Anger is a tricky subject for me because of the behavioral beliefs associated with anger passed on from the culture I was raised in. In friendly conversations and even in some not-so-friendly conversations, there are times I’ve come up against a wall of ignorance that shakes me to my core. Often times I find I can laugh things off but for those other times, I find myself doing my best to sit with my anger mindfully – even if I’m “Doing It Wrong Mindfully.”
How do you deal with anger mindfully?
I’ve yet to read a phrase in Buddhism that tells me not to accept what I am feeling. (That doesn’t mean I act on the feeling though.) My first task is just to accept that this is what is now. There are numerous mental ways you can teach yourself to accept difficult feelings; every culture seems to have a phrase or teaching for this task.
On the Mindfulness & Psychotherapy blog, Dr. Elisha Goldstein describes the method RAIN:
“R” is to recognize when a strong emotion is present. “A” is to allow or acknowledge that it is indeed there. “I” is to investigate and bring self-inquiry to the body, feelings, and mind, and “N” is to non-identify with what’s there.
You can read more details about RAIN here.
But isn’t having anger bad for you in the long run?
Daniel Goleman, science journalist for the New York Times and author of the popular book Emotional Intelligence, writes in “Hot To Help: When can empathy move us to action?” that “compassionate empathy” or “empathic concern” leads to “constructive anger.” According to Goleman, this type of anger is good for you.
Compassionate empathy or empathic concern means not only do we see how the person sees things and feels in the moment, we can also be inspired to spontaneously help them if we sense the need. This is the fuel that fires constructive anger. This type of anger can motivate us to work with others to make the world a better place. And this type of anger, is what shows when we react negatively to injustice or suffering.
Goleman’s ideas about constructive anger and empathy are based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, whose work is also the basis for the popular Fox TV show, Lie To Me.
Using the American outrage over the government’s response in the Hurricane Katrina crisis as an example, Goleman explains the two other types of empathy commonly seen existing in human nature. [link]
The first and perhaps one of the most interesting of the bunch is cognitive empathy. Goleman explains cognitive empathy like so:
Cognitive empathy, means that we can understand how the other person thinks; we see his point of view. This makes for good debaters, sales people and negotiators. On the other hand, people who have strengths in cognitive empathy alone can lack compassion – they get how you see it, but don’t care about you.
Goleman writes that “narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths—can actually put cognitive empathy to use in hurting people,” and that those people “can be slick with their arguments but have a heart of stone.”
The second type of empathy is emotional empathy. The person who experiences this type of empathy feels the same physical emotions felt by the person suffering. This type of empathy is especially found in people who work with the sick and impoverished.
The downside of this empathy is that the person may be unable to manage their own distressing emotions and therefore be afflicted by “paralysis and psychological exhaustion.” And at its extreme, this affliction can lead to indifference in the person.
OK great, it’s “constructive anger.” People still get mad at me cuz I’m angry!
The one thing that seems to cause more anger is when we express our anger with aggression or hostility. Sometimes it’s hard to separate these qualities from our anger and there are times when some of this aggression can be justified; however, that doesn’t mean we have to express it to the other person. If the feeling of anger is strong we can excuse ourselves from the situation. This is our first act of kindness to ourselves. When we feel comfortable and when we feel it is the right thing for us to do, we can go back to the situation and express what has made us so upset.
What if I’m the one dealing with an angry person?
If you are dealing with the angry person, you have every right to excuse yourself from the situation too. You do not have to be in the person’s company while they are angry.
First understand that your response to their anger is just that, your response. It has nothing to do with the other person. If you want to talk to the person and they are acting out with aggression or hostility, perhaps try the Positive No method – Yes to your values, No to their action, Yes to a compromise.
I’d love to talk to you now (yes to communicating), but I can’t talk to you when you’re angry (no to angry communicating). Do you think you could calm down now so we can talk or will you call me when you calm down? (yes to talking later, calmly).
It’s very rare that someone stops being angry or upset because you tell them too (as opposed to asking), quite often it just makes them more of that something.
Has this helped you? Hopefully is has. Feel free to leave questions and comments below.