A rude salesperson treats you like dung…or a conniving coworker steals your idea…or your self-absorbed sister ruins yet another gathering…and your blood begins to boil. Your indignation mounts (How dare they?), and soon a rush of anger is sweeping over you. Maybe you hold your tongue, and maybe you don’t. But either way, your adrenaline is pumping and your heart is pounding…your emotions are running hot…and you experience a powerful sense of self-righteousness that’s almost intoxicating.
That’s right—your anger, in its own way, feels good.
If this sounds familiar, you may have an addiction problem—an addiction to anger. And like any addiction, this one can wreak havoc with your relationships, health and happiness.
So how do you break free…so that anger no longer consumes you?
THE ART OF LETTING GO OF ANGER
According to Robert Thurman, PhD, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and coauthor of Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier, anger addiction is common…but there are ways to loosen its grip. “I had a hot temper myself that got me into trouble, so anger is an emotion I had to learn to manage,” Dr. Thurman, a former Buddhist monk, told me in a recent conversation. “It’s when you break free of the cycle of hurt, anger and revenge that you can find inner peace.”
While no one can do the work for you, Dr. Thurman does have some suggestions that will help you address your anger addiction—and the benefits are well worth the effort involved. Here’s how to get started…
Admit that your anger hurts you more than it hurts the person you’re mad at. You are the one who’s exploding so unattractively, damaging your own reputation…or getting stuck stewing inwardly, all your brainpower wasted on rehashing old or minor infractions. You can’t concentrate, can’t relax, can’t sleep. Meanwhile, the source of your ire may be feeling equally angry with you…or he may be carrying on just fine, largely untroubled by your emotional turmoil. Either way, you gain nothing. Admit it!
Acknowledge anger’s power to destroy you. You may think of anger as a helpful emotion that alerts you to a situation that needs changing. “Anger is seductive. It presents itself to your mind as your own helpful energy,” said Dr. Thurman. “Anger seduces you with the thought, ‘This is outrageous! I should explode with fury, and my fiery energy will burn away the obstacle.'” But that’s not what actually happens—as with other addictions, the anger rush is followed by an inevitable crash as you realize that your words or actions did not help you (or anyone).
Dr. Thurman continued: “When you’re inflamed with rage, your good sense goes out the window and you are no longer the master of your thoughts, words and actions. This kind of anger destroys all in its path, not least your own emotional balance.”
For instance, if you’ve merely indulged in an internal rant, you may be left feeling depleted and depressed, realizing that nothing has changed. If you’ve exploded in front of others, you may be filled with regret for the things you said or did. And the consequences can be severe. Anger not only can interfere with professional success and ruin relationships, it also has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and premature death.
Pay attention to your body’s anger cues. You may think that anger surges up without warning, and that this is why you have so little control over it. But that’s simply not true. Anger doesn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere and explode—it arises more gradually than you may realize. The seeds of anger can be found in frustration, but many people were never taught how to catch frustration early and handle it productively before it has a chance to grow into rage.
It’s not too late to learn this skill now—and an excellent way to do so, according to Dr. Thurman, is to practice mindfulness. Being mindful means training yourself to observe, moment by moment, what’s happening within you and around you. To use mindfulness to overcome anger addiction, you need to pay attention to the physical sensations that accompany mounting frustration. For instance, watch for tightness in your throat and chest…stomach upset…a flush of heat. These are common indicators that anger is arising and should be dealt with before you reach the boiling point.
Why does this matter so much? “Since you are not yet truly angry, you still have enough cognitive control to act effectively and influence what happens next in a positive way,” Dr. Thurman said. In other words, while you’re still at the frustration level, your brain is working well enough to allow you to look for good solutions to whatever the problem is. But once that anger rush kicks in, it takes over and your brain takes a break.
Analyze your level of control over the situation. Exactly how you deal with the mounting frustration depends on whether you can influence the actual outcome…or whether the only aspect you can control is your own reaction to your circumstances.
Let’s go back to that rude salesperson, conniving coworker or self-absorbed sister we talked about earlier. Instead of getting mad, consider what other options you might have that could improve your situation. Maybe you want to simply take your business to a different store or write a calm, carefully considered memo to your boss. Maybe you want to practice treating your sister with what Dr. Thurman calls lovingkindness, a spirit of boundless friendship. She may be so gratified when you express interest and empathy instead of irritation that she acts in a less obnoxious fashion! Think about your real goals and how to achieve them, rather than just spewing your anger all over.
Now suppose the situation is completely beyond your control—for instance, if you’re stuck in traffic, so there isn’t actually any particular person who is the object of your anger. In this sort of situation, what is best for you is to accept that getting angry won’t help and could even lead you to do something stupid (and lead to a traffic ticket or car crash). Indulging in a road-rage tantrum only feeds your anger addiction without altering the fact that you are still stuck in traffic. In this kind of situation, Dr. Thurman suggested, defuse your anger by thinking up ways to use the time productively (here’s a chance to listen to music you normally don’t have much time to enjoy)…or by counting your blessings (the traffic jam could be the result of an accident, and you are not the person who’s now in an ambulance). When you hone your ability to control yourself, you will no longer be a pawn to your anger addiction.