Pathways to Peace

Appreciate the Anatomy of Anger

by Victor La Cerva, MD


Article #1 in our series
Creating Less Violence
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Victor La Cerva, MD, Mediacl Director of the Family Health Bureau of the State of New Mexico, retired, is the author of two books, a figurehead in the Men's Wellness movement and father of two lovely teenagers. Victor lectures nationally on violence prevention and shares his expertise and experiences with visitors to this segment of Pathfinders.

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Appreciate The Anatomy of Anger

In the way that a gardener knows how to transform compost into flowers, we can learn the art of transforming anger, depression, and racial discrimination into love and understanding.— Thich Nhat Hanh

In our culture, men are encouraged to express their anger. Might makes right, we are told, and righteous anger is so sweet. Men are not encouraged, however, to admit to fear or pain. Big boys don't cry; they are tough, sturdy oaks that feel no pain and fear no one.

If you have grown up male, these messages live in your body. They were passed on to you by your father and other men, more by temperament than by teaching. If you have grown up female, you may have been denied your anger, encouraged to disown it or, when faced with another person's anger, to withdraw, escape, or give in. Our families had many unspoken rules about anger and other strong emotions, and we as children learned them well. Our challenge now is to pass on more inclusive and less violence-provoking messages to the children we are teaching.

The basic violence prevention message about emotions is: All feelings are okay, yet all behaviors are not. Everyone is entitled to the full range of emotional experience. The more we accept our feelings and allow them to move through us, the richer and more peaceful our lives become. So let them flow, and let them go. Any behaviors they trigger in passing are yours to channel. How you express your anger is far more important than the fact that you have it—or, as is more likely, that it has you, firmly in its grasp.

Anger extends along a continuum ranging from irritation to annoyance to fury to rage. Each person has an internal anger meter that is set at a thereshold somewhere along this continuum. A peron whose meter is set at "rage," for example, will express anger by speaking, acting, or moving without restraint: mindlessly violating anything or anyone in the vicinity; or shaming others, if not physically wounding them. At this end of the continuum, anger seeks to dominate the brain, blurring all distinctions between right and wrong action.

Those most vulnerable to rage are children and adults who do not have well-established protective boundaries. Physiological conditions may also play a role. When we are hot, cold, hungry, tired or in physical pain, our threshold shifts, causing otherwise congenial encounters to become a source of irritation.

Is anger good or bad? What one does with the energy of anger may be good or bad, but anger itself simply is. It lives in the body as a million-year-old survival response to life-threatening conditions. To defend itself against annihilation, the body gears up for action: the heart rate increases, respiration deepens, pupils dilate, blood shifts away from the digestive tract to major muscles, and stress hormones as well as blood sugar levels rise. In response, the person will either do battle or take flight. Curiously, the fight-or-flight response—a mechanism that initially helped our species survive—now threatens to destroy us. Our most promising option is to learn new ways of dealing with this energy.

When Anger Gets Stuck

When we hold on to anger, it tends to get stuck inside. More often than not, it surfaces in the form of resentment. Our resentments—which are nothing more than held-back anger that we keep reliving—feed an escalating cycle of vengeance. Here's what happens: we get angry at someone, keep it to ourselves, wait for the person's next move, then pull out our red-stamp resentment collection to justify our onging anger at this person.

Resentments hurt us; they wreak havoc in the body. They also hurt our offspring, because the unresolved, undirected anger is forever on the verge of exploding forth. With the passage of time, anger rooted in the unhealed wounds of one generation spills over onto the next generation.

Beneath most vented anger is a layer of fear and grief. A father I know lost his child in the supermarket and became furious upon finding him. Outwardly, this man expressed anger; inwardly, he had been terrified that something had happened to his child. If we, too, begin getting inappropriately angry, especially if this happens habitually, we would do well to explore the fear or hurt that keeps fueling the angry energy.

Having identified the triggers, we will be able to focus on expressing the emotion that really needs attention, instead of continually venting. Anger tends to arise from one of four causes: an unmet expectation (you ask your child to do something, and she does not respond), an undelivered message (you have something to convey, and the other person either does not hear it or does not permit you to say it), a blocked intention (you are looking forward to a long weekend, and the boss says you have to work, or the car breaks down as you are leaving), or a perceived violation of personal boundaries (you step outside and notice a bunch of teens sitting on your car, or a neighbor's trash is strewn about your property). Never can another person "make" you angry. To the contrary, your feelings of anger are generated by your body, and are therefore your responsibility. The attitude most likely to set the stage for anger is an entitlement view of the world—a sense that other people, and life itself, "should" treat you in a paticular way. This perspective, in conjunction with the stresses of daily life, is almost certain to send sparks flying.

When stuck anger comes to the fore, it is likely to target loved ones. Why? First, because we feel safer and more secure expressing anger to loved ones, as opposed to strangers. Second, frequent contact provides increased opportunities for venting anger. Third, the cumulative effect of a loved one's irritating behaviors can be encumbering and distressing, eventually registering "hot" on our anger meter. Then, too, we may be unconsciously motivated to have our loved ones alter their ways. Anger, in this instance, may signify a secret desire to "get them to change"—a desire that is not doing anyone any good.

To pick up on early signs of anger, tune in to your body. You may feel a tightening of your jaw, or a sensation of heat in your abdomen, or tension in your shoulders or neck. Aware of the wake-up call, stop whatever you are doing and initiate a coping strategy to defuse this potentially destructive force.

Healthy Ways to Cope With Angry Energy

To develop a constructive expresson of anger, allow the feelings to rise to the surface, all the while appreciating the energy of this emotion and your willingness to accept it. Greet it as you would an uninvited guest who has just made his way into your living room. Then right away articulate the anger as honestly as you can: tell the person you are upset with exactly what is bothering you. While explaining the situation, silently applaud your abililty to be honest and direct.

Other healthy ways to cope with anger in the moment include the following:

1   Positive self-talk to help you feel in control.

2   Time out and stepping away from the situation.

3   Tensing and relaxing various muscle groups.

4   Visual imagery directed at seeing the other person as a hurt child.

5   Physical exercise, such as running, jumping rope or walking the dog.

6   Writing in a journal, drawing, painting or working with clay.

7   Using "I" statements, such as "I feel ___ when you ___. And I'd like ___."

8   Sending a "heart flash"—a mutually agreed upon signal reminding the other person of your love.

The goal is to attend to the anger as quickly as possible. With practice, you can become so sensitized to the early signs of anger and so adept at responding to them that irritations and annoyances will no longer escalate into full blown anger.

What to Do When Angry Energy Is Directed at You

When confronted with other people's anger, raise an inner shield or envelope of protective light, and stay centered. Get out of the way of thunderbolts, and keep a safe physical distance at the first inkling of violence. Realize that the vehemence is their stuff, and tell them you know how angry they are. This will at least prevent them from getting angrier to convince you of their ire.

When angry words come your way, listen without interrupting, seek to understand the cause of the upset, then reflect back on what the person had said to you. Call a time-out if needed. Keep your boundaries, and refuse to carry the energy that has been released.

An angry person will often try to provoke anger to create a shared state of temporary insanity. And indeed, anger is infectious. But you can insulate yourself from it by realizing that just as the other person's thoughts generated the fury, their thoughts will dissipate it. All you can do is foster their desire to calm down, and then deal with the underlying practical issue. It is impossible to solve problems when anger is present. So, like Captain Picard in the television series Star Trek advocates, "Shields up, and open a channel!"

Some people mistake the energy of anger for that of life itself. They view hostility as a protective friend and source of vitality. A person consumed with personal grievances knows they are alive. Swept up in their rage, however, they do not know it is destroying their peace of mind and their ability to center on the injustices that exist beyond the confines of their mind.

You cannot fight your anger or control it. But you can, with time and patience, accept your anger, process it, treat it with tenderness and kindness, get to know it, and heal the pain and fears that gave it life. Your anger will then be transformed into a more creative form of energy, or will gradually wither away.

Victor La Cerva, MD

©Victor La Cerva 2000  
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Editors note:

Victor's Pathfinder series offers an opportunity for visitors to understand the roots of violence and to explore the ways of understanding and addressing it at home and work. This begins with your own personal tapestry of internal issues.

Contributions and questions that arise from your personal experience are valued and welcomed.We wish you well on the path and look forward to your participation.
© dwij 2000
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