Beware Anger

Beware Anger

Have you been wronged?

The Practice:
Beware anger.

Why?

Anger is tricky.

On the one hand, anger – feeling annoyed, irritated, resentful, fed up, mad, outraged, or enraged – alerts us to real threats, real injuries, and real wrongs that need correcting, and it energizes and fuels us to do something about them. In my family growing up, my parents had a monopoly on anger. So, I suppressed my own, along with a lot of other feelings, and it’s been a long journey to reclaim my interior, including anger, and be able to feel it fully and (hopefully) express it skillfully.

Whether in personal relationships or in the halls of power, people in positions of authority or privilege often tell others that they don’t deserve to be angry, they shouldn’t get so worked up, it’s their own fault, etc. when in fact they have every reason and right in the world to be angry. It is certainly important to know in your heart what is actually happening, how bad it is, what the causes are, and what to do – and decide for yourself how much you want to get or stay angry.

On the other hand, anger:

  • Feels bad past the first rush of it
  • Stresses the body, over time wearing down health
  • Narrows attention, losing sight of the big picture
  • Clouds judgment, driving us to act impulsively, potentially violently
  • Creates and revves up conflicts with others

Anger often hurts us more than it hurts others. I believe there is a saying from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Resentment is like taking poison . . . and waiting for others to die.” This metaphor of a beguiling toxin is also found in a description from early Buddhism: “Anger has a honeyed tip . . . and a poisoned barb.”

How?

Recognize anger. Feel it, don’t suppress it. Explore it and find whatever is valid in what it is telling you. Also look beneath it, to the hurt or sorrow or outrage on behalf of others. Help yourself open to and include all of yourself. Be skeptical of others who try to talk you out of your reactions out of their own self-interest.

Figure out what you are going to do. Usually not easy, to be sure, but try to slow things down so you can think clearly, find your ground, and Take Heart (another, post of mine).

This said, beware – be watchful, be wary – of how anger can work on your mind and hijack you.

Anger comes with justifications. We feel wronged, mistreated, affronted, provoked: “Of course I’m mad. You made me mad. It’s your fault.” I remember once banging my shin on a coffee table and getting so mad I kicked the table . . . as if it were to blame. Anger is seductive, drawing us into cases against others, bills of prosecution, mental emails drafted in bed at 2 am (speaking from personal experience!). Anger fools us, making us feel perfectly entitled to lash out and say or do terrible things . . . from which we eventually wake as if from a nightmare with dismay and remorse at our actions. Anger is – literally – tricky.

And anger is a particularly powerful trickster when it plays out inside and between groups. You can see this at all scales, from cliques in high school to office gossip to politics to war. A group will often form around shared grievances, and then defend and proclaim those grievances no matter what the facts are to maintain its cohesion and identity. Whether on the schoolyard in 5th grade or in nations throughout history, authoritarian leaders have exploited our social primate vulnerability to the appeal of grievance in order to acquire and hold on to power, inflating and even inventing grievances while promising to protect the group and avenge it against those who have wronged it.

It is no small thing to find your own way inside such a group with such a leader. Or to find a way to relate to those in such groups with moral clarity and strength of heart – without being clouded or infected by anger yourself.

In my meditative tradition, I’ve heard it said that anger is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned. In relationships, families, organizations, countries, and the world altogether, there has been so much burning already in our shared human history. Too much burning. Too many minds burned up with anger.

Potency, agency, authenticity, fierce compassion, moral confidence, truth spoken to power: none of these is anger or requires anger. Truly, each one of us can come home to the dignity, authority, and courage to stand in the truth and speak from the heart with passion and power, free of the flames of anger.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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