Anger is tricky.
On the one hand, anger – feeling annoyed, irritated, resentful, fed up, mad, outraged, or enraged – alerts us to real threats, real injuries, and real wrongs that need correcting, and it energizes and fuels us to do something about them. In my family growing up, my parents had a monopoly on anger. So, I suppressed my own, along with a lot of other feelings, and it’s been a long journey to reclaim my interior, including anger, and be able to feel it fully and (hopefully) express it skillfully.
Whether in personal relationships or in the halls of power, people in positions of authority or privilege often tell others that they don’t deserve to be angry, they shouldn’t get so worked up, it’s their own fault, etc. when in fact they have every reason and right in the world to be angry. It is certainly important to know in your heart what is actually happening, how bad it is, what the causes are, and what to do – and decide for yourself how much you want to get or stay angry.
On the other hand, anger:
Feels bad past the first rush of it
Stresses the body, over time wearing down health
Narrows attention, losing sight of the big picture
Clouds judgment, driving us to act impulsively, potentially violently
Creates and revves up conflicts with others
Anger often hurts us more than it hurts others. I believe there is a saying from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Resentment is like taking poison . . . and waiting for others to die.” This metaphor of a beguiling toxin is also found in a description from early Buddhism: “Anger has a honeyed tip . . . and a poisoned barb.”
Recognize anger. Feel it, don’t suppress it. Explore it and find whatever is valid in what it is telling you. Also look beneath it, to the hurt or sorrow or outrage on behalf of others. Help yourself open to and include all of yourself. Be skeptical of others who try to talk you out of your reactions out of their own self-interest.
Figure out what you are going to do. Usually not easy, to be sure, but try to slow things down so you can think clearly, find your ground, and Take Heart (another, post of mine).
This said, beware – be watchful, be wary – of how anger can work on your mind and hijack you.
Anger comes with justifications. We feel wronged, mistreated, affronted, provoked: “Of course I’m mad. You made me mad. It’s your fault.” I remember once banging my shin on a coffee table and getting so mad I kicked the table . . . as if it were to blame. Anger is seductive, drawing us into cases against others, bills of prosecution, mental emails drafted in bed at 2 am (speaking from personal experience!). Anger fools us, making us feel perfectly entitled to lash out and say or do terrible things . . . from which we eventually wake as if from a nightmare with dismay and remorse at our actions. Anger is – literally – tricky.
And anger is a particularly powerful trickster when it plays out inside and between groups. You can see this at all scales, from cliques in high school to office gossip to politics to war. A group will often form around shared grievances, and then defend and proclaim those grievances no matter what the facts are to maintain its cohesion and identity. Whether on the schoolyard in 5th grade or in nations throughout history, authoritarian leaders have exploited our social primate vulnerability to the appeal of grievance in order to acquire and hold on to power, inflating and even inventing grievances while promising to protect the group and avenge it against those who have wronged it.
It is no small thing to find your own way inside such a group with such a leader. Or to find a way to relate to those in such groups with moral clarity and strength of heart – without being clouded or infected by anger yourself.
In my meditative tradition, I’ve heard it said that anger is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned. In relationships, families, organizations, countries, and the world altogether, there has been so much burning already in our shared human history. Too much burning. Too many minds burned up with anger.
Potency, agency, authenticity, fierce compassion, moral confidence, truth spoken to power: none of these is anger or requires anger. Truly, each one of us can come home to the dignity, authority, and courage to stand in the truth and speak from the heart with passion and power, free of the flames of anger.