We all have different ways of expressing anger. For some of us there’s an audible explosion – we raise our voices, shout and scream or even get physical. For others, there’s an internal contraction or shutting down. We go silent, give clipped one-word answers and radiate that unmistakable energy of hate or contempt.
Some people appear angelic to the outside world but then let out all their pent up aggression on their loved ones – spouses, children, parents, siblings. Others are perfectly behaved at home and yet think nothing of unleashing a torrent of abuse at people they don’t know – the customer service representative on the phone or the cashier lady at the checkout.
We’re conditioned towards different styles of anger by our environments and by the family of origin in which we grew up. In some families being vocal with anger simply wasn’t done and so we learnt a more covert way of expressing our resentment. We perfected the art of going cold and distant or getting our way by making others feel guilty. In other families the loudest or the strongest family member won; in order to compete we had to keep getting more aggressive.
The point is not to judge our childhoods or the ways we now do anger, but rather to bring awareness to them. When we look closely we realize we’re always doing the same thing; it’s a well established cycle. The more we see how the cycle works, the less we’ll find ourselves overtaken by habitual ways of behaving that can be damaging (repressing anger often leads to depression whilst expressing anger in the wrong way jeopardizes relationships).
The key to transformation lies in understanding that anger starts in the mind. Angry feelings show up in the body because we’re telling ourselves (and believing) upsetting stories in our heads. As soon as our thinking mind wants things to be different to how they are in this moment, the body is guaranteed to tense up and produce sensations of irritation, overwhelm or rage.
We can’t stop that first angry thought from showing up – “this is so unfair!”, “these people are incompetent!”, “how dare she!” – but we can train our minds to question that thought. If we don’t learn to break the addictive thinking cycle, we’ll find ourselves replaying a thought over and over, thereby fueling our fury. This is entirely unproductive. Not only does it feel awful on the inside, but communicating from this place is likely to elicit defensiveness and hostility in the other person.
Learning to transform anger isn’t just a matter of working with our thinking – it’s also about learning to feel anger as an energy in the body. Very often, because we don’t like experiencing the physical sensations of anger, we find different ways of not feeling it. We repress it by bracing against it, clenching our jaws and stomachs. Or we express it by projecting it outwards onto somebody else. Both repressing and expressing anger can be strategies of avoiding fully feeling it on the inside.
To practice feeling anger as an energy, shift your attention away from thoughts about who’s to blame and focus on the actual sensations of anger in the body. Where are they? Does the anger have a shape, colour, texture or a temperature? If you didn’t label the sensation as “anger” could you open into it and allow the fiery energy to simply cycle through the body?
To work with your thoughts, ask yourself these 3 questions:
1) Is this what I’m really angry about? Very often we get angry at one thing, when in fact we’re angry about something else that happened earlier on.
2) Am I actually angry? Frequently we’re not angry – we’re scared or hurt.
3) Can I be absolutely sure that the story I’m telling myself is actually true? Is is not possible that his/her comment wasn’t intended to undermine/hurt/insult me?
To learn more about how to work with your thoughts, check out Byron Katie’s simple and effective (and free) “inquiry method” at http://www.thework.com.