Just yesterday, I was walking down the office hallway of a corporate client when I made eye contact with one of the employees. “You know,” she said to me after I stopped to ask how she was doing, “what you really should be teaching is anger management.”
Which was funny, because I was working on that very topic for this article. But also not funny, because anger can be a serious problem in our work and personal relationships.
Anger is on display everywhere you go in public: the office, on streets (“road rage”), the internet, at sports games and political conventions. But we also deal with it regularly in private, whether it is our family, our news feeds, or even our own thoughts pushing our proverbial buttons.
Anger generally emerges from our lizard brain because we perceive something as a threat to our well-being. The problem is that our lizard brain can push us to respond to perceived threats that aren’t actually threats. And regardless of the actual level of threat, ungoverned anger can be tremendously destructive, wreaking havoc with our professional lives and destroying our most important personal relationships.
But anger can be governed and, handled well, anger can be a powerhouse engine for driving our ambitions or for protecting us, and those we care about, from being mistreated or wronged. Our goal is not to never be angry, but to manage our feelings of anger the right way. So, let’s look a little closer at this idea of productive management of anger.
When I’m working with a client on anger, these are the five principles of anger that ground my coaching:
- Anger is a gendered emotion. In current American culture, anger is often understood as having a masculine quality. Anger is more tolerated in men than women, and for men it is preferable to be angry than to express other emotions (especially fear). This cultural preference will be important to remember as we think through what a healthy expression of anger looks like.
- Anger is a very powerful motivator. Anger compels action, and thus we can be manipulated by others who want us to act in a certain fashion. I’ve noticed that political appeals (especially for causes rather than candidates) are often designed to push our anger buttons. The fact that we are being prodded into anger by others is important because…
- Anger begets anger. In my book Mussar Yoga, I talk about the quality of equanimity (a calmness of the heart) and I note that, the more we let our emotions get the best of us, the more vulnerable we are to emotional outbursts. Calm begets calm.
- Anger may not be your problem, but how you express your anger may be. Anger is just an emotion like any other. You can’t possibly expect yourself never to be angry, but how you react when you’re angry might be a big problem in your relationships at work and at home.
- Anger may be a manifestation of our own insecurities and the need to feed our ego. When our inner critic is speaking loudly, we subconsciously find reasons to criticize others, i.e. “I can’t be that bad because look at all the things that are wrong with you!” In those moments, our anger at others is just redirected anger at ourselves.
With these five principles in mind, what can we do to manage our anger in healthy, more constructive ways?
Healthy Anger Approach #1: Practice mindfulness
This is really the most important action step as we need mindfulness to:
- Become aware of anger at the first signs of feeling it — which allows you to slow down the process that leads explosive reactions. I think of it as putting more distance between the match and the fuse. When you think about your anger, you are moving your energy from the primitive limbic part of the brain (which processes anger) to the cortex—the rational-cognitive part of the brain.
- Recognize the underlying emotions behind the anger. Often times anger is a secondary reaction to other emotions such as fear, sadness, or guilt. For men especially, anger is the more socially acceptable feeling and thus becomes the default emotion. Man or woman, though, it’s helpful for us all to get curious about our anger, where it is really coming from.
- Get metacognitively curious (I just made up that term) about our own ego at the moment. You can ask yourself “Why am I being so critical about another person? Am I feeling insecure about myself (my skills, my intelligence, my own worthiness) right now?”
Healthy Anger Approach #2: Limit your exposure and response to known sources of anger.
We can't control every moment of our lives or what other people do and say to us. However, we can be proactive to steer clear of things we know are likely to make us angry. And if you are exposed to anger-inducing situations, you can still work towards equanimity when you’re confronted by triggers. Here’s an article with some great tips for replacing hostility and anger with equanimity. Here are a few of my go-to tips:
- Social media is ripe with angry outbursts and people trying to push other’s buttons. If you’re feeling stressed and tired already, social media or politically-driven information may not be the right form of entertainment for you in that moment.
- Also (and this is really important) choose what you want to get angry about or if at all. Pick your battles. Anger can feel like a drug—revving up the body’s sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response). It can feel exhilarating or energizing. But there are health consequences for being angry all of the time, so pick what you want to be angry about wisely.
The bottom line is that anger not only feels like fire, it acts like it too. Fire is dangerous when it’s not properly contained, but necessary and helpful when properly managed. If the way you (or someone you know) express anger is costing love or money, the steps I outlined above are a great place to start working on how to handle your anger productively. But we’d also love to help if we can. So, drop us a line. After all, managing anger is fundamentally about rewiring the brain to respond differently so that perceived threats or disappointments become sources of growth.