He was about to beat his wife. He was raging. And his tantrum was heating up.
I was shocked. That was the worst scandal I’ve seen firsthand. It’s clear he couldn’t control his anger. He could’ve waited until he got home.
The second time, he berated his wife (again). This time, I didn’t know what the issue was. His wife did nothing — she just listened and absorbed the wrath. She probably got used to it.
The third time, now it was on me. Oh fuck. I could tell he wanted to knock me to the ground. He was clenching. He was freaking out. He was stomping on the pavement exasperated, like a spoiled brat crying for a lollipop.
Good heavens. Nobody’s hurt physically. But the worst part? I completely lost trust in him.
What Happens When You Unleash Anger
Whether it’s unleashing anger or just immaturity, that’s the worst thing to happen in any relationship. Because once you hurt them with your actions or your words, you can never get it back. Damage’s been done.
Even if they love you and you know they will forgive, that doesn’t change history. Remember, forgiving is different from forgetting.
Until you learn how to control your anger, you’ll always hurt yourself and the people around you.
How to Manage Anger
There are probably hundreds (or more) of advice you can get on the Internet. You can try them yourself. But I’m speaking from experience.
Learning from experience and the books I’ve read has made a huge difference on how I manage my anger. Now it’s time for me to share.
Before that. Let me clarify: I’m not some “holy man” here who doesn’t get angry or doesn’t display anger. And I don’t advocate not getting angry or resisting anger. That’s insane. Everyone gets angry. That’s part of real life, whether we like it or not. As long as we’re alive, we are prone to experience different emotions. Anger is no exception.
But first, in order to manage anger, we have to acknowledge it when it arises and accept it as it is. This is the first step. Once we know it’s there, we can be more aware of ourselves — our thoughts and our actions.
In “The Little Book of Contentment”, author Leo Babauta emphasizes the importance of self-awareness when dealing with our emotions.
“Start with awareness — to change our reactions, we must first be aware when these reactions happen. You can’t change them if you’re in automatic mode.
Once you notice it, the key thing is not to act — it’s OK to have the feeling, but the action is what is usually destructive. Acting in anger means you’re going to do something not kind, not helpful.”
First step: Acknowledge anger. Be aware that it’s there. That’s okay.
Second step: Manage it. Because if you don’t, well, you know what’s gonna happen.
Here’s what I’ve been practicing:
1. Deep breaths
This is the easiest and most actionable step. And I’m quite sure that most people would agree.
The whole point is to pause and focus our attention to our breath, and hopefully stay calm.
When doing this, you can also contemplate that the person or situation making you angry is beyond your control. That person may be in pain. Or that situation may be an accident. So don’t take it personally.
Let me share a Zen story I’ve discovered through Leo Babauta:
“A man is rowing a boat and sees another person rowing a boat towards him. The boat bumps into his, and he start yelling at the other man, mad that the man bumped into his boat.
Then consider this alternative version:
The same man is rowing a boat and sees an empty boat coming towards him. The boat bumps into his, but he simply steers his boat around it.
In the first version, he gets mad. In the second, he reacts appropriately.
Here’s the thing: the boat is always empty. Even when there’s another person causing the stimulus, that person isn’t trying to do anything to us. They are doing their own thing, motivated by whatever they’re going through, and so we shouldn’t take it so personally.
When we take things personally, we get angry. When we see the external event as an empty rowboat, we react appropriately.
And so, the other person isn’t the problem. It’s us taking things personally. This takes time to learn, in your gut instead of just as an idea, but it makes a ton of difference.”
I remember being insulted and badmouthed by some of the people I trusted and respected so much. It was upsetting. Then I tried to remember this Zen story. The boat is always empty. The boat is always empty.
Breathe in… Breathe out…
Remember we’re all just learning. And nobody’s perfect. There’s no point bursting out when a stranger accidentally spills coffee on our lap. There’s no point reacting to a situation we don’t have control over.
Again we are all learning.
But what if you fail to do this? Let’s try #2.
2. Walk out
If the situation intensifies and you’re at your peak, and deep breaths seem ineffective, walk out or simply walk somewhere. Distant yourself. Be alone.
It’s not true that walking out is disrespectful. In fact, it’s the opposite — it’s being respectful to yourself and the people around you. Because if you don’t get out from that situation, you know you’ll burst out (or other people) and you may lash out someone.
In “De Cohibenda Ira” (On the Control of Anger), the Greek Philosopher Plutarch admonishes:
“The best course, therefore, is for us to compose ourselves, or else to run away and conceal ourselves, and anchor ourselves in a calm harbor, as though we perceived a fit of epilepsy coming on, so that we may not fall, or rather may not fall upon others; and we are especially likely to fall most often upon our friends.”
This is huge. Even ancient philosophers like Plutarch agree that walking out or being alone (for a while) is the best thing to do. From a psychological perspective, yes, solitude helps clear the mind. And I couldn’t agree more.
I often do this when my wife and I got into an argument. I wasn’t escaping the issue. The whole point is to cool ourselves first, so we can harmoniously sort out the issue afterwards.
Of course we all know this: Nothing is solved when both parties are angry.
PS: This is really hard to practice in real life though. I failed a lot of times. But it’s worth practicing. Keep trying.
3. Channel it in a different way.
Heard this cliché before?: “Find an outlet for your negative energy.”
Turns out it’s true. Again, this is not about avoiding negative feelings, but a matter of dealing with them appropriately. Anger is one of these. But fear not. There are many ways to channel it into something more meaningful.
My way is through playing guitar or writing my thoughts or listening to music. Some people tune in to sports, gardening, exercising, or any form of arts.
There are a constellation of activities. Find what works for you.
Because anger, if channeled in a destructive way, can destroy not only you, also others. And that sucks. The world is already rife with anger and negative energy. Please don’t add yours.
“To be self-controlled is the greatest excellence.” – Heraclitus
Update: I realize that we can use these methods simultaneously. Kind of combining them. For example, you can walk alone practicing deep breaths. Or you can engage in an activity while recalling the Zen story. It works for me.
Let me know about yours.