Refusing the gift of anger
There are plenty of frustrations that come with life and plenty of opportunities for those frustrations to become anger.
We are all human and we all can have strong emotions. This is generally not a problem until our emotions become dangerous to ourselves or to others. Part of the danger of strong emotions is simply that - they are strong. They can resist our efforts to control them. They have a nasty tendency to jump over the internal barriers, constraints, and limits we have inside of us that normally keep us safe.
Probably no emotion does this faster or with more ferocity than anger.
Anger has a lot of close cousins. It is often caused by, or hides, other emotions, such as being frustrated, annoyed, scared, disappointed, offended, or feeling unsafe. This makes the path to anger slippery at times.
We’ve all probably experienced it at one time or another. But one of the quickest ways to make someone more angry is to tell them not to be angry. Why is this? For the most part it does not work because we are assuming that the rational mind can tell the emotional mind what to do and it will listen. But our emotions are often hard of hearing. The other problem is that we are telling them too late. We are telling others to use their rational mind at exactly the same moment that their emotional mind is already in control. That usually doesn’t work well either. It doesn’t work well when we say it to others and it doesn’t work well when we say it to ourselves.
Anger typically comes from one of two sources. It either springs up internally or something happens that makes us mad. Here is a story on how we can handle anger when it comes knocking on our door.
There is a Buddhist parable that involves anger. It goes roughly like this. Buddha goes to a village one day to speak. An angry man confronts him and endlessly ridicules him. Buddha is unmoved. The man asks Buddha why he is not angry. Buddha replies, “If someone gives you a gift and you do not accept it, to whom does the gift belong?’ The man answers, “To the one who gives.” Buddha says, “So it is with your anger.” Not exact quotes, but you get the idea.
Life is constantly dropping troubles at our doorstep,
but how we respond to them is up to us.
Whenever someone tries to give us an emotional gift that we do not want or that is not healthy for us – the gift of anger, jealousy, resentment – we can simply refuse to accept it. This is powerful because it stops anger at the doorstep. We do not have to worry about managing the anger, because we refused to accept it in the first place. It is simply not ours.
This approach is similar to a counseling technique called thought stopping. But, can we really stop a thought? Imagine someone tells us to NOT think of a pink elephant. You, and me, are probably going to think of one right away. The Buddhist parable is effective because it, along with thought stopping, both work - not on stopping the thought - but on breaking the sequence of events that come with the thought or that come with strong emotions. By not accepting the temptation of anger, we are not saying we do not recognize it, we are saying we refuse to bring into ourselves. We are stopping the emotional transaction, shutting down the deal. We are refusing to internalize it. We leave it at the doorstep.
I am not going to tell you that this approach works all the time, but often we can gain an edge over strong emotions, even attempts by others who use our reactions to manipulate us, by reframing them in a new way – a way that helps keep us in control.
For more insights see my books and blog at https://www.jamesmcginley.com.
James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.