NAVIGATING A LOVED ONE’S ANGER

It has been a long, hard day. You rush home to make dinner for yourself and your partner. He/she comes home grumpy after a frustrating day at work, throwing his/her briefcase down with a thump, sighing and ordering you to make a drink. You quickly oblige, knowing that his/her anger could quickly escalate. You rush back into the kitchen to get dinner ready and on the table. Your partner sits down with yet another sigh. You try to make small talk, which is ignored. Immediately, the dinner is criticized as too cold, and you are criticized as a lousy cook. You defend your cooking and yourself, and your partner’s anger escalates. Soon you are both engaging in a screaming match.

Sound familiar? How can you navigate your partner’s anger in a more productive way? Here are some tips:

• As soon as you notice that your partner is unhappy or frustrated, center yourself. Slow down and breathe.

• Remind yourself not to take his/her anger personally.

• Practice “tonglen on the spot.” Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice in which you breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out peace, love and compassion. First do some tonglen for yourself: Breathe in your hurt feelings and the suffering you feel, focusing on where you feel it in your body. Then, breathe out peace and light into that hurt. You can then practice tonglen for your partner – breathe in his/her pain and suffering and breathe out love and compassion for him/her. This can take a very short time, and is very effective in slowing down the force of anger and increasing compassion for yourself and all others.

Our first reaction when we are hurt is to react and defend ourselves. This is a habitual pattern that may take some time and mindfulness to break. When I asked my Buddhist teacher the best way to deal with this unproductive habit, his one word response was “Disengage.” The tips described above can be very helpful in learning to disengage from another’s anger and not react.

I am also reminded of the 70s saying “What you resist persists.” One way to experience this notion is to push one of your hands push against the other one. Notice how this increases the force of energy in both hands. Now, instead of pushing against the moving hand, go with the direction of that hand. Notice how the force dissipates when there is nothing pushing against it. Another analogy I find helpful is navigating a skid: Going in the direction of the skid is what works. If you go against it, you’ll be in trouble.

Similarly, like in the scenario presented at the beginning of this article, if you defend against anger by pushing against it, the force of that anger will increase. Find a way to let your partner’s anger be rather than resisting it. Breathing and knowing that it’s not about you will help. Saying “I’m sorry you had a hard day” may be one way to do it. If that doesn’t work and your partner can’t control his/her anger, you may have to leave the room until he/she settles down. Continue to remember that your loved one is hurting and doesn’t know how to handle it at that moment. When things quiet down, the two of you can work together to come to an agreement as to how to handle anger in your relationship in the future.

Using Anger Mindfully

Many of us, especially those on the spiritual path, tend to look at anger as an entirely negative emotion.  However, anger used mindfully can be extremely positive, powerful and ultimately healing.  Anger is simply energy, and we always have a choice as to what to do with it. Dzogchen Ponlop, in his recent book Rebel Buddha (2010) aptly states:

We usually think of anger … as negative.  Ordinarily, our impulse would be either to cut through it and get rid of it or to transform its intense energy into good qualities like clarity and patience….[T]he  direct experience of our unprocessed, raw emotions can generate a direct experience of wakefulness. These emotions are powerful agents in bringing about our freedom, if we can work with them properly (p. 144).

So, what do we do that that energy?  We are often afraid to feel its raw power, and fear that expressing it will make us seem less than the kind compassionate people we are.  However, using anger mindfully will actually awaken our compassion, starting with compassionate lovingkindness toward ourselves.

In fact, many people who are compassionate toward others do not treat themselves with the same degree of compassion, and are self-critical and often depressed.  It has been said that depression is “anger turned inward.”  One of the major goals in treating depression in psychotherapy and in grief counseling is to help clients feel safe to express their anger, and turn the energy of anger outward.  “Ex-pressing” anger literally means pushing it out, so that it becomes workable and is not a toxic agent against oneself.

Anger in its pure form, without the “additives” of concept and labeling it as a bad thing, is simply energy.  The key is to harness that energy through the use of mindfulness.  Mindfulness enables us to recognize the anger without simply reacting — either spitting it out against another or turning it against ourselves.  By looking at it without reacting, we have the ability to choose to use our anger productively.

The following are some suggestions for using anger mindfully:

  • Notice how anger manifests in your body — is it a burning sensation in your heart?  A cold tight clenching in the pit of your stomach?  A flush of heat in your face or hands?  Become as familiar as you can with your own unique physical “early warning signs” of anger so you can catch its energy without reacting.
  • As soon as you notice the physical sensation of anger, stop and breathe.  Allow the energy of anger to wake you up to what is actually happening at that moment.
  • Give yourself permission to feel hurt, abandoned, scared, frustrated or sad with a sense of compassion for yourself.  Breathe in light, peace and compassion, and breathe out the dark, heavy sensations of anger without judgment, accepting it just as it is.
  • If you notice the anger turning inward against yourself, continue to breathe it out more forcefully.  Use your body to keep the energy of the anger outward — shake it off your hands into the air, stomp it into the ground with your feet  — whatever it takes not to turn that energy against yourself.
  • Be curious.  Ask yourself:  “What is this feeling?  What is it telling me?”
  • Trust your body to tell you the appropriate course of action.  Is there something you need to say to someone who has hurt you, in a way that will forward your own healing and contribute to the growth of the other person and your relationship with him or her?  Is it something you can simply let be, making sure not to turn the anger inward?

As Stephen Levine (1987) eloquently says, “the investigation of anger…leads us directly to the love beneath, to our underlying nature. When we bring anger into the area where we can respond to it, where we can investigate it, where we can embrace it, it emerges into the light of our wholeness….Then anger is no longer a hindrance, but a profound teacher.”

References

Dzogchen Ponlop (2010).   Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom.  Boston:     Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Stephen Levine (1987).  Healing into Life and Death.  New York:  Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

© 2011.  Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC.  All rights reserved.