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The Gift of Anger


Thursday, November 8, 2007

If there is one thing that plagues us mortals on the psychological front, it is the human emotion of anger. Too often, we want to flee from the Red-Eyed Monster, or wrestle him to the ground. Both strategies only leave him strutting about like a puffed-up, flight-suited George W. declaring victory in a never-ending war.

Michael Seabaugh
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Michael Seabaugh

If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise.” This excerpt is from the book Anger, by the influential Vietnamese Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh. It was serendipitously handed to me this past week by a patient, and it reminded me of something I needed to be reminded of: Anger is not a monster; it is organic.

We can treat our anger like garbage that needs to be thrown out, or we can recycle it. The first action would result in creating a bigger pile of anger, and thus more garbage for us and those with whom we live to deal with; while the second action creates compost-to use one of Hanh’s favorite metaphors-and compost can transform us and make our relationships fertile.

Hanh points out that we are never angry in a vacuum. We have seeds of anger within us, but they always get activated in the context of a relationship. He also reminds us that happiness is never an individual matter when one is in a relationship. As I often tell distressed couples: If one of you is angry then the relationship is angry. In order to deal with our anger in a productive, transformative way, according to Hanh, we have three responsibilities:

The first one is to always inform your mate that you are angry, that you are suffering. He instructs that one should do this within a 24-hour deadline, for anger kept at bay, denied, or distracted will turn to poison.

The second obligation is to communicate your anger non-reactively, from a place of calm. This often requires going away after the inciting incident and calming the mind, taking care of our anger as we would a “suffering baby.” Hanh strongly suggests Mindfulness Meditation as a way of doing this. This makes sense, as it focuses you in the present, where there is no past full of anger-stirring regrets, no future with its anxiety-stirring uncertainties.

This is the obligation that I see most people having the greatest difficulty with. Reactive escalations of anger are all too common with suffering couples. It is important to set up rules where anger is always calmed by some form of effective “time out” before it is addressed. And, since most of us are exquisitely sensitive to the mood states of our partners, it is only decent to tell the other that you are angry, that you want to “do your best” with this, and that you would like to make a date to sit down and discuss it when the angry one is calm and the angering one is receptive. I also think that the angry person has the further obligation to investigate where their own seeds of anger may be, and come back to the discussion with that greater perspective.

The third obligation Hanh proposes is that we must ask for help with our anger. As he states, pride has no place in intimate communication. Are we stirring our anger based on wrong perception? If so, we need to ask for help to clarify that. When you return to the person who has angered you and ask for their help, you have shunned pride and have transformed your “enemy” into your collaborator.

The patient who handed me Hanh’s Anger could not have known that I had spent that very week in a vain wrestling match with the Red-Eyed Monster, nor that so many of my patients were involved in similar battles (strange how these synchronicities appear in my profession!). It was a reminder to me of how we can be fortuitous angels in each other’s lives, somehow instinctively knowing which acts of generosity are needed.

The received wisdom from our fellow travelers: If only we will listen, we will be gifted. And it is, after all, only right to recycl

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at healthspan@mac.com and visit his Web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information.

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