How to Soften Anger with Tender Mindfulness
Anger is complex, isn’t it? You want a peaceful world, but you don’t always feel peaceful inside.
Sometimes your anger burns so strongly that you explode, and then find you’ve made matters worse. Other times, you try to restrain your fury.
But what happens when you bury displeasure inside of yourself, especially if you do so consistently? Research shows that anger, when overly expressed or suppressed on a regular basis, can damage your physical or emotional health.
Do You Have a Complex Relationship with Anger Too?
I have a complex relationship with anger.
It can be hard for me to get in touch with wrathful feelings towards those who have harmed me in unmentionable ways. I explain away the emotion using an intellectual understanding of compassion, and don’t feel any body sensations at all. So it sits in my physical form like a time bomb.
I can go for long periods of time without feeling much anger. But when I’m triggered, an intense fume rises up, seemingly out of nowhere. Although I get over small things quickly, big ones can last for days. My mind argues my case in an unceasing monologue. Until it’s done, and then it’s done.
I fracture easily, so other peoples’ aggression feels enormous to me. As a result, I feel averse to conflict. But, ironically, when I feel on fire, I can be the very person that stirs the pot.
How is anger for you?
Yikes! Spiritual Warnings About Anger
I come from a spiritual tradition that strongly opposes anger. It’s said, if you indulge in anger for any amount of time, without making reparations, you’ll go to the Buddhist version of hell. And, a moment of fury can wipe out eons — yes, eons folks — of good karma.
The philosophers of the world offer a similar message about anger. For example,
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. - Mark Twain
Enough to make you shake in your boots, right? What’s a normal human being to do?
Let's look at ways you can soften anger, without turning it against yourself or dumping it on someone else.
What I Know About Anger
I'm not an angry person. But right now, I’m dealing with exasperating circumstances in my life that make me boil at times. I confess, I haven’t been a perfect angel. I've vented a time or two. But I also see these provocations as a chance to learn how to walk through the fire without getting burned.
Given these provocative times, I want to update what I understand about anger and how to work with it without making things worse. I hope this personal exercise might benefit you too.
So here we go, what I know about anger:
We’re emotional beings so difficult emotions will naturally arise within us, especially when we don’t get what we want or we get what we don’t want — for ourselves or others.
It doesn’t help to judge yourself for feeling this form of distress. We don’t have control over what arises in our mind. You only have control over how you respond to it, and often not even that, unless you dedicate yourself to learning how to work with your mind and emotions. How we respond, will shape what arises in the mind in the future, however.
If you suppress your anger, you’ll stay stuck emotionally and you may get sick physically. Many people feel averse to conflict and reluctant to express vexation, especially those who tend to express the first three of the five personality patterns. Read about the Five Personality Patterns.
If you indulge your anger, you'll strengthen your propensity to feel and express it, which will not lead to happiness. That's basic brain biology.
Some people are dominated by anger and aggression. They need to take specific steps to tone it down. Read about the aggressive pattern in the Five Personality Patterns.
Because angry feelings often arise when you don’t get what we want or you get what you don’t want, it can be an opportunity to look at your attachments and see if you can soften them. I think I need to read this again: The True Meaning of Non-Attachment and How It Sets You Free.
Often, anger is a sign that your boundaries have been violated. So it can also be an opportunity to accept yourself, honor your boundaries, and stand up for yourself — ideally with clarity rather than aggression.
Many times a current anger is compounded by wounds from my childhood. I know it's up to me to soothe my inner child instead of reacting from that space.
Even strong emotions don't last forever. I felt a surge of irritation over an incidental event yesterday. I chose not to respond while I felt indignation as I knew it would only fuel further negative interactions. The anger dissolved after 30 minutes or so. I was able to let go and move on because honestly this incident was not worth my time and energy. When the hurt is profound, anger lasts much longer for me. It comes and goes in waves, but it's still not a solid experience. When it's this strong, it's not easy to work with at all, but if I don’t feed it, the distress lessens over time.
The practice of putting myself in someone else's shoes gives me perspective, which may not dissolve my angry feelings entirely, but can certainly soften them considerably.
Interdependence and past karma influence what occurs in our life. Nothing is ever one person's fault, so I take a second look when I see myself caught up in blame. This doesn't negate responsibility for harmful actions, but it gives me a broader view as to why they may have come about.
Even if you understand the mechanics of anger from a spiritual perspective, that can remain a mental experience. You still need to learn how to work with the energy of anger when it arises.
As much as we might not like it, pain and hurt occur in life. When we feel ready, and not at the expense of repressing angry feelings, it can help to ask, "What can I learn from this?"
You Can Soften the Knots of Anger
The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how we all have “knots” of anger (and other emotions) in our consciousness that are called internal formations. These knots are created when someone treats us unkindly and we think, feel, or respond with aggression. As you imagine, these knots can begin very early in life and then grow stronger and stronger each time we respond with outrage or buy our distress inside. Gradually, these knots influence our behavior more and more, so in a very real sense, we’ve lost our freedom.
Thich Nhat Hanh says we can heal and transform these knots through the practice of mindfulness. He doesn’t recommend venting anger, by screaming or hitting a pillow for example, as this reinforces the knot.
If you'd like to learn how to develop mindfulness, read: 21 Meditation Tips You Need to Know As a Beginner.
It’s good to know this, but please remember you can only do your best with it. Don’t judge yourself if you end up venting because you cannot contain the intensity of your feelings. However, if you’re hurting yourself or someone else, please reach out to supportive friends, family, or a therapist.
Learning not to vent is a practice that takes time. Make this your aspiration and do your best, but don’t beat yourself up if you fail sometimes.
Don't Fight Anger, Embrace It with Tenderness
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us not to fight anger or suppress it, but to recognize it with mindfulness and embrace it with awareness and tenderness. Don’t be afraid of the emotion, learn how to befriend it instead.
Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger. - Thich Nhat Hanh
You might find it difficult to smile at your anger. I certainly do, sometimes! But that’s okay. Just notice and accept the difficulty while doing your best to remain present with tenderness.
Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger. - Thich Nhat Hanh
These are the 3 steps, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends:
Recognize the distress.
Embrace the emotion.
Soothe the anger.
Even when you do this practice, anger may remain for quite awhile. But over time, your internal formations will begin to lessen and your angry response will soften as a result. You'll gradually feel more at peace.
Read more from Thich Nhat Hanh about this practice: Loosening the Knots of Anger with Mindfulness.
Be Patient When Working with Anger
For most of us, anger is one of the most difficult emotions to transform. Some of us are afraid of it. Some of us are ashamed when it comes up. Others indulge in the emotion to dominate others because it's the only way they know how to be.
Whatever your experience, I'm not encouraging you to let it fly, but please don't suppress the emotion either. Instead, examine where you stand in relation to anger, decide how you want to work with it over time, and treat yourself with tenderness as you go forward. With patience and determination, you'll see a difference in time.
A big part of me wants to runaway from the aggravating circumstances in my life, make all these uncomfortable anger sensations go away, and not accept my spiritual responsibility to see them as part of my path.
This aversion doesn’t help, however. I know the best course is to center myself in stillness, observe my thoughts and emotions like a wise woman who’s no longer caught by it all, and give myself plenty of space. And, of course, tenderness too.
What are you secrets for softening anger? I would love to hear.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for Wild Arisings, my twice monthly letters from my heart filled with insights, inspiration, and ideas to help you connect with and live from your truest self. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra