matter our age/gender/religion/ethnicity/sexual preference or like a kind word from your boss). Otherwise the unjust situation continues.

Debates over what is right and wrong — or even whether there is such a thing as right and wrong — don’t really change the argument because the feeling that “something is not right” is universally human. We can’t ignore it or say “don’t have it.”

Yes, and, alas, it seems impossible to just DECIDE to not get angry or to let your anger go without any change. The sense of unfairness will build and either you will explode OR fall into depression OR suffer generalized anxiety. None of those three options will right the wrong, so anger itself will still represent and continue to hurt you.

For proof, consider whether you know someone who doesn’t get angry. Hard to think of anyone. Even the Dalai Lama says he struggles with it. If you look closely, you see that folks that come closest to looking like they never get angry (and are happy functioning people not numb zombies) have actually just learned how to respond to their own anger healthily both in the moment and in the long-term.

For, as Harriet Larner says,

**”If feeling anger signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it. Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur.”**

In the moment: Anger management techniques are well-known, but it’s hard even to notice you need them until it’s too late.

It’s pretty easy to learn that we need to breathe, walk away and deal with the situation when calm, etc… but how do we get ourselves to remember to enact those skills? Psychologists and spiritual leaders have tried to give us tools to interrupt the momentum, to see what’s happening, to detach, etc.. It is hard.

Practice helps, for sure. In fact it is essential. It can develop a habit.


Long-term: Explore the anger and make some small, brave change.

We also must consistently dig into situations that make us mad and change something (ourselves or something else) because then our conscious and unconscious selves begin to trust us. Our minds KNOW it’s okay to practice anger management techniques and prevent a blow-up in the moment because our minds KNOW we will right the wrong a little bit later. Our minds have seen us do it.

Without building this trust with our essential selves, those deepest and most well-intentioned parts of us will make darn good and sure we explode because they/we want what is right to take hold in our lives and in the world around us.

So, yes, learn to see and interrupt your temper, but after you do so, spend some time figuring the situation out. Continuing my most recent example:

 I was ashamed of having gotten angry, but I pulled myself together, and after class I went down to the coaches’ offices — scary place for a non-jock like me. I introduced myself to a wholesome large young man who introduced himself in friendly way (I don’t remember his name or what he coaches because I was scared), and I explained my dilemma. He said they do have to get in there, and they have to go into the far end of the gym somehow as there’s no other entrance to the locker rooms. There’s no other way, I asked? Well they could walk down the side hallways and enter the gym through the far corner and whip into the adjacent locker rooms rather than traipse across the gym. (I never really have understood the layout of that place as it intimidates me, so I just ignore it all.) So, I said, can I just put signs on the doors saying “Do not enter during class, use side halls.” And he said, of course. And then if I just keep my class at THIS end of the gym, we likely won’t notice their entrances at the other end. (On Tuesday we were at that other end of the gym to use those walls as a prop, which is the other reason I noticed the pedestrians more than usual.)

Not really a problem. The reason it became a problem was because I didn’t deal with it early. I tried to talk myself out of thinking it was “wrong” for people to walk through the class or wanting to have demands about it. I ignored my ignorance and fear of the facility and how it all works there. Cue the exploding doormat.

Anyway, yesterday was our next class. I virtually waltzed in with homemade signs and tape and gleefully taped them up on the doors. Gleefully, because I had handled my problem and I knew I wouldn’t get the roiling in the veins again because now I understood the situation, had a plan, and could just kindly point pedestrians back out into the hall. I was so relieved.

And my inner self received huge amounts of positive feedback for NOT venting anger (not too too much, anyway) in the moment. My hope is it gets increasingly easy to remember that I don’t need to vent because I will just fix the situation.

As you can tell, anger remains something I work with a lot. My favorite resource for this is Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger. I seriously hope you will buy it or check it out of the library. You will find it is super clear, practical, respectful of you no matter how you behave, and no-nonsense with you as well.

One comforting thing Harriet Lerner points out: there are cultural as well as personal reasons we have trouble with anger — and they’re unique for each gender. So we can cut ourselves some slack for having issues with this subject, which allows us a little more leeway to look into it all.

I just can’t really summarize her book’s wisdom and kindness here, nor the way in which it gives you hope that you can be more and more your true self AND have lovelier connections with others AND less and less ugly-kinds of anger in your life.

Anger is tricky for sure. My hope for you and me and all of us is that we get increasingly skillful in hearing its message for us to stop “de-selfing” and in harnessing its momentum to power our courage. Because it is a scary thing to see much less change our patterns and we need all the insight and energy we can get. X.

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