Working With Anger

StreamofConsciousness Jason Zuckerman

The key to working with anger is understanding the all-important difference between accepting and forcing. Accepting has to do with ‘seeing the way that we are’, and forcing is all about ‘getting things to be the way we want them to be’. So suppose I am stuck in heavy traffic getting angry or frustrated – our usual conception of ‘anger management’ is to say that being angry or frustrated is NOT the way I want to be and so then of course the next thing I do is to try to force myself NOT to be that way. I try to ‘control’ my anger, in other words, because I understand this to be the right thing to do. ‘Forcing’ means anything that I do to get my own way – it can mean any trick or gimmick or method that I have come up with (or have learned) and which is supposed to help me get the result that I want.


Now we all think forcing (i.e. controlling) is great – we don’t see anything wrong with it at all, but the fact of the matter is that forcing anger to go away just plain doesn’t work. I can of course ‘keep my anger under control’, or find some relatively safe way of discharging it, but this is not anything more than window dressing. It is a temporary solution. The underlying situation is not going to change at all – the absolute most that I can do is to temporarily relieve myself from the tension that I am feeling. This seems like a good thing at the time, but I am creating a problem for the future because I am creating a need for myself; in other words, I am conditioning myself to believe that the only way I can cope is by acting out (or discharging) the anger in some way.


‘Allowing’ the anger doesn’t mean lashing out and doing whatever the anger makes me do – that is simply obeying the anger and this too is an example of forcing because I am trying to get things to be the way I want them to be. Anger comes about because I can’t get things to be the way that I want them to be and so I escalate the forcing, the attempting controlling, to a whole new level. ‘Allowing,’ as we have said, has nothing to do with trying to control things to be the way that I want them to be – instead, it has to do with seeing the way things actually are. So ‘allowing the anger’ means seeing how I feel – seeing that I am feeling this way – but also at the same time realizing that I don’t have to ‘do anything’ about this feeling. Realizing that I don’t have to do anything with the feeling (or with the emotional pain, which is another way of talking about it) is a very big thing – it is as if we don’t have a concept for it, its as if it doesn’t seem to exist as a possibility, so when we learn how to ‘allow’ this is a major breakthrough. Normally (almost always) we understand that we have to deal with anger by figuring out what to ‘do’ – which never has anything to do with allowing. Instead of learning that ‘I don’t have to do anything’ – which would be a strength, I condition myself into believing that I am weak, i.e. I am training myself to believe that I ‘have to’ do something or other. ‘Have to’ isn’t good – ‘have to’ means that there is a complete loss of freedom, it means being a slave to some or other reaction, which makes me into a mere ‘reaction machine’.  All I can do is obey mechanical rules. This is really the key to the whole thing. I can either become dependent on (i.e. addicted to) a ‘coping method’ or I can learn to be able to work with the situation without one. In the first case I am fostering weakness in myself, since I am going to find that I will have to do such-and-such when I feel sufficiently bad, and in the second case I am cultivating strength. ‘


Strength’, as we have already said, means that I don’t ‘have to’ do anything – I can react if I want to, but I don’t have to. What we are calling strength basically comes down to the ability to tolerate (or bear) discomfort – if I have inner strength then I am not ruled by the need to do whatever I can to escape from pain, whereas if I don’t, then it is my inability to bear pain that determines what I do and what I do not do. To put this another way, when I am ruled by my need to escape from discomfort I am ruled by my own weakness, and there is no way that this can be a good thing.


Our trouble is that we are confused about this whole idea of strength and weakness – we almost always get it backwards because we think forcing is strong, and accepting weak. So if I see someone who is aggressively confident and good at getting their own way and putting their own ideas and opinions across, I automatically think that this is a ‘strong’ person. But really a strong person is a person who doesn’t need to be constantly asserting their own viewpoint the whole time – it is buried insecurity that makes us forceful and aggressively assertive. If I was secure in myself then I would not need to be so intent on proving myself and I would not need to put so much effort into staying in control the whole time.


Forcefulness is external strength, and external strength always compensates for a lack of inner strength. External strength is all about ‘forcing things to be the way I want them to be’ (i.e. the way I need things to be). The word ‘need’ here shows why it is that external strength covers up for inner weakness – If I need for things to work out a certain way then that means that I am being controlled by my fear, and if I am being controlled by my fear then this is obviously nothing at all to do with strength. A ‘need’ is a weakness – a need is something that controls us, and so the ability to fulfil the need (or obey the need) is in no way any sort of ‘strength’.


Basically, therefore, ‘forcing equals fear’. A classic example of this sort of thing is a man who has to look like ‘the winner’ under all circumstances. This is not such an unusual state of affairs because it is generally assumed that being a man means never looking ‘at a loss’ or weak in any way (it is of course true that no one likes looking weak or in any way foolish but this of course seems to be especially true for men – particular younger men who might not be very secure in themselves. If I go around making sure I always look like a winner (e.g. either cooler, or smarter or tougher then everyone else), this – on a very superficial level – looks like strength, but because I am driven by my need to look smarter or tougher, actually I am being controlled by fear. If I have to constantly appear like a winner, then this is because I am driven by my need not to appear like a loser, and if I am driven by my need not to appear like a loser, then this must be because I secretly suspect that I am a ‘loser’. On a very superficial level the message I am sending to the world is that I am smart or tough or cool, but the very fact that it is so important to me to appear in such a very positive light shows clearly indeed that I am trying to ‘offset the opposite’. My outer strength is a transparent attempt to compensate for inner weakness.


We have defined external strength in terms of my need to have things work out the way I want them to. Inner strength must therefore be the freedom that I have not to be controlled by my need for security. So if I have inner strength, then this would mean that I don’t have to appear strong the whole time. Paradoxically, if I am able to show myself to be weak, or hurt, or unsure of myself, then this is in itself a demonstration of strength – only it is inner strength rather than external (or ‘controlling’) strength. Of course this does not mean that a person with inner strength always goes around looking weak or utterly lacking in confidence – it just means that he or she will not be afraid to be the way that they actually are at the time. When explained this way, it can be seen that inner strength is the exact same thing as honesty, i.e. not pretending to be different from the way we actually are.


This is interesting because ‘the ability to pretend to be what we’re not’ seems like strength – the ability to convincingly lie (either to myself or to others) seems to give me the advantage, it seems to give me the possibility of extra freedom within a situation that is not going too well for me, but when it comes down to it the ability to deceive ourselves and others turns into a profound loss of freedom. Basically, I lose the freedom to admit to the truth and therefore I end up constantly protecting and perpetuating my own weakness, rather than acknowledging it or facing it and gaining in inner strength as a result.


It is a basic psychological fact that we all rely on our projected images, our stage-managed ‘personas’ in order to interact with the world.  The image of myself which I let the world see is of course how I want to be seen, how I like to be seen, and so it comes under the category of external strength. The self image is the obedient puppet of my will (my wishes) and therefore the more external strength I have the stronger and more convincing it is. However, as we have just said, the freedom to lie successfully makes us progressively weaker rather than stronger because we never have to face up to our problems (i.e. we never have to face up to any difficult situations). Why would I have to do the hard work necessary to genuinely grow as a person, when I can easily just ‘put it on’ and pretend to myself and others to be what I’m not?


If I have a strong self-image – which is to say, if I can easily appear to be happy when I’m not, confident when I’m not, carefree and relaxed when I’m not, etc – then although this is a kind of an advantage in the short term (since it allows me to cover up) all that I am really doing is protecting and perpetuating my inner weakness. The more successful I am at this game, the more wretched and hopeless my inner life becomes; this is of course very similar to the basic idea in Oscar’s Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Grey, where the character in the story achieves eternal youth and great popularity whilst his portrait (his ‘true’ self) becomes progressively more diseased and grotesque-looking. The ability to cheat reality, and get things to seem to be the way we want them to be even when they are not, is naturally very attractive to us but the consequences are utterly disastrous in the long run.


The reason we have been talking so much about the self-image and external strength (which has to do both with controlling our situation and controlling how we appear both to ourselves and others) is because anger is of course one of the ways we react when our control is threatened, i.e. when we don’t get our own way. Anger is not always the result of our personal will being thwarted or of our self-image being threatened but it usually is. Sometimes anger is an honest and appropriate reaction but very often when we get angry it is simply to cover up for our own weakness, in other words, anger is how we react when our inner weakness is exposed, or when it is threatened with exposure.


We do not of course admit that this is the case because that would defeat the whole purpose of getting angry – the reason I get angry after all is to deflect attention from what is really going on. The way I do this is by identifying a fault outside of myself (or sometimes in myself) and concentrating all my attention on how ‘it shouldn’t be like that,’ how it is ‘wrong’ or ‘terrible’ etc. The trick here is that by focussing 100% on why I shouldn’t be made to feel so bad, I don’t have to look at why I feel so bad. In other words, when my external strength lets me down and I start to be painfully aware of a weak spot in my armour, I cover up my weakness by roaring like a lion (so to speak)…


This is an important point because seeing firsthand the ‘smokescreen-like’ nature of anger is the key to defusing anger. Usually, as we said that the beginning of this discussion, we try to deal with anger by forcing it to go away, or by saying to ourselves that it is wrong or terrible that we should be angry. When anger gets to be a problem we try to cope by using external strength, in other words. But if anger is our way – as it often is – of distracting ourselves from seeing why we need to rely on external strength (i.e. distracting ourselves from seeing that we are using it to cover up our inner weakness) then reacting to anger by trying to control it is just feeding back into the original problem, which is my unacknowledged inner weakness.


The inner weakness itself is not really the problem – the problem is the fact that I ‘cheat’ so that I do not have to see it, so that I can carry on as I am without ever having to face it. Getting angry (in the usual way that we get angry) is all about protecting our weakness without acknowledging that this is what we are doing, so if I try to ‘manage’ my anger by following various rules or procedures then I am still protecting my inner weakness. I am relying on external strength (or controlling) and this simply allows me to carry on being weak on the inside whilst appearing to be strong (or ‘in control’) on the outside. This perpetuates the underlying cause of my problems but just as long as it seems to help (or just as long as it seems as if it might help) in the short term, I don’t look any deeper into what exactly I am doing. The more I go down this road the more invested I get in protecting my inner weakness, and the more resistant I become to ever getting any insight into the fact that this is what I am doing, and so my situation gets more and more difficult as time goes on.


We said that seeing into the smokescreen-like nature of anger – i.e. the way in which it deflects attention from the real problem – is the key to defusing it. Just to give an example, suppose you say something to me that makes me feel bad and I react by getting very angry with you. The anger is a smokescreen because I am deflecting all the attention onto the fact that you shouldn’t have said what you said, that is was ‘wrong’ or ‘terrible’ etc, and that you are culpable on these grounds, i.e. you are deserving of the full weight of my anger on this account. This is however a trick designed to help me protect my inner weakness without being aware of what I am doing. The cause of all the trouble isn’t that you said whatever it was that you said, the true deep-down cause is my inability to bear discomfort, along with my inability to focus on the fact that I am unable to bear discomfort.


For some reason what you said really hurt me – it caught me on a sore spot, but rather than focus on what this sore spot is exactly, and why it is so sore, I automatically lash out. Actually you were doing me a favour because you were drawing my attention to something that I needed to know about. The truth of the matter is that I wouldn’t get so angry if I wasn’t defending something that doesn‘t actually stand up to close scrutiny. If you said something that hurt me then that is invariably because my ‘self-image’ is threatened. My self-image is all about my security – it is all about how I would like to see myself, and also it is all about what I do not want to know about myself. Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, the self-image is a lie – it is only there to cover up for my lack of inner strength. Rather than see my lack of inner strength I get angry and deflect attention elsewhere, but if I paid attention to my ‘weakness’ – which is basically the same thing as my inability to pay attention – this would get to the bottom of the problem straightaway. I pay attention to the fact that I am unable to pay attention, which is honest, rather than not paying attention, which is dishonest.


The basic idea here is that if I allow myself to see that I am weak in some way, that there is something that I am unable to bear for some reason, some awareness about myself, then this is ‘honestly dealing with the weakness’. Seeing the truth about myself is a manifestation of inner strength, and so seeing that I can’t cope with certain things, and that I invariably deflect attention away from them, is inner strength. But if I deal with my own weakness with intolerance, either by blaming myself or striking out violently in some way, then I am reacting to my weakness, which is a weak thing to do, rather than allowing (or accepting) the weakness, which is a strong thing to do.


But how exactly does this apply to anger? On the one hand we have said that controlling the anger isn’t the answer, and yet what good will it do for me to just allow it? If I allow my anger isn’t this just the same as allowing it to control me? This all depends on what we mean when we say the word ‘allow’. In the way that we are using the word, allowing doesn’t mean agreeing with the anger (i.e. believing that we have the right to be angry in the situation), allowing simply means accepting the fact that I am angry, and accepting that my justification for being angry is made up by myself to suit myself.


This is obviously a very powerful thing to do – usually I justify myself instantaneously and so the anger (and the inner weakness that lies behind the anger) gets to continue indefinitely. Self-justification – which we are all so good at – means that I never grow or change as a person and for this reason it is utterly self-defeating. But if I can see what I am doing without instantly justifying myself in what I am doing, then this comes as a big shock to me, and this big shock is good because it means that I will change as the result. Inner strength means the ability to take on board news about ourselves that we find painful or uncomfortable, and so inner strength always goes hand-in-hand with inner growth.


External strength, on the other hand, is the so-called ‘strength’ that we have to not take difficult stuff on board, and so it goes hand-in-hand with ‘never changing’. Another way of putting this, therefore, is to say that when we get angry the whole time, this is our way of not taking stuff on board, and it is also our way of not changing, of being stubbornly ‘dug in’.


A simple example of this would be where I am stuck in a traffic jam with no sign of the traffic ever moving. The more I sit there the more frustrated and angry I get, which is of course not really helping at all, but only making things worse. Allowing the anger means accepting that I am angry and frustrated, but also accepting that the only reason that I am feeling angry and frustrated (and blaming what is outside me) is because I secretly want to deflect attention from my own inner weakness. The inner weakness in question has to do with my lack of patience, my inability to rest peacefully in the present moment and accept the fact that I am not going anywhere for a while.


If I could accept the obvious – that I am not going anywhere – and accept that I have to drop whatever immediate plans I have, then this would be a sign of inner strength because I am able to face up to reality. Instead of this however, I fret and fume, and justify this bad-tempered and graceless reaction to myself by implicitly insisting that I have the divine right to be allowed to carry on with my agenda, and get on with whatever goal it is that seems so important to me. By focussing on how utterly unacceptable it is that I am not allowed to carry on with my plans, and get wherever it is that I want to get, I deflect attention from the fact that I am assuming my plans and my goals are ‘all-important’.


Actually, my goals are only important because I say they are – when it comes down to it they are not really important at all; it’s only because I am stubbornly clinging to them that they seem important. This ‘clinging’ is what we have called external strength, whereas if I could drop my goals, my need to do whatever it is that I have arbitrarily decided to be ‘important’ to me, then this would be inner strength. Basically, I am only getting angry and frustrated because of my self-importance – I think or assume that I am a big wheel and that it is unforgivable that I should be obstructed in any way. This gives me the divine right to get angry. But if I accept the fact of my anger, and also accept the fact that I am only angry because of my ridiculous self-importance, then this is the perfect cure for my anger. How can I carry on being angry when I see what it is all about – my assumed divine right not ever to be obstructed in what I am doing?


When I accept my anger, and acknowledge what it is all about, what I am essentially doing is ‘taking responsibility’ for my anger. ‘The buck stops here’, as the saying has it. Normally I am in a terrible hurry to pass that buck on, and this is where all my problems start. I am only too keen to look at all the ‘external causes’ for my anger, and get all indignant about them, but not at all keen to see that the anger is mine, that it is belonging to me, that it is my responsibility. If I understand that the anger belongs to me then this is the same as understanding that the pain it comes out of belongs to me. If the pain belongs to me then it doesn’t belong somewhere else. It’s no one else’s ‘fault’. It is mine – the buck stops here – and this is the meaning of ‘acceptance’.








One comment

  1. Ted · November 6, 2014

    The illusive nature of conditioning is so blinding, that it seems to perpetuate our ability to remain as is, stuck in a seemingly permanent path of non-change. To become aware, to consciously pay attention to our anger as ours, our pain as ours, to accept it as it is, is absolutely challenging work, but to notice the development of a core inner strength, is more than just reward, at least that’s how it feels. Thank you Nick.


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