Turn Anger into a Peaceful Heart

Turn Anger into a Peaceful Heart

Are you feeling cross?

The Practice:
Turn anger into a peaceful heart.


(Note: This JOT is adapted from Mother Nurture, a book written for mothers – focusing on typical parenting situations and gender differences that are experienced by many, though not all, mothers and fathers and by parents in same-sex relationships. Parenting is a complex subject, plus it intertwines with larger issues of gender roles and the long history of mistreatment of women; obviously, society should do a better job of supporting families in general and mothers and fathers in particular, but meanwhile, there are things they can do for themselves; alas, there is no room for these complexities in these brief JOTs; for my discussion of them, please see Mother Nurture.)

Let’s be realistic: it’s completely normal for a mother to get angry with her children. Or with her partner, the in-laws, her clueless boss—or herself. Studies have found that the more children a woman has, the more time she spends with them or doing housework, or the more hassles she has with child care or her kids, the angrier she’s likely to be. There’s no need to feel guilty about anger itself. The real question is, what can you do about it?

On the one hand, anger is a healthy emotion. It shines a bright light on things that should be different—like a child’s incessant whining, a partner’s broken agreements, or some stupid workplace policy that keeps you from your kids—and energizes you to try to change them. Bottling up anger numbs your other feelings as well, and it wears on your health. Acting like you are not mad when you really are is inauthentic and teaches kids to put on a false face themselves—not a good lesson.

On the other hand, anger can be an emotional roller coaster that stresses the body and can create bad feelings for hours. And no other emotion has such an impact on relationships. When Mom or Dad gets mad, that’s scary and often overwhelming for kids since their parents are so big, powerful, and important. In an intimate relationship, frequent anger is very wounding; after a while, anyone would start wanting to step back from a person who’s angry a lot of the time.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy middle path between tight-lipped self-censoring and boiling-over rage.

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Stop Things from Building Up

We usually get mad in two stages. First, there’s the priming: tension, frustration, bodily discomfort, fatigue, gripes, etc., which mount up like a growing pile of dynamite. Then comes the firecracker that sets it all off.

During the priming phase, try to defuse things before there’s a blowup. Here are a few ideas.

  • Don’t overgive. One trick is to imagine asking your future self how you will feel if you commit to taking on yet another task. Another is to adopt the blanket policy of never agreeing to anything until there’s been adequate time to think it over.
  • Blow off steam along the way. Try not to accumulate a residue of irritation from individual interactions.
  • Take a break before reaching the breaking point. Most people become quite frayed by the time they’ve been alone with a young child for three or four hours. Make it a serious priority to find some way, any way, to take a break before the pot boils over.

Understand What’s Making You Angry

When anger arises, there’s typically more to the story. Let’s say it’s Wednesday after work, a mother is in the store with her three-year-old son, and all she wants to do is get home, make some dinner, and relax. But he wants some candy, she says “no,” and he throws a major tantrum. People are staring, and she feels mortified. Somehow, she gets him out of the store and into her car, and then she really yells at him. At that moment, the intensity of her anger is at least a six or seven on a ten-point scale.

But now, let’s change some of the elements of the situation. Suppose it’s a Saturday morning instead, and she’s feeling rested and relaxed. How intense do you think her anger would be in that case? Probably less: maybe one to three on the anger scale. Or suppose that she’s at home, not out at the store, when her son throws his tantrum; no one is watching, and she doesn’t have to care what anyone is thinking. How angry do you think she’d be then? Again, probably less.

Fatigue and embarrassment can amplify feelings by five or so points while having nothing to do with the actual seriousness of a child’s misbehavior. But when the “amplifiers” in life are understood, suddenly, there’s a lot less to be mad about.

Key Ways to Turn Anger into Peace

  • Don’t let things build up-do not overgive, blow off steam as you go along, etc.
  • Understand the thoughts or ways you are perceiving things that are the true sources of your anger.
  • Try to sense down to the softer emotions beneath the anger, like hurt or fear; acknowledge those to yourself or express them to others.
  • If you feel like you’re going to blow up, walk away or call a friend.
  • Get professional help if you are directing anger at yourself or others in harmful ways.
  •  Ask your heart for guidance.

Know Someone Who Could Use a More Peaceful Heart?

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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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