- Mental Health
How to Let Go of Anger In The Heat Of The Moment
Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals.
- Mahatma Gandhi
This is one of two articles on anger. Its companion article, How to Reduce Anger, provides ways to reduce anger by dealing with the root causes. The suggestions in that article are best used when you feel relatively calm, and if followed will almost certainly lead to a reduction in the number of times you feel angry and in the severity of your anger.
However, it is also useful to have practices for letting go during times when you actively feel aroused to anger, so this article provides ways to let go of anger in the heat of the moment. First I will look at some ways we unintentionally add to our anger and then I will offer some ways that have helped me enormously to let go as anger arises.
Fear of anger is very common, but anger is not a monster
Do you want to get rid of anger?
If you have arrived at this article from a search engine it is likely you want to feel angry less often and to be able to cope more easily when you feel do it. You may even believe that you need to “get rid of your anger.”
If you do, you are not alone. Every month there are over 6 million Google searches on anger, and of those searches over 60,000 are by people looking for anger management classes. Many thousands more people are looking for ways to get rid of anger, to relieve, reduce or let go of it and countless articles suggest ways to control or manage it. My experience is that trying to control anger can lead to self-judgment, which keeps the cycle of anger alive. Therefore this article and its companion are slightly different. Instead of getting rid of or controlling anger, I hope to show you that it is possible to feel anger without having to react to it and without feeling controlled by it. Anger is simply an emotion and like all other emotions, it passes. The main reason so many people have difficulties with anger is because we try to stop or resist the feeling.
Common ways we inadvertently increase feelings of anger.
We feel guilty for feeling anger.
Anger is probably the emotion most of us would prefer to avoid, ignore, deny and just generally not have. We judge ourselves for having it, and we judge others if they express it. If we feel guilty when we are angry our most common reaction is to try to justify it in the hope that will ease our feelings of guilt, and so we look for reasons why we are right and the other person wrong. This make us feel angrier – and then even guiltier when we eventually calm down. Sometimes we try so hard to avoid the guilt feelings that we keep on justifying our position – and so our anger simmers away until we have another outburst.
Seeing red can cloud your judgement
We blame other people for our anger.
When we think that someone else has “made” us angry we feel powerless and at this person’s mercy. We definitely don’t feel in control of our emotions but controlled by them. This leaves us feeling very afraid of anger and so we try to suppress it. When we are aroused to anger it is harder to let go because so much feels at stake.
If you are used to thinking that other people make you angry, at first it can feel frightening to look at this differently. As you read this you may feel resistant to the idea. You may even think that if it’s not the other person’s fault it must be yours, so you want to go on blaming. That’s okay. It’s a normal reaction. You don’t need to change instantly. In fact the way our brains are constructed means it can take a while for new ideas to be fully accepted. Our thoughts create grooves or pathways in our brains, and these are strengthened the more often we think a particular thought or belief. So to change beliefs our brains need to form new pathways. That sometimes takes time. (But not always – the more open you are as you read this, the more easily change is likely to come. Years ago I wasn’t terribly open to new ideas so change took me a while!)
In any case, rather than trying to believe what I’ve written here, you will find it considerably more effective to pay attention to your own thoughts and reactions and see if what I’ve written seems true for you. I’d like to emphasize that there is no right or wrong here. If you try the techniques suggested and find yourself blowing your top the next day, that doesn’t mean you’ve got it wrong. It just means that like learning to play the piano, learning a new way of approaching anger sometimes takes time.
We fear anger in ourselves and in others.
Because of this we suppress it and this makes us fear it even more. We become afraid that we will have an outburst that is out of control. As with guilt, this makes us far more likely to have the explosion we fear – this time because we constantly suppress our feelings and try to ignore them. The reason for this is simple. When we suppress anger out of fear, what happens is we then repeatedly imagine scenes in which we explode at someone. This makes it far more likely to happen. Below I describe some more effective ways to deal with anger.
Ways to let go of anger as it arises.
Feel the anger as sensations in the body.
It may seem strange, but allowing yourself to notice how anger feels in your body makes it easier to simply allow it to pass through. If we don’t try to resist an emotion it can dissolve. We are so used to thinking we need to do something about the emotion that most of us instantly resist it, while simultaneously looking for a reason to justify our anger. Any “reason” you find in the heat of the moment is unlikely to be the real reason for your anger. This is explained in more detail in How to Reduce Anger, but briefly it is because anger is usually triggered by something happening now that reminds us of something from our past.
If you focus on the sensations in your body you are less focused on stoking your anger with thoughts about what the other person did wrong. Nevertheless, since anger feels uncomfortable and most of us are used to reacting to these uncomfortable feelings in our bodies, you may notice an urge to “do something” and you may notice recriminating thoughts popping up. Keep focusing instead on the feelings in your body and the urge and thoughts will ease, as will the feeling.
Although focusing on the body sensations is the technique that has helped me most, sometimes old patterns of reacting run deep and it takes a little more to fully let go. The following are other ways you can support yourself when struggling with anger.
Notice the thoughts that are going through your mind, and see them as a story you are telling yourself. As best you can, don’t react to them.
This might seem like the opposite of the above technique, but it’s not. You may also think that this is easier said than done, and you’d be right. It is challenging not to react when you feel aroused and overwhelmed, so if you do so be gentle on yourself. The aim is not to force change through punishment, but to gently create transformation through love. Punishment is likely to lead to more feelings of anger. (Our world shows that: people have judged and punished for centuries and yet psychologists say more people are angrier than ever before.)
So how do you notice thoughts and yet not react to them? First, this is not the same as suppressing anger. Neither is it, “letting the other person away with bad behavior.”
Below are the ways that help me to notice yet not react. The aim is to observe yourself, and to become detached from the feeling while remaining connected to yourself.
Ways to not react to thoughts that fuel anger.
- I keep in mind that the thoughts running through my mind are not the absolute truth.
(They might not even be true at all – there may be missing information that would change how you see things.)
- I keep in mind that whatever angers me in the other person is something I am avoiding in myself.
This does not mean you should then turn your anger on yourself. Whether you attack yourself or someone else, the outcome is the same. In the heat of the moment it is not necessary to try to work out what it is the other person is doing that you dislike in yourself. When you feel calm again you might want to do look more deeply, but when you feel angry just being aware of this can help you ease off.
- I ask myself, “What do I want out of this: to be right or to maintain a connection with my child/husband/whoever?” Other variations are, “Do I really want to yell at my kid or do I want her to learn something useful?” (I’ve discovered that if I yell my kids don’t hear what I say. Instead they hear, “Yell, yell,” and set about defending themselves.”)
Sometimes maintaining a connection isn’t important. You may never go back to the restaurant that gave you bad service again, or you might be glad to sever the relationship with a violent spouse. Even in those cases, asking yourself what outcome you want is still helpful. Perhaps you want a settlement with your violent spouse and venting could jeopardize that.
- When I feel overwhelmed, I ask for a different perspective on the situation.
You don’t need to believe in God to do this: the response comes from the wiser part of you, from the part of you that feels awed beneath the stars or when looking at a newborn baby – the part that feels connected to life. This may sound like New Age hocus pocus, but it works very effectively. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked this simple question in the midst of feeling furious, and within seconds some new understanding comes to me.
Again, if the first few times you try this you still yell anyway, be gentle on yourself. Remember you are learning – and perhaps the new perspective you need is to forgive yourself for feeling anger!
- I take time out.
If you do this, try not to just walk away – that can be confusing for the other person. Instead let them know you aren’t able to think straight and need a few moments alone. This applies with children as well as adults. At times I’ve told my children my thoughts are muddled and that I don’t want to be unkind to them so I need to sit down and write my thoughts out.
Use the time out to feel the sensations in your body, to ask the questions previously mentioned, or to explore more deeply what’s creating your anger. How to do this is explained in more detail in How to Reduce Anger, but one simple way is outlined below.
Look for the feeling that is underneath or behind the anger.
I first read of the idea that underneath any feeling of anger there is another emotion in When Anger Hurts by McKay, Rogers and McKay. The best way to understand this is to look honestly at times you have felt angry. Perhaps you felt angry because your partner went out for a drink with co-workers instead of coming straight home from the office? Underneath the anger, it’s quite likely you feel fear of your partner leaving you. Maybe you also feel ashamed for feeling so dependent. Your anger is a smokescreen covering those other emotions and the key to letting go of anger is to let yourself feel the hidden emotions.
One day a woman I’ll call Annabel felt anger and frustration towards her husband. He was seriously ill and behaving in a very demanding and aggressive way. Because he was ill she felt guilty about her anger. I asked if she could allow herself feel it. She did. I then asked if she could let it go. She feared that if she did she would start crying, and I said that was okay. She cried for a few moments and then felt relieved. Later she told me that she felt much calmer the rest of that day. She was amazed that she even calmly handled a situation that would normally have got her mad. That is what happens when we stop seeing anger as an enemy and allow it to come and to go.
When Anger Hurts
Which would you rather feel?
I am not a medical professional and all views expressed in this article are my own. If you have serious issues with anger to the point of reacting violently it would be advisable to see a professional coach or counselor rather than trying to cope alone.