Working Through Anger One Breath At A Time
Emily Dickinson wrote: “Anger as soon as fed is dead – ‘Tis starving makes it fat.” In these days of political polarization and the dissolution of relationships based on singular points of difference, it seems on the face of it that anger is quite glutted. On the opposite side of the self-reflective spectrum, anger is looked upon as being wrong or an indication of personal failure. Statements like “I lost control of my anger” or “I was overwhelmed,” are common. For both the path of gluttony and the path of scarcity, the unhelpful assumption is a lack of separation between the emotion of anger and the actions it is seen to support.
Take A Breath: Anger is Ok
Last time I looked in the mirror, talked with friends and relatives, and people-watched through office windows and passing vehicles, I noticed we’re still all human. Remembering that means recognizing we’re all in this world attempting to live lives of meaning and purpose, while doing so in as consistent a way as any of us know how. The initial step on this journey is identifying what’s important to us in any given moment. The means of doing so is the automatic system of emotional valuation.
What our emotional system does is remind us both of our shared humanity and our care for how that humanity shows up in action. Certainly there are variations of depth in our caring, with some situations or moments standing out more than others and at different times changing in intensity and focus. This is due to the way our minds frame our experiences, consider it like the lines on a connect-the-dots puzzle. What we’re concerned with here though are the dots, or immediate emotional judgments.
This immediacy and inherent humanity of our emotional valuing is why, looked at alone, there’s nothing wrong with anger or any other emotion. They just are. You or anyone else is not broken or damaged goods because you get upset about an action or experience. This can be difficult to accept because we’re so quick to connect our feelings with particular behavior, but this fusion does not have to limit our self-reflection, it does not have to lead to condemning our capacity to care about our lives and the world around us.
Take A Breath: Anger Is Not All You Are
The immediate danger of looking at anger as bound to particular behavior is how easily it then becomes to define the whole of who you are by a single internal reaction. I’ve lost count the number of times someone has said “I’m just an angry person.” When caught up in the moment, when not pausing to reflect, when not taking a breath and remembering the width and depth of our humanity, this statement makes a certain intuitive sense. Sadly, it sets the stage for seeing only those times we’ve acted in ways outside of the best versions of ourselves. It removes the branches of our individual life-trees and leaves only a long stump of bitterness and regret.
Pausing to take a breath is the first step towards mindfully reflecting on ourselves as whole people, possessed of many thoughts, emotions and a near-infinite potential for behavior. Doing so can be done by following basic instructions:
- Identify the feeling and say it out loud or to yourself, using the affirmation: “I’m feeling angry (or any other emotion) and I’m ok.”
- If able and safe to do so, close your eyes and take a breath, holding it for a brief moment and then letting it go
- Repeat step 1 and 2 while noting all the other thoughts clambering for attention as they speed by your awareness
- When caught up in one or more of those thoughts and emotions, calmly bring yourself back to a focus on the breath and the affirmation
- With each breath, be aware of how you are observing these thoughts and emotions but are not bound to them, for they pass you by and you remain
Take A Breath: Release
Pausing before further action does not mean you no longer care about what triggered you. Breathing is not a replacement for engaging in an effort to change what is considered unhealthy or a violation. There is the world and there is the way we hope the world, or even just our little part of it, would be. Being angry is a reminder of that hope. What mindful reflection provides us is the space to release our automatic or habitual behaviors and explore ways to engage that reflect the best versions of ourselves.