This post was originally written for The Startup.
Lately, I’ve been putting a lot of work into learning to catch myself when I start spiralling into a strong negative emotion (anger, panic, sadness) and disrupting my thoughts before they overwhelm me. I’m keeping notes on what works for me. These are my notes on my process for letting go of anger — not suppressing, releasing.
Understand the purpose of anger
Emotions exist for two reasons. They motivate us to take certain actions. And they communicate information to other people. Anger is not bad. It’s there to keep us safe. We can’t hide from it. We just need to work with it. Gill Hasson writes in Emotional Intelligence:
‘Judging emotions as positive or negative, good or bad isn’t very helpful….all emotions have a positive purpose — to keep you safe…The idea that we should aim to only have good emotions, such as happiness and compassion, although well intentioned is not helpful because it suggests that we should try to eliminate anger and jealousy and other painful emotions.’
For example, it’s common to get angry after you’ve lost someone you love. That anger also has a purpose. As Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kusser write in On Grief and Grieving:
‘Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything…Suddenly you have a structure.
…If you could change things, you would, but you can’t. Anger affirms that you can feel, that you did love, and that you have lost.’
Recognise that anger will only hurt you.
I once found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between two women in a coworking space (sorry, can’t help myself.) One was talking about her partner and describing a scenario the night before where she chased him down a crowded street, in front of his friends, yelling at him and telling him everything she hated him for and all he’d done wrong and what a scumbag she thought he was.
The worst part is, she said it with pride. She boasted about how she’d deliberately embarrassed him and described other horribly manipulative behaviours. She was angry at him and was doing all she could to inflict pain. Her voice did that thing where it gets higher and higher as someone gets excited. The whole room was listening by this point.
Now, I can’t comment on strangers’ lives. But I still found myself struggling to comprehend why on earth she was even in that relationship (coming from someone who doesn’t really understand romantic relationships in general, that’s probably a bit simplistic.) Trying to hurt her partner wasn’t achieving anything — it was just hurting her and the fact she continued with the relationship reeked of self-sabotage.
Anger has its purpose. But it rarely helps us, which is important to remember when you’re trying to let it go. It only hurts us. Letting anger go is an act of self-love and a way of putting yourself first.
Write it down
If you’re angry at a person, write them a letter. If you’re angry about a situation, write down exactly why. Spill it all out. Curse and rant all you like.
Then delete it or tear it up. You probably feel better already, which is why there’s no point sending it or doing anything else with it.
The calming effect comes from writing it down. Sharing your anger is rarely a good idea. Sometimes you do need to share. But personally, I always regret it when I do. I wrote in another post:
Write a letter then tear it up, or vent to someone outside the situation who isn’t going to judge you. In the same way I write a lot of letters to myself (that’s how 90% of my blog posts start), I write a truly ungodly number of letters and emails to other people that never get sent. Venting your anger to the person in question will most likely lead to regret later on. They may not even be truly responsible, sometimes that anger is misplaced (don’t shoot the messenger.)
Acting when you’re angry is a terrible idea. Angry people aren’t rational or in control. Understand that your body is full of stress hormones and you’re not thinking straight.
Understand the real reason why you’re angry
It’s not really about the person or situation, is it? It’s about how you respond to it. It’s about how it makes you feel. It’s about what it reminds you of, the buttons it pushes, the sore spots it touches. Gill Hasson writes:
‘Deconstructing an emotion — disentangling what triggered the emotion from the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour that occurs — can help you see it as just emotion rather than getting caught up and overwhelmed by it…Taking time to deconstruct an emotion can give you the space and time you need to respond appropriately.’
Recently, I was angry because someone I thought was my friend caused me to waste a bunch of money. A substantial amount of money. Except I’m not mad about money. What am I really angry about?
I’m angry about the betrayal. I’m angry that I wasted a lot of time working for that money. I’m angry that I can’t put it to a worthwhile use. I’m angry at myself for being a trusting sucker who keeps letting stuff like this happen. I’m angry at whatever causes me to have such low self-worth that I think I need to work hard to give people justifications for spending time with me, which often comes in the form of paying for things for them, even if it means depriving myself. I’m angry that I’ve just been given another reason to feel that way, which makes it even harder to break the thought patterns. I’m angry at being treated as a gap filler in people’s lives until they find someone better.
I could continue. The point is, it’s helpful to keep digging, to keep asking yourself why so you can use the anger to help, not hurt you. Now I know I need to break that pattern and knowing that will help me improve myself. I know I need to stop paying for things for friends or ‘lending’ them money. It doesn’t make them like me more. It just makes them see me as a sucker, as someone who is purely useful.
Inhale. Exhale. Let it go.
When I get angry I try to catch myself, stop, dramatically inhale, then exhale and tell myself that I’ve released it. Done. If I still feel angry, I keep repeating this process. Every time the anger bubbles up again, I tell myself: Nope. You’ve let it go. Don’t engage with it. It’s not going to do any good.
Act if you need to, when you’re ready
Sometimes anger is a sign we need to act in a particular way. Once you’re calm, it can serve as fuel. But not before then. Again: try not to act when you’re angry. That’s when we make the worst mistakes. Gill Hasson puts it best:
‘Emotions do not define you, remember they are simply temporary internal messages to yourself that prompt you to act.’
Anger is a temporary internal message. It passes. It’s a tool. Nothing more.