How to train anger into a power for good

Photo by Alexandru Rotariu on Unsplash

Anger is not your enemy. In fact, it may be your best ally.

Meet Brutus. Brutus is a watchdog. The Smiths had bought him when he was just a pup, and sent him off to dog-school to train in the art of biting, growling and everything watchdog. His main purpose was to protect the Smiths and their home from intruders.

Billy, their son, had grown up with Brutus. They were best friends, and — because Brutus was very vigilant, Billy had a carefree childhood — he never had to worry about any danger; not even the mailman would dare set foot on their property. Whenever Billy went to the park, Brutus would go with, fending off any potential bullies.

Today, at age 25, Billy and Brutus are still best friends. Sadly, though, Billy doesn’t have many other friends. You see, Brutus had trouble distinguishing between ‘intruder’ and ‘friendly’. He was great at protecting Billy, but couldn’t switch his defensive instinct off: he would growl, bite or attack anyone who may just be giving Billy a strange glance.

Billy was safe, but also very lonely.

Just like Billy and Brutus, we all have an internal watchdog: Anger. When we sense a threat, our anger kicks-in as our protection.

  • For some of us, this watchdog is sleeping: we don’t get angered easily, and as a result, we may even be taken advantage of.
  • For others, our watchdogs are like Brutus: easily triggered, and ready to annihilate real and imagined enemies.

 

Re-training the watchdog

It’s hard to train an angry dog. If you move too fast, you might lose a hand. That’s why many of us don’t even try — we just tie it up in the backyard. After all, an uncontrolled dog is ‘dangerous’. The problem with a tied-up watchdog, though, is that it’s useless as a protector, and downright dangerous when the leash snap.

If we view anger as only dangerous, we handle it in the same way: one too many outbursts, and anger gets muzzled, leashed and caged like a bad dog. At best, it gets suppressed, and at worst, we snap. We forget that anger’s main purpose is not to attack, but to protect.

This is key.

Until you start seeing the positive value of your emotions, any anger-management program will merely be an attempt to keep it in-check. It’s like the difference between a foam-at-the-mouth leashed mutt, and a well-disciplined, free-walking purebred that can ‘Sit’ ‘Lie down’ or ‘Attack!’ with a single command.

Why we get angry

Like every other emotion, anger is there to serve us: it’s our warning system, mobilizing us to stand up for our values. You get angry when your value-system, ego, family, or even your actual life are under threat. Your brain activates the Fight-response: adrenaline rushes through your veins, your heart-rate shoots up and your muscles get pumped, ready to punch or break anything that stands in your way.

At its best, anger is neither suppressed nor destructive. It is protective, and the fuel for love and compassion.

For we protect what we love. And we will fight for those we love.
This kind of anger takes practice.

How anger works

Try this: switch on your anger. Count to three, and get angry. Go!

Can you do it? Anger has no on/off button. And yet, when you get cut off on the highway, you can go from Dalai Llama into Genghis Kahn in a matter of seconds.

Now, try this: close your eyes, and think back to the last time you were angry — really angry. Remember the scene: What happened? Who was involved? What did they do? What were the sights, smells, sounds? Visualize the situation clearly in your mind. What happened in you? What sensations did you feel? Did you shout something? Re-run the words in your mind. As you do this, start paying attention to what you feel in your body right now: is your breath changing? Accentuate that. If you feel your muscles tensing, turn up the volume by tensing them up more. If your fists or jaw are tightening, clench them even more. Mentally walk through the whole event again, and, as the physical sensations arise, turn up the volume of each sensation by exaggerating that sensation.

Are you starting to feel that anger rise up now?

Anger lives in your body and your brain. It’s exact GPS coordinates are located in the limbic system: the feeling / instinctive part of your brain. This feeling part of your brain is controlled by your cortex / thinking brain, but, if you feel threatened, your feeling brain moves so fast, there’s no chance for your thinking brain to control it. It switches instantaneously into protect! Attack!

Before you know it, you’re throwing plates across the kitchen.

If we slow down that moment, it happens as follows:

  • The situation happens.
  • Your senses perceive the situation.
  • Your senses trigger a story or internal belief-system in your mind.
  • Your mind perceives this as THREAT!
  • The physiological process is activated, overriding your thinking brain.
  • You act out in anger.

It all happens so fast, that, unless we slow it down, we won’t be able to disarm the f-bombs that follow.

How to retrain anger

Anger is accessed through two pathways: story and sensation.

1. The Story

The stories in your mind is what makes you angry: not the situation. The same situation can happen to two people, and one would get angry, and the other would not. Why? Because the way one person’s mind makes meaning of the situation, is what triggers their anger.

Through structured journaling, you can disarm this anger. You need to do this outside of the heated situation, to really get the benefit from it. This can be difficult, as it will require you to face very challenging internal emotions.

The purpose of the exercise is to get to the root of your anger. What is anger protecting? Turn the lights on, and see how deep you can go.

Journaling questions:

What did I get angry about?
Eg. I snapped at the idiot taxi-driver who pulled in front of me. I drove like a bloody imbicile! I don’t even know where the hell they they their licences!

What emotions were behind anger?
Eg. I had a fright: he pulled in front of me, and I had to hit the brakes. I think I was just surprised or shocked, and then immediately snapped at him. They make me so angry! I hate it when people don’t watch where they’re going!

What else was behind anger?
Eg. I felt scared: I almost made an accident, and I don’t have the money to pay for another incident. I feel like this guy was disrespectful, and put both our lives in danger! He doesn’t even think about the fact that I have 2 kids I have to look after.

What else was behind anger?
Eg. [Feeling my chest with my hand, breathing, and re-connecting to the experience]. I felt weak, out of control: I was driving at a safe speed, but this guy just veered in front of me. I felt completely powerless, like: if he was 2 seconds later, that would’ve been it.

What else was behind anger?
Eg. I think that’s it: I felt disrespected, weak, out of control, unsafe, scared, powerless. I am responsible to my family to be safe, and I need other drivers to do the same.

What was the most useful response?
In this situation, it’s probably just deep breathing, and focusing on keeping it together. There is nothing I can do in the moment, to change someone else’s driving, except be mindful of my own.

2. Sensation

The second component of anger is sensation. It’s what you actually feel in your body. When you get angry, your body is in “fight and flee”-mode. The way out of it, is to get the body back into the “rest and digest”-mode. Activities that help with this process, include:

  • Deep breathing: Put your hand on your tummy, and breathe towards your hand. Focus only on breathing for at least 5 to 10 breaths.
  • Distract yourself: Preferably with something physical, outside, and grounding, that reconnects you with your environment.
  • Grounding: Take off your shoes, walk around the park or on the lawn — paying attention to the fact that you are solid on the ground tells your mind that you are safe.

 

Quick Saves

When you get angry you need an exit-plan — or a few exit plans. Here they are:

  • Yell “Stop!” loudly in your thoughts, to interrupt the cycle of anger.
  • If you feel like lashing out, count down from 20 before answering. Breathe deeply during this time.
  • Take time-out. You are allowed to do this! In the middle of a heated argument, just ask for a time-out. Go for a walk, clear your head, allow your body to recover to baseline.
  • Meditate for 5 minutes (There are many very useful apps to guide you in a mindfulness meditation)

 

In Summary

  • Anger is there to protect, not to harm.
  • To train anger, you will need to approach it from two angles: Sensation and Story.
  • The first step is doing thorough self-exploration through structured journaling.
  • The second step is to incorporate physical practices that help you calm down.
  • If journaling doesn’t get you to the root-causes of your anger, you can see a coach.
  • If your coach gets stuck, they may refer you to a therapist to uncover some deeper stories that may come from your past.
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