|All my life, I’ve had a temper, and three years ago, when the stress of anger precipitated a debilitating attack of ulcerative colitis that left me wishing I was dead, I learned the high cost of not knowing how to cope with it. Now I know, and it’s easier, but it’s not easy.
Anger is a natural reaction, and it’s been selected for in our evolution because it’s useful: it drives us to instinctively and autonomously attack, or flee, with all the energy our adrenaline can bring to bear. When the anger is prompted by an attack on us, or on a loved one, even by a larger and more lethal creature, this ‘violent defence’ strategy has proved to be more successful for our species’ survival than rolling over or ‘playing possum’.
When the cause of our anger is chronic, our instinctive and autonomous response is to flee, to put physical distance between us and the cause of our stress. This is nature’s way of coping with overpopulation — when the stresses of proximity get to a certain threshold, we naturally spread out. That’s why nature creates buffer zones between ‘tribes’ and ‘flocks’ of wild animals, so there is some flexibility in the area occupied by each. When there is stress in the tribe but there is no room left to expand, nature assesses that we need to thin our numbers, and some other autonomous processes kick in: fertility drops, and if that isn’t enough, suicide rises, or disease exploits the excess density, or in the worst case scenario, when all else fails, aggressiveness increases, internecine ‘war’ breaks out, death rate rises, and parents eat their young. Nature, the self-regulator of all-life-on-Earth, always bats last, and will do whatever it takes to restore the balance of each species to levels that are optimal for all creatures in the ecosystem.
A few species, including our own, will, under certain circumstances, wage war on neighbouring tribes instead of resolving their overpopulation (relative to available resources) problems internally. This stress response requires a high level of social communication, coordination and cooperation, and hence generally only occurs among the most ‘intelligent’ species. It may well be an unintended consequence of the evolution of large brains (there’s some evidence that symbolic language, and agriculture, and civilization are likewise unintended consequences of the development of intelligence — like corvids, we developed large brains because we needed them to survive in environments where we were competing with stronger, fiercer species). But although the capacity to wage war on neighbours was probably an unintended consequence of our growing brains, it was an evolutionary success, it ‘worked’ for the warring tribes, so it is still with us.
The problem with this evolutionary success is that it is very destabilizing over long periods of time. War, and the anger that provokes it and which it in turn provokes, can seethe and erupt again, as opposing factions remember and plot revenge. While constant competition and conquest may ‘succeed’ in the short term in evolutionary terms, in the long term they can lead to chronic violence and stress that is debilitating to the health of all, and can, if too ‘successful’, lead to reduction in ecological diversity and hence an unsustainable weakening of the entire ecosystem’s resilience and evolutionary adapatability. Our modern civilization is the model of such catastrophic and fragile ‘success’.
But back to anger on the personal level. Anger is often part of a complex set of emotions that includes fear and grief. Despite what some religions may say, we can’t learn to not be angry — anger is a successful evolutionary trait that has been part of us for millions of years. It is part of who we are. It’s perfectly healthy, natural, and an inevitable part of living. It is often useful. We can learn to process or channel it in more constructive ways, and to realize and acknowledge and understand it, but we can’t (and shouldn’t) stop it from happening, and if we deny or sublimate it, we can make ourselves ill.
Here’s the process that I have tried very hard to follow, since my illness, each time I get angry:
- I respond naturally, immediately and ‘violently’ in a way that won’t harm anyone or immediately escalate the situation: It is completely natural to respond instanty and viscerally to a situation that provokes anger. I don’t attack the perpetrator, but neither do I sublimate the anger. I find an immediate ‘violent’ physical outlet — vigorous exercise, a punching bag, yelling out loud, crying. My body is telling me to discharge the anger in a physically ‘violent’ way, and I listen to it and do what it advises. I’m not going to get ill again by locking the anger up inside.
- I tap the energy of the anger to motivate myself to act. Even after the physical discharge of step 1 above, there is still energy. I am at heart lazy, cowardly and inclined to procrastinate. If I don’t ‘save’ some of that energy to do something to address the cause of the anger, I will end up doing nothing. That is likely to result in a recurrence of the problem, either towards me or some other victim.
- I sleep on it. I’ve learned that much of our ‘intelligence’ is subconscious, and that (once I’m exhausted from step 1) it is helpful to sleep and let my subsconscious process what has happened. I usually awake with a better understanding of what has happened and what to do about it.
- I try to understand what motivated the offense. I’ve always believed that people do things for reasons that are often not obvious, and that you can’t change behaviour until/unless you know what that reason is. Perhaps it’s ignorance, or stupidity, or the influence of alcohol. Often it’s been provoked by some feeing of anger, fear, pain or grief (anger is often a mask for pain and grief, I’ve learned) within the perpetrator, that may have nothing to do with me.
- I try to protect myself against recurrence and escalation of what caused the anger in me. That usually means staying away, for a short term, from the person(s) whose actions prompted my anger, “shunning” them. Giving myself time and space to deal with the anger, rather than exposing myself to more of it too soon.
- I usually talk with others to develop a strategy to get real behaviour change from the perpetrator. That involves getting the perpetrator to do three things, while letting them save face (if you rub their face in it, you’ll just perpetrate, redirect or escalate the problem): (a) get them to appreciate, at least tacitly, that what they did caused you justifiable anger, (b) get them to take steps to mitigate the harm that they caused you, (c) get them to take steps to prevent recurrence of whatever caused your anger. It’s almost always best to involve others in this — they are more objective, bring different ideas and perspectives, and can sometimes be a “go-between” to achieve each of these three things.
- I work very hard to avoid prolonging or escalating the problem. This is really hard to do — we have a propensity to want to get back at whoever caused us anger, to turn the tables on them, to victimize them. Revenge is sweet, but it is usually unhelpful, and often dangerous. I also avoid the temptation to get people to ‘gang up’ on the perpetrator (also a natural temptation). Choosing sides is a recipe for escalation, which is usually (alas not always) a bad idea. Fortunately for me, I hate violence, lawyers and conflict, so this step is easier for me than for some.
- I consider whether it makes sense, as at least part of the solution to the problem, to put physical distance between me and the perpetrator. Our autonomic anger/stress response is ‘fight or flight’ and sometimes flight is the wiser response. I know some people are just (to me anyway) naturally vexatious, and I try to avoid events where they’ll be present. If the cause of anger is in your home or neighbourhood, it may sometimes be wise to move somewhere else.
- When I have done everything that (in consultation with others) can reasonably been done to address the situation (the eight steps above), I then work to ‘let go’ of any remaining anger. This is the hardest step for me. I can’t get the hang of meditation, and I heal slowly. But at least I’m conscious of what remains and when I tell myself I have done everything that can be done, and that to some extent I’ve rectified the situation and reduced the likelihood of recurrence, I am able to ‘let go’ of whatever anger and stress remains. My ‘rational’ side can usually then talk my ’emotional’ side out of its remaining tumult.
- Every once in awhile, I reflect on any unresolved anger in my heart and in my life. The practice I summarize above is new to me, and some of the things that caused me great anger previously in my life are still ‘with me’. I carry them in the calcium in my bones, and in my exhausted and hyperactive immune system. I keep asking myself whether, in five years, these past events that still arouse feelings of anger in me will be, in retrospect, of any importance, or whether I’ll even remember them. That sometimes gives me the perspective to let go of the lingering anger I feel.
I should note that this approach doesn’t always work, even for me, even with practice. But I’ve found it useful.
Here’s how I’ve ‘worked through’ some of the situations that have made me the angriest over the last few years:
- Three years ago, the situation that gave rise to my colitis began when a former employer sent me a notice saying that they had ‘recalculated’ taxes owing on a convoluted tax deferral scheme they had put in place for senior management, and as a result I would have to write a cheque to the tax department, within a month, for a six-figure amount. They refused to acknowledge that it was their error, or provide any bridge financing to those like me who didn’t happen to have that kind of cash sitting around. I just lost it. In retrospect, yes, they were incompetent and insensitive, but my recommendations to mitigate their error (step 6) were ignored. Under the circumstances, I should have realized that when you’re dealing with giant corporations, you had better beware because they are utterly inflexible and often incompetent, and they protect their own. Instead of letting my stress over this ruin my health, or even thinking about suing them, I should have taken sensible steps to minimize the damage to me, and chalked it up as a learning experience. I screwed up at steps 7 and 9. But I’ve learned a lot in the process, including how to deal with stress, and this latent disease, much better.
- About ten years ago, a neighbour (farmer) commenced an ill-conceived construction project without any consultation with any of us, and it remains to this day an ugly and divisive eyesore. This individual is basically unhappy and disagreeable, and has a history of bullying and abusive behaviour. He did not repond to reason from any of us, so we simply started excluding him from all neighbourhood activities and communications. Now that I’m retiring and moving away, I’ll be able to put it behind me, but until then I still get angry every time I see it. I will have to use step 8 because I just can’t do step 9.
- At about the same time, a contractor who did incompetent work sent me a bill for twice the amount of the contract, and when I refused to pay (unless he corrected the mistakes in his work) he put a lien on the property. At the preliminary hearing, the judge refused to hear the case and told us to sort it out out-of-court. The lien is still there, and the work that was done has left the room in question uninhabitable for ten years. Our lawyers say it’s impossible to get a lien removed without a settlement. The contractor is an extremely unhappy, unsuccessful and proud individual, and he will fight this to the end of his days, even though total legal bills to date have been twice the amount in question. My error was in realizing that with people like this, step 6 will never work. What I should have done is pay the amount in question into an escrow account, which would have allowed me to lift the lien immediately and get the work done properly by somebody else, and put the onus on him to argue that he should get the escrow account. In that way I would have shelved the problem and left it to lawyers to deal with (a form of steps 7 & 8), and then, step 9 would have been easy.
- When I was younger, I got angry often and easily, and almost always felt badly and ashamed afterwards. Now, as I’ve evolved this process, I catch myself as soon as the impulse for anger arises, and start to work on the ten steps above. As a result I tend to get less angry, get angry less often, get less stressed by the anger I do feel, and handle it much more effectively. And some of the anger I held for many years I have let go, because I had done everything that could be done so staying angry was purposeless and unhealthy.
I want to acknowledge that this process can, I think, work well for dealing with anger that results from one-time incidents that are not deeply personal in nature. For recurring or personal incidents (such as those that trauma survivors must deal with) it is probably completely inadequate. There are some good books on coping with trauma, and the anger inherent in trauma, such as Bass & Davis’ The Courage to Heal, and I wouldn’t presume to prescribe any process for anger that is trauma-based.
I’m using the above process, however, to cope effectively with the anger that is part of my unbearable grief for Gaia. And it’s working. It’s led to the constructive projects I outlined in my recent article on my post-retirement plans.
What about you, dear readers? How do you deal with anger? Any secrets you’ve found that help you cope with and resolve anger in useful and productive ways?