aggressive driverI’ve been talking with some clients recently about anger. We all know what it’s like. It feels like an alien takes control of us. When in its grip, we can’t seem to stop ourselves from saying or doing things we regret later. Or it silently boils inside, leaving us simmering long after the incident is over. But the good news is anger can be overcome. I’d like to share with you some things I’ve learned about anger, and how we can loosen its grip on us.

It’s not a life sentence

It came as a huge relief and revelation to me when I learned that I don’t have to be a victim of my anger. We tend to think of emotions as things that happen to us. But that’s actually not the case. Centuries of meditators who’ve examined the nature of the mind observed that emotions are really HABITS – and habits can be undone. Sure, they may be habits we’ve had our entire lives. They may feel big and uncontrollable. But the truth is they’re not a permanent part of us. With some effort, we can change. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it CAN be done.

Anger comes in two parts

What feels like one monolithic experience of anger is actually two separate events. The first is that quick, gut-level feeling that tells us that something is painful, unpleasant, or just plain “not right.” It’s before we’ve had the chance to think — to interpret or judge anything. To me, it feels like a rumbling the belly. That’s all there is to this part, and it’s automatic — we don’t have any control over it.

The second part is our reaction to that unpleasant experience. For example we get irritated by what someone said and snap back. Or we decide we’d better not show our anger — but continue to stew in our heads about what a jerk this guy is, what we should have said, if only this or that …

That second part is where the habit comes in. We’ve gotten into the HABIT of reacting this way to certain triggers. Have you noticed how two people can react very differently to the same event? This is because each of us has developed a pattern of interpreting and responding in our own habitual way.

The truth is they’re only triggers. They don’t MAKE us angry. We CHOOSE to be angry. Nobody has control over my emotions besides me. We don’t need to pull the trigger!

Stay with your experience

The key to loosening the grip of anger is to get to know it better. Because anger is such a powerful and out-of-control feeling, we tend to be afraid of it. We want to push it away, thinking it might engulf us. What if we end up doing something we’ll REALLY regret? But as long as it remains something we fear and avoid, it will have power over us. Understanding it starts to break its hold.

So when we feel anger coming on, the first thing to do is to remove ourselves from the situation if necessary so we don’t do any harm to others (or to ourselves, for that matter). Excuse yourself, go to a private place, whatever you need to do so you can work with it mindfully.

Then carefully watch what happens, particularly any physical sensations. I feel anger as a closing sensation in my chest. My breathing gets shallow. My whole body tightens up. There’s an uncomfortable, restless energy swirling around my entire body. My mind closes in, and my world becomes all about the angry situation.

Watch your thoughts, too. All the blaming, the excuses — watch them all fly by. If we start judging ourselves as “bad” for thinking such terrible thoughts, just watch them, too. They’re all just thoughts. So we accept them as thoughts, labeling them as such, and let them fly past. As we do this, it’s important not to indulge them. We don’t want get down in the pit with them. Don’t pick them up and spin off with them. This only adds more fuel to their fire. What we’re doing is letting the natural energy of our thoughts and feelings flow where they will naturally so they can dissipate on their own.

When the feelings are really strong

If the anger is really strong, it might help to do something physical — such as going out for a run, chop some wood, or something along those lines. Keep in mind the idea isn’t to take our aggression out on the logs. We’re working off the nervous energy associated with the emotion, but not adding to it with blaming and whining. It’s a tricky line to draw, and it DOES take mindful effort and practice.

When I’ve been really steaming mad, I’ve found it helpful to talk about it with friends. I’d tell them how I was feeling, how I felt mistreated. I wasn’t laying blame or trying to get my friends to take sides with me. I was simply expressing how I felt, without embellishment. This is how I worked off my mental nervous energy without adding negativity. To do this, you need friends who will cooperate in a positive way. Friends who won’t get down into the pit with you or take sides in the blame game. People who will honestly listen and be supportive without going down the rathole with you.

“Practicing” with milder everyday irritations

We can also practice doing all these things in milder situations, which will prepare us better for those intense ones. We all have incidents throughout the day when we get irritated or annoyed. We can do the same mindful observation of our thoughts and feelings through them as “practice.” Doing things this way helps build our confidence. When we see that we can hold our ground and not give in to our habitual angry impulses, we see that we ARE capable of choosing a different way of responding.

At first it might seem pointless to sit there pushing our noses right into the ugliness of our experience. No doubt — it’s really unpleasant. But as we do this, things start to shift. The more we practice holding our ground – through progressively challenging situations — the more we come to realize that we are bigger than our anger. We actually can ride it out and not act on it. It’s not the all-consuming monster we thought it was. Working with it in this way changes our relationship with our anger.

Be compassionate to yourself

Above all, I think it’s really important to treat ourselves compassionately. While this is the way to work with anger at its roots, it IS a long and difficult process. After all, any habit we’ve had for decades isn’t going to go away in a week or two. When your anger keeps coming back, I hope you can give yourself a break. Know that you’re doing the best you can — and that your intention and persistent effort can’t help but turn things in a positive direction for you.