NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Anger” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome
“Anger,” Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
Anger: Heaven and Hell
As I emerged from a childhood depression, the first true emotion I felt as a young teenager was Anger. I remember listening to Jimmy Hendrix, loud, a foot away from the speakers so the music rocked my entire body. I remember breaking and tearing things in secret. I remember feeling almost grateful for the Vietnam War because it gave me something legitimate to focus my anger on. Anger was energy, and at that time it may even have been life-saving energy, though looking back I see that it was also imprisoning.
That is the nature of anger. “You will not be punished for your anger,” the Buddha once wrote. “You will be punished by your anger.”
Directly acting out anger is usually destructive. Many of the clients I see act out anger in an attempt to “make the other person feel the way I do.” Even if they accomplish that goal, the mutual understanding they implicitly hope for is seldom, if ever, achieved. Instead, they have an escalating, mutually damaging battle. In psychotherapy settings, various forms of reenacting anger are frequently promoted as beneficial alternatives. In the movie Analyze This, Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro parody therapeutic anger reenactment. Crystal’s character, a psychiatrist, tells De Niro’s, his mobster patient, to “just hit the pillow” when he’s angry. De Niro promptly pulls out his pistol and fires several rounds into Crystal’s office chair. Crystal pauses for a moment, smiles uneasily, then asks, “Feel better?” De Niro shrugs. “Yeah, I do,” he says.
Hitting the pillow is preferable to hitting a person. But even in comedy, it takes more – and less – than that to truly resolve anger. Acting out, venting, and similar ways to “let off steam” sometimes do make us feel momentarily better. More often, they merely amplify the anger and create further barriers to resolving it.
Suppression – holding anger in, “biting your tongue,” “sucking it up” – also has its costs. Anger turned inward long enough leads to depression, injures the body, builds defensive walls between people, promotes passive-aggressive acting out, or surfaces explosively elsewhere, finding an exit like magma in a volcanic eruption.
If we can’t act on anger directly, act it out symbolically, or suppress it without creating further harm, then what is to be done to resolve it?
From Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, I have been learning to relate to anger as if it were a baby in distress, crying for attention. Once I asked one of my young clients, an eight-year-old boy frequently overcome with rage at his teacher, how he would treat this anger if it were a real baby crying. “I’d pick it up and see if it wanted to be held.” And if it still cried? “I’d try giving it a bottle.” And if that didn’t work? “I’d see if it had a poopy diaper.” To deal well with our anger, we need to find out if it needs to be held, needs to be fed. Or has a poopy diaper. Then we need to give it the attention it requires. Only then can we safely bring our grievances to those we are angry with.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in France, members make peace treaties. When they are angry, they agree to let the person they are angry with know about the anger and ask for their help. Within 24 hours, they will meet to try to resolve the conflict. In the meantime, each person commits to working through what baggage he or she has brought to the conflict, so that when they do come together, only the actual issues between them remain. If one or the other is still in a triggered state when they meet, they reschedule, resume caring for the crying baby, and try again within another 24 hours. Sometimes the issues that still remain are hard to work through. But often, resolution is as simple as clearing up misunderstanding and rendering an apology for unintended suffering. People who work with anger in this way have a collaborative peace process instead of an escalating battle nobody can win.
In my therapy practice, I condense the peace process using a technique borrowed from the writings of Harville Hendrix, a well-known couples counselor. At the beginning of a couples or parent/child session, I explain that in this conversation each person will have a chance to fully state his or her grievance: one will speak while the other listens actively, and then they will reverse roles. Next, I ask the listener to get into a state of openness to prepare for taking in what the speaker says without reacting, withdrawing, disagreeing, or defending, even when something feels hurtful or sounds “wrong.”
Then the speaker speaks. Sometimes there is recollection of a longstanding pattern of dissatisfaction. Sometimes old injuries, never healed, are brought forth. Sometimes an argument that took place in the car on the way to therapy, or in the waiting room, continues. As the speaker tells his or her story, the listener mirrors it back, one manageable chunk at a time, checking to make sure he or she got it. The speaker continues the narrative only when each chunk is fully understood. This speaking/listening/mirroring/validation process continues until all the important parts of the story have been heard and understood.
Finally, the listener summarizes it all, making a kind of intellectual sense of it. “So, now that I hear how you experienced what I did or said, I can understand why you are angry.” If possible, the listener also empathizes. “Putting myself in your shoes, I would be angry, too.” Knowing that they will soon have an opportunity to present their points of view, listeners feel freer to respond with compassion. Often an apology follows. “I am sorry that what I said and did hurt you. I didn’t mean for things to happen this way. I don’t want to cause you pain.” Tears sometimes come. Something has shifted.
After the speaker has been heard, understood, and empathized with, it is his or her turn to actively listen. The process concludes when each party has been both speaker and listener.
The mutual understanding and caring encouraged by this process starts the building of a solid base for conflict resolution. Over time, practicing the peace treaty and active, empathic listening creates a durable relationship container that can hold the sometimes violent feelings that occur between people.
Similar techniques of conflict resolution have been used by pioneer psychotherapist Carl Rogers, by founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication Marshall B. Rosenberg, and by many others. They are practiced in counseling settings, but also in areas of great historical conflict such as the Middle East, Latin America, and Ireland, with the result that although some racial or political hatred may remain, the participants see each other as individuals suffering just as they have suffered. Again, something has shifted.
Anger can feel empowering. But its resolution is a liberation. Author Ken Feit illustrates the difference with this story. “Once a samurai warrior went to a monastery and asked a monk, ‘Can you tell me about heaven and hell?’ The monk answered, ‘I cannot tell you about heaven and hell. You are much too stupid.’ The warrior’s face became contorted with rage. ‘Besides that,’ continued the monk, ‘you are very ugly.’ The warrior gave a scream and raised his sword to strike the monk. ‘That,’ said the monk unflinchingly, ‘is hell.’ The samurai slowly lowered his sword and bowed his head. ‘And that,’ said the monk, ‘is heaven.’”