“When someone provokes your anger, the reason you get angry is because you hold onto how you think it should be. You’re denying how it is.” ~ Ram Dass
***Please note clients referenced in this article gave explicit permission to use their therapy experiences as an example for the purpose of assisting others and training. All identifying information has been removed and/or changed to protect the identity of all clients.***
Research psychologists have determined that the healthiest way to deal with anger is to recognize the emotion as anger, own the feeling as one’s own, identify what it is that triggers anger, and then to develop strategies to express with appropriate assertiveness, to redirect angry energy productively and/or to self soothe.
In order to work with the experience of anger that arises, we must first acknowledge that while something or someone outside of us is triggering that anger, the anger itself is an emotion and force within us. The reaction to the trigger is happening on the inside. It is our responsibility to work with that force so that it doesn’t spill out in a way that causes harm to self or others. No matter how terrible the triggering person or event is outside of us, we are still responsible for managing the force of anger that comes from inside.
I was working with a couple in relationship counseling. The husband reports he doesn’t want to be angry at his wife but he just can’t help himself. He reports that her forgetfulness and free-spirited ways are driving him crazy. He feels let down by her again and again. No matter how he tries he can’t get her to change. The wife understands he is angry with her for being who she is and has expressed great sadness and shame around this. She has tried to make him happy but feels in his eyes she can’t do anything right.
In the beginning of relationship counseling I helped each person to learn a new way of communicating to one another their feelings and preferences. They learned the technique very well. The wife was able to hear him. She worked very hard in counseling to reflect back what she heard him expressing and requesting. But the husband kept getting hung up on this thought: “There she goes again! See? This is how it’s always been. She’ll never change.”
If he could truly accept that she is not going to change into the person he wants her to be his anger might just fade away. What he is really hung up on is this belief: “She should do things the way I think they should be done. She should always remember everything and she should be more attentive to clock and calendar.”
This might be a hard pill to swallow. The truth of the matter is Ram Dass has it right. When someone or something outside of us triggers an angry reaction inside of us it is because we are attached to how we believe it should be rather than seeing it and accepting it as it is.
What about when people behave really badly? Let’s look at another example or two.
I was providing therapy to a woman who was divorced with two children. She came to counseling because she was struggling with managing her anger toward her ex-husband. He never paid his child support unless reminded. He was unreliable and allowed the children to stay up all night and eat junk food when with him on his weekends. When she first started counseling, her pattern was to become outraged and call her ex-husband or send him angry emails addressing his poor parenting decisions. She called him names, got into screaming matches with him and threatened to reduce his time with the children.
Overtime, she came to realize that her ex-husband is who he is and her angry reactions and pattern of verbally aggressive assaults were only making the situation worse. Together we worked on ways she could help herself by directing the angry energy into her workouts, then restructure her thoughts about the reality of the situation and help calm herself when she felt angry. She finally reached a place of peace, accepting that she would need to remind him each month it was time to pay child support and even offer to drop by to pick it up. She learned to express her concerns to him about the children’s experiences at his home in a non-threatening way, careful not to nit-pick and to be respectful of his right to parent his way as long as the children were not in danger.
In another case, a father and his new wife were dealing with his ex-wife whose behavior was so outrageous she lost custody of their child. The ex-wife vandalized their property, refused to pay her court ordered child support and was psychologically abusive to the child. The father and his new wife had to allow the court system to address her behavior and they had to learn to accept that the biological mother of this child would likely never change. So, they set up healthy boundaries and with a strong court order in place were able to keep the biological mother at a healthy distance while helping the child heal from the trauma caused by the biological mother. They had to work on accepting this woman for who she is, however, and not expecting her to behave as they felt she should.
To accept and surrender to what is will lead to greater peace. It does not mean that we allow people to abuse us or innocent children. There are ways to hold people accountable without operating from a place of anger. The point is we must see people and situations as they are instead of spinning our wheels and gnashing our teeth wishing and expecting it to be different than it is.
Mindfulness is the practice of observing what is, accepting what is and then if action is needed taking action in a way that is thoughtfully responsive rather than impulsively reactive.
Lynn Louise Wonders