The Hidden Treasure of Anger
Your throat is contracting, your fists are clenching—but don’t deny your anger, says Polly Young-Eisendrath. Instead, learn to mine it for new ways to work with yourself and the people you love.
In many ways, human anger is a treasure. The Greeks called it the “moral emotion” because they noted that animals did not possess it; animals, the Greeks observed, got aggressive and showed fight or flight reactivity. They did not get angry. Humans, on the other hand, could experience and express anger with its inherent reflective component: “I can see/know/feel that someone or something has wronged me.”
As a response to being wronged, anger is a boundary-setter that says, “Stop! I can’t tolerate this,” or, “This isn’t working for me.” It is not blaming the other or shaming the self. Often experienced first as a contraction in the throat, chest, stomach, or abdomen, and a clenching of the fist, anger may be associated with the words “I can’t go on like this” seared into the mind.
Anger—sparked by injustice—is at the root of all protest movements, all major processes of change. In our most intimate relationships, when we or our loved ones experience or express anger, it is an opportunity to get to know one another better, to get closer and clearer, and to work with ourselves in a new way. It is an opportunity to ask ourselves, “Why am I feeling this?” “What needs to change here?” and “What do I need to do about it?”
Because anger is expressed at a moment of need, the person expressing it is vulnerable. If, when our partner is angry, we inquire into his or her need to be seen, treated, known, or held more wholly, dearly, or fairly, we have a chance of accepting our beloved more fully. In our closest relationships, our fate is bound up with the fate of the other. In Buddhist terms, our karma is interwoven and we cannot easily escape feeling the consequences of the beloved’s actions. It is a natural desire for us to want to keep our partner safe or happy, for both selfish and unselfish reasons. But, as a result, we have a tendency to want to control our beloved—and that often creates a sense of being unfairly treated.
Our closest relationships are the most challenging in our lives when it comes to practicing fairness, equality, and kindness. That is because in these intimate relationships, we always begin to get to know the other person (even if that person is an infant) through a process of psychological projection: seeing/feeling/experiencing the other through already familiar views, desires, and ideals. This is especially true in romantic love, where we “fall” in love through an idealizing projection and assume that the other is ideal for us and meets our needs in some particular or general way. When the other person does not do or become what we want, which is always the case, we can easily turn against him or her with hatred, rejection, or pain. Working with anger skillfully can actually be very helpful in our not doing this.
Anger has unfortunately been confused or conflated with aggression, hatred, or rage—some of its more destructive siblings. Many people make the mistake of pushing away anger, being afraid that it will be destructive if expressed. Some may hyper-value silence as though it were its own virtue. Others may express aggression, blame, anxiety, or rage instead of anger. But if you have the skill to feel your feelings (with a gentle acceptance of them), you are less likely to dissociate from your feelings or distance yourself from another in times of anger. You won’t have to hide your anger from yourself and you can learn about speaking it honestly and kindly—and about inquiring into your beloved’s anger at you.
Knowing what anger really is, we can appreciate how it allows us to avoid destructive behavior, such as fighting or diminishing others and ourselves. The next time our partner does something we don’t like or the next time he or she approaches us saying, “I feel overlooked or unfairly treated,” we can begin a process of inquiry that leads to the possibility of accepting differences or changing our actions without blaming the other or having a sense of being blamed.
In order to do this, we need a little wisdom and a few mindfulness skills. To begin, we must remember the first noble truth: Life is filled with stress and unsatisfactoriness that are not the fault of anyone in particular. Misunderstandings and oversights are simply part of the muddle of human affairs, especially when we live together on a daily basis and have lots of different needs and perspectives. So when faced with anger—our own or another’s—it’s a good idea to start with a bit of modesty.
We can then make a commitment to watch our own feelings. We will notice how they arise and pass away, no matter how painful or contractive they are, and that we experience them as body sensations, internal images, and internal talk. Over time, we will become familiar with the emotional landscape of anger. My own anger arises with my chest tightening and my throat constricting, and it tends to shape into the inner words: “I can’t stand this,” or something similar. I label it “anger” fairly quickly. Then, I am interested in discovering just what it is that seems unfair to me at that moment. The sense of being treated unfairly should not be overlooked or brushed aside. We will learn from answering the questions: “Why am I feeling this?” “What needs to change here?” and “What do I need to do about it?”
Once we see how our feelings arise and pass away on their own, without our doing anything in particular, then we have true freedom to decide when and if we want to express our feelings in words to another. Of course, even if we don’t express ourselves in words directly, the other person may read our emotion accurately and may choose to question us about it. Knowing how and when it is useful to express our feelings, especially anger, means paying close attention to the consequences of our speech. Often anger is an important motivator to talk about what is bothering us, but we first have to reflect. What happens when we speak anger? What happens when we don’t? Is it possible to speak anger honestly and kindly at the same time? (Yes, it is, but you have to find your own way each time.)
Equanimity, or gentle, matter-of-fact attention to all of our experiences, helps us work with our own and another’s anger. Equanimity means to have an open and relaxed view of what’s happening while getting our “sea legs,” our balance in the midst of being tumbled around. If you can maintain equanimity in the face of your own and your beloved’s anger, then you’ll be able to feel your own feelings and listen to your beloved at the same time. By slowing down your reactivity, you’ll be able to think about the potential consequences of speaking or not speaking in any given moment.
But beware of trying to do all this in a “perfect” way! You cannot get good at delving into the treasure of anger without making mistakes. If you speak out in an aggressive, blaming manner, you can apologize! You can hear yourself speak and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t like what I said there. Let me try again because I love you and I want to understand what is going on.” Similarly, if you defend yourself in a preemptive way and walk away from an angry partner, you can turn around and go back. Apologize. Remember: There is no perfect way to do this. There is only the intention to do it and the attempt to follow that intention.
What is the most skillful intention in relation to anger? In my view, it’s being interested in anger—your own and another’s. True anger is about unfairness, injustice, and intolerable treatment. Inquiring into the source of anger and trying to understand its message is very useful. Using skillful speech is very helpful: use “I” statements, rather than talking about what the other person is doing to you, and speak descriptively about the problem. For example, “It doesn’t work for me when you walk away while I am in the middle of telling you about my difficult day at work, as you did or seemed to do this morning. I want to talk with you about the thoughts and feelings and questions your behavior triggered in me. Okay?”
The most skillful response to this statement would be, “Please tell me about what you experienced and what you thought was going on.” Both of these statements have a tentative tone (a sort of “help me understand what is going on here” tone). At the point that the listener fully understands the speaker (she can check through reflective listening), the listener can then respond with her experience of the event. Frequently, in an intimate relationship, various levels of misunderstanding and misperception are at the source of anger. The process of discovering this usually brings the two people closer. They come to see and know each other more completely, even if the source of the difficulty is not fully resolved.
When you’re feeling angry, especially in a close relationship, it’s a good time to practice mindfulness and equanimity, not to dissolve the anger but to become more skillful in mining it. See if you can find ways to speak your anger in words that are both honest and kind; stick to “I” statements and stay away from blaming, recalling that blame is a “fight” reaction, not true human anger. The path of love is a difficult one, in large part because of our natural desire to control the beloved. Anger will loosen that sense of control as we come to know our beloved more fully in times of vulnerability. Love and partnership are trainings in the transformation of suffering into compassion and kindness. They teach us the deep lessons of the first noble truth, and they do it in a way that is truly ego-dissolving.