Thursday, November 05, 2009

Managing Anger

There is a popular idea that managing anger requires expressing it in order to “defuse” or “ventilate” it, but that has never really worked for me. The more I talked about anger the larger my anger became. Other lifestyle changes have altered me such that anger is no longer a measurable part of my life, so dealing with it is no longer an issue, but I came across a statement in a crime novel by Robert B. Parker the other day that I think is pretty much precisely right.

“Anger doesn’t have to be expressed. It is enough to know that you’re angry, and to know why, and not to lie to yourself about it.”

The pitfall, of course, is thinking that one can always manage that by oneself. I suspect it is a very rare person who can reliably manage that without assistance.

Notice two principles that are embodied in that, though; self examination and honesty with one's self. Are there any two principles that are more fundamental to recovery?

I had a friend many years ago, a retired Merchant Mariner named Ziggy. He would use the example of driving on the freeway and getting cut off by another driver. “That guy made me angry,” he would say, and then add, “But think about it. He didn’t. He just cut me off. I made me angry.”

His point, and I think it was well taken, was that anger comes from within and needs to be dealt with at its source. The driver who cut me off cannot come back and make me “unangry” the solution lies within me. When I attempt to resolve my anger by addressing the person or event that “caused” that anger am lying to myself, and whenever I do that things get worse, not better. Resolving anger is an inside job.

That’s why “talking about my anger” never helped me in the past; I wasn’t talking about my anger. I was talking about things outside of myself. I was blaming. I was justifying my anger, and of course that made it bigger.

When, instead, I can look at that event and ask, “What did that trigger inside me that made me angry?” then I can deal with that inside of me that was triggered. When I do that, the anger dissolves.

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