Anger is one of the very few creatures that I have learned to tame.
It gets to a point where people mistakenly think that I cannot get angry. But nothing could be further from the truth; I can and do get upset from time to time. I simply have found neutralising approaches that have worked for me.
Here, I want to share the simplified version of it. Hopefully, you can adopt (at least partly) into your own repertoire of anger management strategy.
The ‘simple’ techniques for controlling anger
Here are the three main techniques — the ‘simple’ part. By ‘simple’, I don’t mean ‘easy’ or ‘less important’. It only means that they have less interacting components than the ‘complicated’ part (more on that later). When you feel angry:
1. Breathe deeply
Do diaphragmatic breathing: breathe deeply into your belly, with your chest not moving, only your abdomen does. Accompany it with Remembrance. If you are standing, sit down. If you are sitting, lie down. If the situation permits it, leave the room. Go out and breathe fresh air.
2. Shift your focus
Instead of waiting for the fire of anger to stop, actively starve it of its fuel. The primary fuel is the thoughts of ‘Why it is right for me to be angry’. Shift your focus away from it. Move your attention towards ‘All right, this isn’t what I want. How do I stop descending, how do I make it less terrible?’
3. Communicate differently
When someone doesn’t ‘hear’ you, it can mean that he is stubborn, stupid or evil. But, it can also mean the way you say something does not work with that particular person. Pay attention to your choice of words, your tone, and your non-verbal signals. Find a different combination.
These three techniques work consistently if you have a stable (or at least, stable enough) foundations. If they work, you can actually stop reading now.
If it does not work most of the time, continue reading.
The deeper approach of managing anger
This is the ‘complicated’ part. Again, it does not mean that it is too difficult and can only be done by the spiritual elites.
It is ‘complicated’ because it takes more time and self-reflection, and require slightly more imaginative and abstract thinking on your part.
When adopting these approaches, take into account your unique way of being in the world. If they work as they are, it means you and I are quite similar. Otherwise, if you find them hard, it is not your fault. It simply means you engage the world rather differently than I do. And you can still use these as starting points to develop your own internal approach.
1. See Anger as a creature.
I see my Anger as a creature, not in a perfunctory manner, but as serious imageries. This does two things:
First, I separate it from other parts of my psyche — my anger is not me. So, I will not get to a stage where I say ‘I am an angry person and I can’t do anything about it’, and start blaming others when I lose control of my Anger.
Second, it allows me to visualise Anger as something that can grow, something that can sleep, and something that needs food. I use these imageries to talk to myself about what is going on emotionally and what to do about it (I use some of those imageries below).
2. Do not accept intense or prolonged anger as normal.
Anger includes emotional intensities from slight annoyance to rage. I see it as the size of this creature. It can grow too big and burn valuable structures in my life (relationships, reputations).
More importantly, I do not see it as normal to lose control to this creature, even temporarily. It is not acceptable for me to shout at my family or my students, or to talk about my colleagues behind their backs because I am irritated at them.
Even when Anger is not intense, if not taken care of for a prolonged time, it will still slowly gnaw on my relationships.
For example, I might be annoyed about X, and instead of communicating about X differently, I stop talking altogether. Later, I unconsciously took my revenge by bringing up other stuff in the past, those that have little to do with X. So many relationships fall apart that way.
By refusing to accept these as normal, whenever the leash on my Anger slipped out of my hand, I don’t justify it to myself:
‘Yeah, sorry, but, everyone gets angry sometimes.’
‘Well, I might have been too harsh, but they kind of deserve it.’
‘I didn’t mean to be angry, but I was right!’
3. Engage anger from your strengths
‘Strengths’ here means accumulated experience and knowledge that weaken the justification for Anger.
In my case, I have some formal education in Immunology, and I love reading about spirituality. So, even though I am not that advanced, I am strong enough to use them to weaken my Anger.
It doesn’t mean I try to tame Anger by running an intellectual analysis while being angry. When Anger is raging and breathing fire, it is often too late already.
Instead, I outsmart it by attacking Anger when it is asleep. Usually, I do this when I observe Anger in others, whether in my daily experience or fictional stories. I do three things:
i. I avoid dismissing it, ‘Yeah, that person is just too dramatic. I’m never going to be that angry.’
ii. Instead, I told myself, ‘I’m not better. If provoked enough, I can lose control like them.’
iii. I start an internal monologue, ‘Even when I’m in their shoes, even when I have the right to be angry, why is losing control still not worth it?’
The monologue will sound something like this:
‘Well, if I’m angry, my Interleukin-6 and my C-reactive protein are going to go up. It messes up my immunity. Why should I make myself sick? Also, in Iḥyaʾ, al-Ghazali talks about how anger grows from self-conceit. It means that Anger is hiding something from me, probably my own severe weaknesses. I don’t want that. So when I get bothered by others’ mistakes, I need to remember my own mistakes in the past. Being angry doesn’t make me strong. Being in control of anger is a strength.’
When I do this repeatedly, over time, that monologue will activate at the same time as when my Anger wakes up.
Remember, your monologue will be different than mine, because your strengths are different. But the results will be the same. When we constantly engage our Anger this way, the creature starves. It remains small and lethargic.
Is there a place where anger is good?
Not being angry does not mean we lie down and let someone step on us.
If my students have a discipline problem, we are going to have an unpleasant talk, or I may take their marks away, or I may get the university authority involved.
If you are hurting my family, I may file a lawsuit against you, or report it to the police, or neutralise you — violently, if it’s absolutely necessary. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you… (Sorry, that scene was so good ;-)) .
But you get the point. There is an appropriate place for all emotions, including Anger. But we must temper it with awareness. We must not allow it to manifest as an uncontrolled blaze of passion that devours ourselves and those we love.
We must tame and outsmart Anger.