What’s new about anger? Everything and nothing. You will feel angry over and over in your life. Each time it will be your familiar anger, which may come to feel old, tired, and boring. But each time it also will be new and compelling—as if you’ve been charged with energy to change the world.
Here’s one big truth about anger; it will come around again.
Here’s another: when doing anger management, it’s helpful to develop awareness of your usual triggers because if you see it coming, you may have a better chance to handle your anger in ways that are less embarrassing or destructive.
Here’s a third. This one I like to tell my clients and students: One good thing about having anger problems is that—and you can count on this—you will get many opportunities to work on your anger in the future, because it won’t be long until your anger visits you again (and again).
To summarize: Anger is repetitive; it’s good to develop self-awareness of your personal triggers; you will be presented with many opportunities to deal with your anger differently.
What follows is a slight revision of a post from seven years ago.
The speedometer reads 82 miles per hour. The numbers 8 and 2, represent to me, a reasonable speed on I-90 in the middle of Montana. Our speed limit signs read eight-zero. So technically, I’m breaking the law by two miles per hour. But the nearest car is a quarter mile away. The road is straight. Having ingested an optimal dose of caffeine, my attention is focused. All is well.
In my rear-view mirror, I notice a car slowly creeping up on me from behind. He gets a little to close to my rear bumper, and then slowly drifts into the left lane past me, lingering beside me and edging ahead. Then, with only three car lengths between us, he puts on his blinker and drifts in front of me. Now, with no other cars in sight, there’s just me and Mr. 83 mph on I-90, three car lengths apart.
An emotion rises into awareness. It’s anger, from a distance. I see it coming slowly, as if it’s in the rear-view mirror of my brain. At this distance, it’s only annoyance. I feel it and see it coming and immediately know it can go in one of three directions: My annoyance could sit there and remain unpleasant, until I tire of it. If I provide it with oxygen, could rise up and blossom into full-blown anger. Or, I can send it away, leaving room for other—more pleasant—thoughts and actions.
That’s not to say annoyance and anger is wholly unpleasant. Part of me likes it; part of me feels so damn aggrieved and indignant and justified.
All this self-awareness is fabulous. This is the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.
Without moving or speaking, “Hello anger,” I say, to myself, in my brain.
In this sweet spot, I experience expanding awareness, a pinch of energy, along with unfolding possibilities. I love this place. I love the strength and power. I also recognize anger’s best buddy, the behavioral impulse. This particular impulse (they vary of course), is itching for me to reset my cruise control to 84 mph. It’s coming to me in the shape of a desire—a desire to send the driver in front of me a clear message. Isn’t that what anger, in its behavioral manifestation, aggression, is all about—sending a message?
“You should cut him off,” the impulse says, “and let him know he should give you some space.”
The sweet spot is sweet because it includes the empowered choice to say “No thanks” to the impulse and “See you later” to anger.
Now I’m listening to a different voice in my head. It’s smaller, softer, steadier. “It doesn’t matter” the voice whispers. “Let him move on ahead. Revenge is only briefly sweet. Those who seek revenge should dig two graves.”
I smile remembering an anger management workshop. With confidence, I had said to the young men in attendance, “No other emotion shifts as quickly as anger. You can go from feeling completely justified and vindicated, but as soon as you act, you can feel overwhelmed with shame, regret, or embarrassment.”
One participant said, “Lust. Lust is like anger. One second you want something more than anything, but the next second you might wish you hadn’t.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
There are many rational reasons why acting on aggressive behavioral impulses is ill-advised. Maybe the biggest is that the man in the car wouldn’t understand my effort to communicate with him. This gap of understanding is common across many efforts to communicate. But it’s especially linked to retaliatory impulses. When angry, I can’t provide nuance in my communication; I can’t make it constructive.
The quiet voice in my brain murmurs: “You’re no victim to your impulses. You drive the car; the car doesn’t drive you.” That doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes the voice in my head speaks in analogy and metaphor. It’s a common problem. I want straight talk, but instead I get some silly metaphor from my elitist and intellectual conscience.
But here’s what I get. I get that my conscience is telling me that this sweet spot is sweet because I get to see and feel my self-control. Not only do I see my behavioral options, I get to see into the future and evaluate their likely outcomes. I get to reject poor choices and avoid negative outcomes. I’m not a victim of annoyance, anger, or aggressive impulses. I make the plan. I drive the car.
The other driver is now far ahead. I recognize that I could resurrect my anger. I choose to let it go instead.
I haven’t always let go of my anger. In my teen years I developed a temper. I had many sport-related fits of embarrassing anger. I went to psychotherapy. My therapist listened, and helped me grow my better judgment. He said, “I don’t believe in the bowel movement theory of anger control.” That was a little indirect, and interesting. We don’t have to expel it. We can sit with it. We can reflect on it. We can watch it go away. We can put it in the rear-view mirror, or let it pass us by. Using our functional frontal lobes, we can experience the joy of the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.
My anger is like an old, greedy, needy, and fickle friend. It has an all-or-nothing mentality. My anger wants attention and power, because it values power over long-term happiness.
Anger is also a source of energy; it can fuel us to be assertive, to fight injustice, to be clear on our values. Anger has its place, and is sometimes a useful partner: a partner whom we should keep in the passenger seat, never letting it get behind the wheel and drive—even on a wide-open Montana highway.