Blog: Listening to Anger

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

There is a Mahayana Buddhist idea that everything in our experience is part of the path to enlightenment. This is very important to remember when we find ourselves wanting to avoid relating to others because it seems too overwhelming. We must remember that everything that comes up in our experience is workable.

The presence of conflict is one of the reasons many of us decide to stop paying attention. We do this, Trungpa says, “because we feel we might freak out, lose our heads. We are afraid that aggression or depression will become so overwhelming that we will lose our ability to function normally.”

If we can just sit down and take steps to digest our experiences, things will be much easier in the long run. This is much more advisable than running in the other direction and getting ourselves twisted up in the knots of avoidance, denial, and confusion.

One very common thing we discover when we have to be present with others is that we are angry about having to be present. We often find that the reason we did not want to be present in the first place is because we were angry. Anger is the most common of all the emotions that we find overwhelming, and it is also one of the most complex. Robert Thurman’s book, Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins, has many insights on the effect of anger, and I heartily recommend it to you.

There are many relationships we can have to anger. One relationship is the process of drawing on the power of anger as a way to feel more in control or more powerful in the world. This is a whole study unto itself.

Most of us are so programmed to avoid being angry that we miss the fact that sometimes anger is a messenger. Our anger can show us how we have been harmed. It can show us where our boundaries have been violated. We kill the messenger, miss the message, and wind up shut off and shut down when we try to avoid this kind of anger.

Generally speaking, this kind of anger does not occur in a vacuum. If we know we do not use anger as a weapon or as a way to feel powerful, we can trust that our anger is showing us that something is wrong, and we need to listen to that anger. We need to see what it is showing us about how we are being harmed, and we need to be grateful that our anger can break through our denial.

If we look away from this kind of anger and allow others to continue to violate us, we put ourselves in danger. This is one place where denial about our experience can plunge us onto a path toward depression, anxiety, or worse. We cannot afford to not listen to this type of anger. We should be grateful for it, but we cannot be grateful for it if we do not allow ourselves to receive the gifts it offers us.

This is a good moment to remember that everything is workable, and to become aware of what your anger is trying to show you through self-inquiry. This takes courage. This is especially true if your anger is arising in a relationship with someone you don’t want to be angry at, or if you recognize that your anger is showing you that a person you want to believe would not hurt you is hurting you. This is, again, where you cannot afford distraction, denial, or suppression of your experience in any way. You need to listen to what your anger is showing you about the relationship, about your denial or distraction, and about the effect of suppressing the anger.

The truth is, we may be angry for a very good reason. Let yourself know what your true experience is of your relationships, even if you find it difficult, even if you find yourself experiencing anger. Don’t let yourself be distracted. Just let yourself have your experience.

Many Buddhist thinkers have written on the subject of mindfulness. One of the best known is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has written many helpful books on the subject of mindfulness. My favorite concept of his is “Full Catastrophe Living.” He uses this phrase in several of his works. This concept of “Full Catastrophe Living” is marvelous, because it makes it totally impossible for us to look away from our experience. Even if we feel it is a catastrophe.

It can feel catastrophic to look at how you have harmed yourself, or allowed another to harm you, by not allowing yourself to have your reactions or to know about your experience. Again, the task is to pick apart the catastrophe and be as kind to yourself as possible in the process.

By taking responsibility for your reactions, you are not blaming yourself. We often confuse responsibility with blame, which is one reason we shut down and go into denial. Who wants to stay present to get yelled at?

Here, you are learning how to look at your experience without blame, take responsibility for what you are responsible for, and to not take responsibility for what you are not responsible for. This is especially important in examining anger that has been unrecognized or denied, and which is a result of having been harmed.

This last point is very important because one of the ways perpetrators of harm operate is by not allowing those they harm to be angry. They make their victims wrong for being angry. And their victims take responsibility inappropriately for having upset the perpetrator. This dynamic occurs far too often in parent/child relationships or boss/employee relationships where the victim’s “security” lies in staying in the good graces of the perpetrator.

I put “security” in quotation marks, because there is nothing about these kinds of arrangements that provides security for the victims. The victims know this somewhere in their being, but they are afraid to look at how insecure they really are while at the mercy of someone like this. So they go into denial.

Over the course of the week, allow yourself to consider the possibility that it is okay for you to be angry – that your anger is workable. The path back from denial of justified anger is the path we are following now. Further steps on this path are to ask these questions (and you might even want to journal a bit):

Define what you are angry about. Who are you angry at? What happened? How did you miss what was going on? Were you simply unaware? Or were you overriding your “gut”?