A Contemplative Perspective on Working with Anger

Written by Steve Lawley

Anger is a very common emotional experience that can prompt a variety of challenging behavioral, psychological, and physiological responses. Experiences and harmful responses to anger can create serious consequences; ones that may have a significant impact on the well-being of yourself or someone else. Individuals having difficulty managing their reactions to anger often report that maladaptive responses have caused damage to someone’s health, relationships, or property.

The subjective intensity we feel in association with anger can be severe, and can often lead to an interpretation of the experience being inherently problematic or disturbing. This perspective might imply that anger is something to be avoided, rather than something to relate to. This makes a lot of sense. However, this perspective has a major flaw. We can’t avoid everything that makes us angry or frustrated. Expending energy to that end is futile, and will inevitably lead to becoming frustrated and angry…

So, I’d like to suggest a different perspective; that the experience of anger (or any emotion for that matter) is not inherently problematic at all.  If we were to view anger as a very basic signal, this could be a way of understanding its utility; anger is an “alert” that something of great personal importance is happening right now!  From this perspective, we certainly wouldn’t aim to eliminate anger from our emotional repertoire, or simply remove the source of our anger.  Instead, we might shift our objective to developing the self-regulation skills for working with challenging emotions in the present moment, as well as the impulsive or automatic responses that tend to follow. The objective is to become more adept at responding to our experience of anger skillfully, and mindfully.

Mindful regulation of our emotions (and yes, even the really, really tough ones!) is a very basic practice of working with our psychological challenges in the moment, as they arise. Through this practice, we are able to develop the skills and tools necessary for identifying, and creating, a psychological space that allows the experience to arise and dissipate without disruptive expressions and skillfully choose an appropriate response.

In the words of renowned Buddhist practitioner, Thich Nhat Hanh:

            “Mindfulness recognizes anger, is aware of its presence, accepts and allows it to be there… Once we have recognized our anger, we embrace it. This is the second function of mindfulness and it is a very pleasant practice. Instead of fighting, we are taking good care of our emotion. If you know how to embrace your anger, something will change.”

So please, feel free to get angry! Just don’t act on it immediately. Get to know your anger.  Make friends with it. Each time it comes up, recognize it as a great opportunity to practice and be glad it’s there. Learning to acknowledge, accept, and tolerate the intensity of our emotions is the first step towards doing something about it, without fear or regret. The real problem would be if we didn’t get angry…