Friday, April 9, 2010


Understanding And Managing My Anger

I have an intimate relationship with my anger. I’ve been angry for a long time. There are times my anger gets away from me, gets the best of me. It usually starts, and ends, with shame.

Anger is one of our many emotions. It’s trying to tell us something. Unchecked and without the proper tools – it is a very destructive force. At its worst, it can lead to violence. At its best is can be empowering.

Anger is a protective emotion. It’s our primal fight or flight that has led the human race to survive and exist. When anger is coming on – that fight or flight part of the brain takes over – reasoning shuts down. We say stupid things, do stupid things, which we would normally not say or do. We are hurtful to avoid being hurt. That may be fine when facing a predator that wants to eat you, not so fine when it’s family or friends.

Anger is often learned at home in our childhood. Sometimes it is learned elsewhere. Few of us learn the coping tools and mechanisms to deal with it in a healthy way. For me, that started with counseling. At first, I started with couple’s counseling, but I needed more help. I needed to own it. I found a support group and an anger management course.

There is not one among us in whom a devil does not dwell. At some time, at some point, that devil masters each of us. It is not having been in the dark house but having left it that counts. -- Theodore Roosevelt Anger for me came from a few sources. I grew up with an alcoholic father. I could rarely do anything right in his eyes. No matter how hard I tried it was never good enough, which fed my shame. I repeatedly fed my shame as I continued growing older. As a married man, I felt powerless against my wife’s chronic illness and how it affected me. Throughout it all – it was all me – I alone let my demons torment me. I was letting those demons out to roam freely. There were running amok and ruining my life.

That is where I found myself when I came to the Twin Cities Men’s Center, a place dedicated to helping men tackle men’s issues. I took a course on anger management. The class is two parts: one part learning about anger – my anger – what it is, where it comes from, how to deal with it. The other part is support group, other people like you going through the same thing. They are bus drivers, factory line workers, marketing people, CEOs and gang members. No one is exempt. All walks of life experience it. Some come on their own accord, some like me do it to save their marriage and family, some are ordered by the court. We all have common problems that we work through to solve together. I found it so useful I took the course twice. I wish I could get some of my friends to go.

I learned to call timeouts when I felt myself slipping into what I call “the zone” – the place where nothing but my anger exists. A timeout is a break from you and the person you’re angry with, we favor 20 minutes. It’s a way to allow you to walk away and go to another place to calm down. After a timeout, we always return to the discussion we were engaged in before. For timeouts to be effective, they need to be negotiated before hand and respected by both parties. We both use this tool; sometimes multiple timeouts are necessary. With them I learned to get back to my reasonable self so I could rationally talk without being on the defensive.

Shame is ever present with our anger. Whether it’s something you’re carrying with you, or the result of the actions your anger brings out that you regret later. I have a lot of this to swallow to deal with myself. It’s not something that is over after a course. We learn to cope with it as it rears its head.

The class gave me tools to deal with my anger while I am experiencing it; to recognize the signs and call a timeout, give myself time to relax and get out of the zone.

Listening To My Anger

Warning: You must understand your anger and get it under control before moving to listening to it.

While my class was good with me getting a handle on my emotional pressure cooker, there were still lessons to be learned. Once I learned to understand and manage my anger – the angry explosive hurtful me – it was time for me to take the next step and figure out what my anger was telling me. Why was it here in the first place?

Listening to what my anger is telling me is more difficult, because I cannot become irrational (in the zone) or I cease to hear. Once I can listen to what my anger is telling me, I can begin to talk, to share with my partner or friend what hurt me, without letting it affect me.

Discussing my anger, hurt and shame is difficult. It exposes wounds that may still be raw. My anger is triggered by something that hurts. I am trying to protect myself. It’s hard to not get defensive, to not be threatening or feel threatened. This is a continuing process of trial and error: of learning, of timeouts, of communication. When two way communication fails, I attempt one way communication like a note or an email. I sit on it for at least an hour, up to a day; to make sure what I’m writing is not an angry hurtful message, but open honest thoughts and feelings. It’s vulnerable, but rewarding.

I try taking turns talking and “active” listening – listening without interruption but with acknowledgement and questions leading to more open dialogue. Two way communication is the goal, but there’s nothing wrong when one person needs to talk, and the other to listen. You can always reverse these roles afterward.

This is a hard, painful, humbling, brave and strong way to deal with yourself and those you care about. The pain passes and you’re left with a stronger relationship. During this time, you reconnect with your friend, your partner. You build new connections, more closeness and start to heal.

Anger Is Useful

After learning not to let my anger rule me and how to deal with it when it does, I can put my anger to good constructive use. Anger can be a useful emotion!

Anger lights us on fire. It energizes us and gets us motivated and moving. There are not enough positive outlets for our anger; ways to channel it for positive change. Just as we can ignite ourselves from our own shame, we can also perceive shame of a country, a culture or a situation. We can see an injustice and get fumed.

During 1991 in Dubuque, Iowa, some people started burning crosses. It pissed me off that this was happening in my hometown. I felt ashamed for where I was from. Two of my college friends and I were so upset, we decided to do something about it and formed an organization called Active Students Against Prejudice or ASAP. We decided to show unity in the face of these people trying to sow discord. The burnings continued. The KKK thought they saw an opening. We spread the word for ASAP. We decided to show people that the work of five individuals was not the face of the town. We held a rally where thousands marched downtown through sleet standing in solidarity amid the bitter wet cold. The Guardian Angles came and marched with us. We spoke out against the hate crimes. It is one of the proudest memories of my life. Our organization supported similar events to give the city a voice against these people. This is something good you can do with your anger.

I believe the USA would still a British colony without anger. I don’t think the civil rights movement would have gotten far without it. Anger get’s us off the couch – burns away our apathy.

You can use anger to bring about needed change to a hurt or injustice you see or feel. Hunger can lead us to get involved with a food shelf or NGO. An injustice might get you involved with politics to bring about the change you see needed. Do something with it – something positive – let that anger keep you tirelessly going.

Anger can be your tool, your friend. It is no longer something to repress, but utilize. Anger can be a good companion and a great friend – just remember where and how to focus it, not at those around you, but at the injustice you perceive to bring about positive change – never violence. Channel it into that change; don’t bottle it up. Rule it; don’t let it rule you.

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, with the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not easy. – Aristotle

Social Frameworks

Disclaimer: This is only my understanding of a complex religion.

I try not to blame society, but we really aren’t taught how to deal with our anger. When I look to my religion, Vodou, I can look at the Rada and the Petro. Rada spirits (Lwa) of Vodou were brought from Africa as celebratory, giving thanks to the Lwa for all that we have. When enslaved, people needed to survive their oppression and a fire ignited – the Petro. Petro is that fire of change to right the injustice. It has been violent at times, but can just as easily ignite the change in you to fire you up to challenge – to get up and do something.

With my Catholic upbringing I was taught to turn the other cheek. While the principle teaches us non-violence and love, it may not stop that cheek from being struck. The Petro calls us to action; asks us to bring about change. That change can be riotous or it could be Gandhian, but change is a call that cannot be ignored.

Petro can be quite frightening when faced with it, or against it. With it warriors, men and women, will stand up and fight. Petro has a great history in overturning oppression. They do not rest until their task is done. They take that anger as a call to action.

Most Lwa have both a Rada and a Petro side to them, different faces for different occasions. I feel strength in their kinship and try and channel that strength through me to change a perceived injustice.

While Vodou gives me a framework for how to channel my anger, I find this somewhat lacking in my practice of other spiritual and religious systems. My Catholic upbringing lacked in this area (which downplayed its warrior past), as has my dealings with my meditative practices. I doubt the Buddha would approve. Other systems could benefit by providing healthy ways of expression and outlet of one’s anger.

Culturally, I feel we again aren’t taught how to properly deal with anger. We bottle it up until we explode. We contain it until we lash out. Socially, there isn’t a lot of education formal or absorbed from our culture to show us healthy ways of expressing this integral emotion. I think we could all benefit from it.

Where Does This Leave Me?

I find power in the Petro to act and bring about change. I channel my anger into it, while focusing on owning my anger and not it owning me. I see myself as a warrior, putting my anger and energy into bringing about change, whether within or outside of myself. I find myself called to fight injustice with non-violent action.

My shame doesn’t go away quickly. There are deeper levels through self-discovery where I find old injuries and pain. Through this I learn more about my anger.

My anger is not something I’m proud of when it gets the best of me. It’s a difficult emotion to admit, to see the pain it caused myself and those around me. Repairing these injuries is a hard task to take on. It’s much easier to ignore the damage I’ve done, much harder to try and address it. I’m lucky to have people that are patient that continue to try and help.

The timeout process is a work in progress, of trial and error. I struggle with active listening without staging my defense and comeback. It’s hard for me to listen and not interrupt.

When I can put anger to good use, I start to see its benefits. Learning new depths of patience, trying over and over again, I improve bit by bit.

1 comment:

  1. I admire your honesty in posting this. Thanks also for links to resources that can help people. Anger is something most of us struggle with in one way or another. Most people don't know there are alternatives to the way they are used to reacting. We can change. Thanks for inspiring transformation!