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There’s no way to convince someone that indulging in anger increases our suffering if they aren’t ready to hear it.
It is a realization we must come to ourselves, often after the negative consequences of being angry.
Growing up, I would often get angry over trivial things as children tend to do. The best lesson I learned about anger came from playing on the high school golf team, though. Because you are not competing against anyone but yourself (I realize technically there are opponents in a match, but there’s nothing you can do to improve or decrease their score, so it’s pointless to worry about them), it is a great opportunity to focus on your own game.
I would regularly get mad at myself when I hit a poor shot; however, eventually, I came to the profound and yet simple realization that there was no point in doing so. It didn’t help my score or my attitude, and so I made a conscious decision to stop.
While this didn’t end overnight, it was the beginning of my first attempt to live without so much anger inside me. This decision I came to myself, after seeing the effects firsthand far too many times.
“Indulge not thyself in the passion of anger; it is whetting a sword to wound thine own breast, or murder thy friend.” ~ Akhenaten
An archaic term, “whetting” means to sharpen, but I would argue anger is actually more like stabbing yourself. Straight to the heart. Looking for something to be angry about, though, would be analogous to sharpening a sword, essentially preparing to wound yourself. But the act of engaging in anger does damage to us, especially the longer we hold on to it.
While I don’t believe it’s possible to eliminate anger entirely while incarnated in the world, it is possible to minimize the damage it does to ourselves and others.
It’s natural to get mad at something if it’s a crappy situation. What’s not healthy, however, is continuing to think about that which caused us to get angry in the first place well past the point of the incident.
To continue using this metaphor from the Akhenaten quote, it would be like stabbing ourselves repeatedly, as opposed to just one-and-done. What chance do we have of repairing the damage if we continue wounding ourselves?
And yet that’s how most of us operate when we get angry. We become attached to the feeling of anger, unable to let it go. I often wonder if we truly don’t want to feel that way and secretly still get some subconscious satisfaction out of remaining angry.
A recent example from my own life is when I was walking my dog outside, and we stopped to take a pee (her, not me). Since she’s a b*tch (I don’t mean that in the popular sense; she’s actually the sweetest doggie), she squats to pee, and to the untrained eye, it looks like she’s taking a poop.
A woman yelled at me saying, “Are you going to pick that up?!?”—the nonexistent doggie doo-doo that is. I’m not sure why it bothered me so much at the time, but I told her in no uncertain terms what the facts of the situation were: no sh*t.
For the rest of the day, it was difficult to forget about that incident. It felt like I was punishing myself every time it came back up in my mind again. Why couldn’t I just let it go?
Having the internal commitment that I didn’t want to dwell on this was helpful each time it arose. Instead of using the story as an excuse to continue ruminating on the event, it was a wake-up call to return to the present and let the past go.
It became easier to let go each time with deliberate practice, since I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to keep punishing myself for. I felt bad for the way I reacted to the situation with the woman, but in addition to being angry at myself, I was also angry at her.
This is another aspect to the expression of anger we’ve yet to discuss, that is, anger directed at another person besides ourselves. Anger can be expressed in two ways: outwardly or inwardly. In addition to stabbing ourselves with a sword, we can also attempt stabbing someone else.
It’s unlikely we have the intention to “murder thy friend,” although that is one extreme possibility. More than likely, though, we’d just like them to suffer at least as much as we have.
Revenge is a familiar feeling when anger comes up directed at someone else. If we feel they have wronged us, there is this idea around justice and making people pay for what they have done. But who are we to judge others?
For one thing, it’s extremely unlikely we know the intention of the other person who made us mad. Oftentimes, it’s completely unintentional when someone pisses us off, and they were only thinking of themselves.
If we weren’t even a part of their equation, perhaps that is a different reason to justify retribution. They should learn to think of others we might say, so we’d like to correct their behavior with punishment.
There’s nothing we can do to force people to think of others. If there was, wouldn’t the world be filled with more empathy already?
In addition to a lack of consideration for anyone else, there are also intentional acts that are designed to anger us, rather than us just being collateral damage. It might be said someone definitely deserves to be punished if they are sadistically thinking of doing harm to another person.
However, the same argument can be used again: Is it effective to punish others to alter their behavior or thinking? If our goal is to make someone else not want to do something damaging to another, let’s consider what happens when they are punished.
I think it’s been fairly well-demonstrated at this point that punishment might temporarily alter behavior, but at best, it only goes so far to be effective when someone thinks they cannot get away with something.
I didn’t make the change in my life to hold onto anger less because I was primarily concerned about external consequences; the punishment I was administering to myself was more than adequate.
For better or worse, people have to come to these conclusions for themselves. This isn’t to say we should let people get away with whatever they want and live in a lawless land. For people who continually demonstrate they are incapable of change and living in a civilized society, it might be the best thing for them to be removed and imprisoned.
So can any good come from anger? Perhaps, if it inspires one to make a change in their life, like leaving a toxic relationship or setting new boundaries with others. The change has to be something we come to of our own accord, however, since no change forced upon us is likely to stick around.
While it’s possible anger may spur some external or internal change in our own lives, one universal negative side effect is taking that anger out on another person.
Unless someone is in immediate physical danger, it’s unlikely to help to take our hostility out on the perpetrator. And even then, it’s usually not anger spurring us on at that point; it’s an instinctual flight-or-fight reaction. Later, we might come up with a story to tell ourselves about the person committing the act, which might activate anger, but usually in the moment it’s an inner impulse to correct the situation.
As long as we continue to have some secret satisfaction that stems from holding onto hostility toward either ourselves or others, we’ll continue seeking a distorted vision of justice based on revenge.
Once we wake up to the fact that harboring residual anger is causing everyone additional pain, we can then begin to make the choice of what comes next. Without this realization, we are at the mercy of our negative emotions.
“Indulge” from the aforementioned quote is an appropriate word for letting ourselves be gripped in the passion of anger because it is a vice. Much like over-indulging in a tasty treat, we might think the dessert will make us feel good, and perhaps it temporarily will, but afterward we’re sure to feel like dogsh*t.
When we come to realize anger hurts ourselves and others, it’s not likely to just disappear immediately. This realization, however, does make it easier to let go of it, when it’s sure to arise in our daily interactions.
I still get angry even after becoming aware of all of this, but I’ve noticed it doesn’t linger nearly as long. When I realize that I’m holding onto a story I’m telling myself that keeps me upset, it’s much easier to change the channel and move on.
First is the realization that being angry doesn’t make us feel good, next is the conscious decision to alter our thoughts and behavior to experience it less. And in the end, won’t we all feel a bit better without so much anger?