Would you like to get better at controlling your anger? How has anger cost you in the past? Have relationships been affected? Has your ability to grow credibility in the workplace been impacted? How would getting better at managing your anger improve your life? As Tim Sanders writes in The Likeability Factor, “people, unlike animals, gain success not by being aggressive but by being nice.” We don’t need to be physically intimidating or threatening to get our way. Belligerent bullies aren’t welcome. We attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. The first step to facing anger begins with accepting its costs. We’re not better when we lose control. We are less able to help ourselves as our thinking is hampered and emotions drive decisions.
Author Robert Woolston wrote Stoicism 2.0: How Stoic Philosophy Can Improve Your Life in the 21st Century. In an interview he offers the following as a reason to try to learn from the stoics in order to help ourselves today. “Emotional control is certainly one of the core tenets of Stoic philosophy that can allow us to become more fulfilled and character driven. By that I mean the ability to detach ourselves from our emotional states in order to rationally observe our feelings/emotions and respond appropriately…A practicing Stoic has emotions, of course; however he/she is able to control their emotional state so as to diminish the manifestation of irrational behaviors that are produced from unrestrained emotions. This allows one to think and behave more rationally without interference from destructive emotions.”
Anger that reflects a loss of control is the type of anger that we’re working to avoid. It is similar to how our devices control more of our attention. We are letting outside forces influence our emotions which lead to sour thoughts and worse actions. Anger is the easy thing to do. It reflects an absence of discipline. It’s not strength but weakness. Mark Twain considered how rage wrecks things writing, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” We’re weaker as a result of rage. Arnold Bennett wrote about anger in How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, “It is an insurrection, a boiling over, a sweeping storm. Dignity, common sense, justice are shrivelled up and destroyed. Anarchy reigns. The devil has broken his chain. Instinct is stamping on the face of reason.” Those of us that pride ourselves at being in control and responsible can use this perspective to see anger as a vice not a virtue. Marcus Aurelius counselled himself writing in Meditations, “The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” Bohdi Sanders echoes this idea writing in Warrior Wisdom that, “When irate, clear-minded men never show it then and there. Holding it in, they watch for an opportune moment.”
Reciprocating anger makes you a loser. Don’t charge in. Don’t fight ire with ire. Come up with a form of anger jiu-jitsu where you can redirect it. Maintain control instead of being pulled into a battle. Nobody wins in a war. Yes, I will settle the score. I’ll do it looking like a bore. Who is in charge? Pity the angry, don’t engage with them. As you encounter anger in others, orient yourself to observe. Avoid reacting and focus on how they are behaving. Do they look like they are in control? Does your respect for them grow? Are they coming across as looking silly? By observing we may come to realize that being reactive in the moment isn’t a sign of strength. We’ll begin to realize how unhinged that frothing at the mouth, crazy driver looks. Psychologist Warren Farrell encourages us to consider anger as vulnerability masked. If we see anger expressed in others as a vulnerability masked, it may be possible for us to not respond in kind to the anger being expressed which only results in unproductive escalation of emotion, but to respond with kindness in search of understanding the vulnerability being masked. Instead, get curious about what is triggering this person’s anger. What vulnerability are they feeling? Do they feel disrespected? What goal has been frustrated for them? As we get curious, we look for solutions and common ground. We also control our own emotions so the situation doesn’t spiral down but has the opportunity to remain constructive. We can even try to apply this with ourselves. When you’re angry, ask yourself why. What is it I am worried about that is fueling the development of anger?
As we begin to appreciate the absence of appeal of anger displayed in others, we can work to accept that we look no different when we’re hot under the collar. We can draw on our experiences of losing respect for others when they’re mad to remind ourselves that, like a mirror, our anger is mindless madness. You don’t want to look like those raging uncontrollably. Our goal should be to become like Randy Paterson suggests in How to Be Miserable where he writes, “Instead, when our mood darkens we need to treat our instincts with suspicion.” We can work to become an observer as Dane Jensen suggests in The Power of Pressure, writing “Under pressure, our ability to move to the position of impartial observer… and then choose or coach our response is what makes us truly free. There is a big difference between being angry and noticing I’m angry. When I am angry, I become my anger—I lash out. When I notice I’m angry, I can connect with my capacity to choose, engage my free will, and decide how I want to respond.” The objective is to observe and separate our response from our anger.
We can then work to increase our awareness about our own anger on two levels. What sets us off and how quickly do we become embroiled in our anger? What types of things set you off? How do you react when angry? What agitates and how quickly do we boil over? Knowing your temper triggers, the things that set you off, is helpful because this awareness helps you develop a plan to manage these situations proactively. Additionally, we can work to get a better sense of how our anger accrues within us. What do we feel as we get mad? Do we feel our pulse quicken or some blood rush to our face? Do we feel tension in our muscles? Which muscles? Do we feel our breath change. Which physical change occurs first? Is there one that represents the final straw?
What are some things that make you mad? What are your triggers? Careless mistakes? Thoughtless actions? Undisciplined behaviors? These may reflect your values. It is ok and reasonable to be frustrated when someone else’s actions seem to violate something valuable to you. However, it’s important to recognize and accept that what’s important to you may not be important to others. Moreover, whether it is important or not to others, they may not have any idea of what’s important to you. It is unreasonable to get upset at others for this.
When you feel anger brewing, try to insert a few questions before reacting. Ask am I acting intentionally or allowing myself to react uncontrollably to the circumstances? Does what I’m about to say or do help? Does it serve? Or am I using an excuse like radical honesty to rationalize my rage? Can you work to hold yourself to a higher standard? Remember, being reactive in the moment isn’t a sign of strength. Self-control and discipline is required to separate stimulus from response. To ensure your response gives you the best opportunity to succeed, work to insert space between being provoked and acting. Remember, toppling to being triggered gives away power. Standing still in the space after being made mad shows strength. As we get better at separating ourselves from responding, what kinds of constructive behaviors can we insert that will help us reduce our anger?
Try to remove yourself from the rage inducing moment and retreat into your happy place. Channel your inner Happy Gilmore. Adam Sandler’s hockey hitting golf character has hilarious emotional control issues. As he progresses in his new sport of golf, he slowly realizes he’s his biggest enemy by being a victim of his anger. His coach tries to communicate that until he gets a grip on his anger, he won’t be able to play golf well. Gilmore, used to being at the mercy of his emotions, wonders how he’s supposed to control his anger. His coach suggests, “Think of a place that’s really perfect. Your own happy place. Go there and all your anger will disappear.” From thereon, Gilmore works to identify when his anger is bubbling and works to retreat to his happy place before it boils. He isn’t perfect, but the efforts made here are rewarded in performance. Marcus Aurelius supports Gilmore’s approach writing in Meditations, “Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions than your own soul. A quick visit should be enough to ward off all and send you back ready to face what awaits you.” We’re not running away with hopes of avoiding a situation forever. We’re inserting a pause to allow our mind to regain control of our emotions to ensure that when we do face the situation we are able to bring our best.
Related to retreating from our range and visiting our happy place is the idea of making a mantra to repeat to yourself. Think of George Costanza’s dad from Seinfeld when he offers “Serenity Now, Serenity Now…” Repeating a rehearsed phrase when agitated can help to reduce the physical changes that result from letting anger arise. By keeping our physiology in a better place, we remain better equipped to constructively handle the situation. A 2015 study published in Brain and Behavior supports the idea that a mantra can calm our biology. Brain activity calms and blood pressure is reduced as a result of repeating a mantra. A separate suggestion as a phrase to consider is “Calm is contagious.” Remind yourself that how you behave influences others. By getting yourself under control, you’re in a position to help others manage stressful situations as well.
As we get a grip on our anger, we can try to channel it into constructive action. We can work to make time to write down what is bothering us. President Lincoln was well known for what he called his “Hot Letters.” He would separate himself from a situation and write a letter to himself or to the person with whom he was angry. The writing can be self-reflective or action-oriented against the target of your anger. The goal is to release some of your rage. It is not to contribute to the problem by actually sending. Be sure to either file, discard, or burn what is written. The exercise is intended for your own consumption, not to be shared. Lincoln struggled with anger and worked diligently to learn from leaders he admired from studying history. He knew those that did great things had great emotional control. He learned to let his anger go by releasing it through writing.
Alternately, we can work to see our anger as fuel. Use it to energize your efforts in a constructive avenue. Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way, “Anger points the way, not just the finger. Anger is meant to be acted upon. It is not meant to be acted out.” Funnel your fury into fitness. Burn off your boiling blood with some movement. Exercise to exorcise your internal demons. Use your rage as fuel to get fit. Walk, run, swim, dance. Move metal. Hit punching bags. Allow the energy of angry emotion to dissipate through doing. You’ll benefit from improved fitness as well as reduced negative emotion. Maxwell King wrote The Good Neighbor, a book about Mister Rogers. Even someone as kind and caring as Mister Rogers struggled with anger. King offers a response from Rogers to a fan asking about suggestions for handling anger. Rogers offered, “Everybody gets angry sometimes. But, Alex, each person has his and her way of showing angry feelings. Usually, if I’m angry, I play loud and angry sounds on the piano. I think that finding ways of showing our feelings—ways that don’t hurt ourselves or anybody else—is one of the most important things we can learn to do.” Apparently, Rogers also embraced swimming as a way to soothe his soul. “But do you know what I do when I’m angry? I like to swim, and so I swim extra hard when I’m angry… There are many things that you can do when you’re angry that don’t hurt you or anybody else.”
Outside of channelling our anger into some form of strenuous activity, we can seek distraction from it by pursuing a personal pleasure. Winston Churchill was known to seek solace in painting while Anne Frank considered her diary as a source of relief writing, “paper is more patient than people.” Our anger dissipates when we dive deep into distractions. We can’t feel bitter and enjoy ourselves at the same time. Separate studies show the physiologically calming benefits of engaging in a hobby or leisure activity. Blood pressure and cortisol levels decrease and we feel better. It’s the exact opposite of what happens when we’re angry. In his essay, On Anger, Seneca supports dealing with anger through distraction by giving yourself a break. He writes, “Angry people should avoid weighty undertakings, or at least those that push them past the point of exhaustion; their minds should not be employed in difficulties but given over to enjoyable arts. Let the reading of poetry calm them and history amuse them with its stories; let them be diverted gently and sensitively.”
Separate from blowing off some steam through exertion or enjoyment, consider using humor to hamper your hostility. I heard somewhere once that if you view your life as a sitcom, you’ll be able to find humor in plenty of places that were causing you pain. Take time to see what’s funny or could be seen as funny about something that’s making you angry. How would others in far more difficult circumstances receive your complaints and anger? Imagine telling someone with a terminal disease about what’s making you mad. What is their likely response? Think of what someone from a war torn country like Afghanistan or Ukraine may think of the things you are bellyaching about. Would they scratch their head in wonder at why you are getting upset over such silliness? We need to realize that anger is a choice. We don’t have to respond to events. We are making the interpretation of something which allows anger to arise. We can let it go just as quickly.
Humor is a way to help us gain a productive perspective on our problem. We can work to get outside of ourselves in other ways. We can escape our ego by zooming out. Consider the inescapable reality of the insignificance of us individually and our problems in the big scheme of things. We’re barely a blip on the radar. Alternately, immerse yourself in a big crowd and watch everyone else rush by in the urgency of their own lives. You will see yourself as not registering on their radars. Your problems are insignificant and unimportant to others. By realizing our smallness, we regain our strength and perspective on the present problem. Your problems and frustrations are nothing special. They have been experienced by millions before, are being experienced by millions right now, and will be experienced by countless others in the future. Problems just are. Deal with it. Additionally, consider the idea of Amor Fati as the opposite of anger. It’s about accepting the events of life as they arise and arrive. If anger is the result of expectations frustrated, Amor Fati is not having expectations. Our expectations are the problem not the events. It’s our ego, our self-absorption, that is the source of anger, not the world outside of us. Epictetus noted, “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
At the end of the day, before you scream and shout, ask yourself is this worth throwing away all my clout? Remember those that bellyache and berate have never made themselves or others great. Consider examples where you’ve been impressed by how someone controlled their anger. Are there circumstances in your own life where you handled your anger well? Draw on these examples and past experiences to build your capacity for self-control. Try some of the above tactics to become a sage of rage. You’re not going to be perfect. As the 13th Century British scientist and philosopher, Roger Bacon, observed, “To seek to extinguish anger utterly is but a boast of Stoics.” Temper your expectations for controlling your temper. Your goal isn’t to never get angry again, but to improve the way you use it in order to benefit you as opposed to burden. The goal is to improve your ability to remain in control.