“Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right reason and in the right way – that is not easy. ” Aristotle
If you are angry with yourself for getting angry too often and too fast, take heart – anger is not just my problem or your problem, it is a universal problem. Anger is a primitive protective response rooted in our evolutionary past. It has immense survival value for animals. But unlike animals, we have not just the part of the brain associated with emotions such as anger; we also have a very well-developed part of the brain, called the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex, or the cortex for short, apart from enabling us to think, judge and reason, also helps us control and regulate primitive tendencies like anger. However, the primitive tendencies are so deep-rooted and powerful that they surface all too often with the least provocation. The provocation leads to a temporary suspension of the thinking faculty, and a full expression of the primitive anger. Hence, during anger, a person cannot think. Therefore, he cannot determine how angry to get, and when or where to stop. No wonder, anger has been called temporary insanity, and being angry is informally called ‘being mad’.
Anger may be precipitated by a variety of situations. One of the commonest is frustration due to not getting what one wants. The Gita says something to the effect that desires lead to anger because if the mind dwells on an object, we get attached to it. Failure to get the object leads to anger, bewilderment, loss of the intellect and the chain of events eventually finishes the victim off (2:62-63). Another common source of anger is somebody not behaving properly with us. The root of the problem may be our inability to tolerate somebody else’s imperfection while taking a more charitable view of our own. Our interpretation of somebody else’s behavior sometimes matters more than the behavior itself. People who get angry quickly have a tendency to view even innocent actions of others in the most negative way possible. For example, one of my younger colleagues who had been having a series of problems in quick succession told me one day about yet another problem (say, his child’s illness). I told him that I hoped that was the last of his problems. I said so out of genuine sympathy, and I think the tone in which I said it conveyed the sympathy. But he got very angry with me. He thought that I was annoyed because his problems had impaired his performance at work. Probably he even thought that I was hinting at his problems being only an excuse for his poor performance. Therefore his interpretation of my remark was that it was designed to tell him that instead of telling me any more of his problems, he better improve his performance. But the fact is that I was not thinking of his performance at all, and was really feeling bad that he had been having so many problems one after another. I tried to clarify myself, but he was in no mood to listen. He angrily asked me if I could tell him even one instance when he had neglected his duty because of his problems. Finally, he left my office in a huff telling me that even if he has any more problems, I shall never hear of them.
Or, we may be angry because we are unable to control somebody else’s behaviour. A source of chronic anger is the vicious cycle of isolation and anger. A person who gets angry very easily is avoided by people. As the person’s friends, relatives and colleagues start distancing themselves from him, the isolation and loneliness make him more angry. The more angry he gets, the more people keep away from him. Thus anger leads to loneliness, and loneliness aggravates the anger. Finally, anger becomes a part of the person’s lifestyle, and the situation can be reversed only by understanding its genesis. All anger essentially reflects a victim mentality. The person perceives himself as weak, and feels victimized due to his weakness. The person may feel weak because he does not have the means to satisfy his desires. He may feel weak because he cannot change or control other people. Or, he may feel he is the victim of all those who are keeping away from him. The perceived weakness may lead to depression. But sometime or the other, sooner or later, the dam bursts, and instead of being just depressed, the person gets angry. Thus anger and depression are two sides of the same coin. Statistically speaking, women get depressed in response to perceived victimization whereas men get angry. In short, anger is a sign of weakness. The angry person sometimes feels he is stronger than the person whom he can get angry at. In fact, he can get angry because nobody can stop a person from being angry, not because anybody has given him the right or the permission to be angry. It is the angry person who sub-consciously perceives himself as weak, and therefore victimized, and sometimes gives vent to his pent up feelings through anger. The sense of being stronger through anger is a temporary self-created illusion.
Or, we may be angry because we are unable to control somebody else’s behaviour. A source of chronic anger is the vicious cycle of isolation and anger. A person who gets angry very easily is avoided by people. As the person’s friends, relatives and colleagues start distancing themselves from him, the isolation and loneliness make him more angry. The more angry he gets, the more people keep away from him. Thus anger leads to loneliness, and loneliness aggravates the anger. Finally, anger becomes a part of the person’s lifestyle, and the situation can be reversed only by understanding its genesis. All anger essentially reflects a victim mentality. The person perceives himself as weak, and feels victimized due to his weakness. The person may feel weak because he does not have the means to satisfy his desires. He may feel weak because he cannot change or control other people. Or, he may feel he is the victim of all those who are keeping away from him. The perceived weakness may lead to depression. But sometime or the other, sooner or later, the dam bursts, and instead of being just depressed, the person gets angry. Thus anger and depression are two sides of the same coin. Statistically speaking, women get depressed in response to perceived victimization whereas men get angry. In short, anger is a sign of weakness. The angry person sometimes feels he is stronger than the person whom he can get angry at. In fact, he can get angry because nobody can stop a person from being angry, not because anybody has given him the right or permission to be angry. It is the angry person who subconsciously perceives himself as weak, and therefore victimized, and sometimes gives vent to his pent-up feelings through anger. The sense of being stronger through anger is a temporary self-created illusion.
The dictum, prevention is better than cure, applies to anger as well. When you feel the anger rising, it may be helpful to do a few things to prevent it before you lose control completely. Start with a few slow and deep breaths. While breathing out, count backwards from ten to one, slowly. Another technique is to tighten your whole body for a minute, and then let go: let the body relax completely like a punctured balloon. Start meditating, if you know how to; or just sit in silence and try to quieten yourself down. Listen to soothing music, or still better, play on a musical instrument, if that is one of your hobbies. Take a brisk walk, if a safe place is available to you; otherwise, just pace up and down in the house. However, do not get into the car to let your tension out: an angry driver is neither himself safe, nor does he leave others on the road in peace. If at all it is possible to stay away from the victim of your anger, do so. Coming face to face is sure to result in an outburst. If you succeed in delaying and diverting the anger by some of these measures, you may provide a safe expression to your anger later in the day by writing a diary, or confiding in someone who is close to you. You may even write a letter to the person with whom you are angry, but do not send it! Giving safe expression to anger is not just an outlet; it also helps analyze the situation. By the end of the expressive exercise, you may realize that your opponent does have a point after all, or you may discover a more reasonable way of resolving the conflict. While these measures may prevent a sudden outburst, they may still leave behind pent-up anger. Nevertheless, they are helpful in buying time, allowing thinking and introspection, and in avoiding irreversible damage to relationships. If the person getting angry is a parent, his losing control also sets a bad example for the children.
There has long been a debate whether it is better to suppress anger, or to express it. Arguments in favour of expression are that suppression may give the person a peptic ulcer or high blood pressure, while expression provides an outlet to the tension; it also clears the air between the persons involved. However, psychologists today, on the whole, favour suppression, and so did Sri Aurobindo. In one of his letters to a disciple, he wrote, “If you give expression to anger, you prolong or confirm the habit of the recurrence of anger; you do not diminish or get rid of the habit. The very first step towards weakening the power of anger in the nature and afterwards getting rid of it altogether is to refuse all expression to it in act or speech. Afterwards one can go on with more likelihood of success to throw it out from the thought and feeling also”.
How can one throw anger out from the system completely? To do that, one has to understand that anger belongs to the infra-rational part of our being. To throw it out, one has to rise to a higher level of consciousness. Rationality is higher than the infra-rational, and therefore helps in overcoming anger. For example, one may reason, “Perhaps I misunderstood him. Let me give him the benefit of doubt”, or “Perhaps my way of looking at the situation is not the only one possible. His way could be one of the other ways in which it can be looked at”, or “He is wrong because he is ignorant”, and so on. Better than rising to rationality, is to rise to the supra-rational level. The supra-rational part of the being is the psychic being (the dynamic aspect of the soul). When I rise to that level, I realize two things. First, the anger is not me. The anger does not arise from my true self. My deepest self, the soul, knows no anger. Anger is a trespasser, an invader. Therefore, I should reject it. Sri Aurobindo says that even if it is difficult to grasp this idea in the beginning, it is good to keep it in mind and remind ourselves that anger is not a part of our true nature. Secondly, the one with whom I am angry is no different from me. He is also a manifestation of the Divine. Like him, I am also an imperfect manifestation of the Divine. Since we are both alike, I should love him. Love leads to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only true antidote against anger. Many other antidotes reduce the expression of anger, but not its toxicity. It is the toxicity of anger which gives rise to hatred, desire for revenge, high blood pressure, or an ulcer in the stomach. Forgiveness cures the expression as well as the toxicity of anger. However, genuine forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is not just pretending that all is well. Forgiveness is not an attitude of superiority. Forgiveness is not the same as patronizing. Genuine forgiveness is a transformation. It is a transformation of our lower nature so that it acts in light of our higher nature. It is a transformation of our mind and intellect so that they work in light of our psychic being. The mind now enjoys love and forgiveness better than hatred and anger. The intellect now justifies forgiveness as the best course of action, being the most fair, ethical and peaceful option. The person who makes me angry is no longer a rascal who might kill me by giving me high blood pressure. He is an angel who created for me an opportunity for transformation. He helped me grow spiritually. Therefore, he helped me take a few steps towards the fulfillment of the purpose of my life. Once the angry person has done the inner work and prepared the background for forgiveness, it is acceptable to face each other. The key to a constructive confrontation is communication around a common ground. Love, which is at the root of forgiveness, expands the common ground. Love goes beyond reason, and therefore involves meeting more than half-way. If both parties have been able to create an atmosphere of love, both may end up saying sorry to each other, which may not be logical, but dissolves anger as nothing else does. An important principle in communication is to express feelings rather than thoughts. Thoughts are opinions. If I tell someone with whom I am angry what I think of him, he goes into a defensive mode, and tries to prove that my opinion of him is wrong. But if I tell him that I am feeling very hurt ‘by his behaviour’, leaving the ‘by his behaviour’ part unsaid but understood, he cannot contradict me. If I say that I am hurt, I know better than anybody else whether it is true. He cannot prove me wrong; all he can do is to ask me why I am hurt, and even say that he did not mean to hurt me. This type of a conversation is always more constructive and peaceful than one based on what each person thinks of the other. Further, a constructive conversation need not be all serious and sharply focused: it usually benefits from diversions, digressions and humour
One of the commonest situations provoking anger is bad traffic coupled with drivers who are worse. Road rage is no longer confined to shouting; it has started claiming life and limb. Anger alone never solves a problem, and all the road rage we are capable of will not improve anybody’s driving. Better driving requires introspection, a genuine acknowledgement of the rights of other road users, respect for the rules of the road, which are there for our own safety, and above all, love for all our fellow-beings. A simple resolution which one may start with is to give a smile to anyone at whom one feels like shouting on the road. The person whom it will benefit the most is ourselves: it will save our vocal cords as well as coronaries.
Is anger always bad? Not necessarily. There is something called righteous anger. It is the anger one may feel against evils such as corruption, dowry, illiteracy, injustice or red-tape. Without such anger, not much may change for the better in the world. Such anger may not be good for the coronaries of the person who is angry, but it is good for the society. But one also has to learn that one cannot correct everything that is wrong with the world. Therefore, one must choose one’s battles carefully, and with the understanding that victory may not be complete. For anger to truly qualify as righteous anger, there are a few pre-requisites. First, I should not be content to be angry; I should do something to eradicate the evil. Secondly, the anger should be irrespective of who the victim of the evil is. The anger may be precipitated by the evil affecting me personally, but I should not stop working against the evil once my job is done. Thirdly, I should work primarily against the evil, not against individuals. I might have to oppose individuals, but I should not enjoy it. What I should enjoy is correction of a system, eradication of an evil, not the punishment that individuals get. As Mahatma Gandhi said, hate evil, not the evildoer. Finally, I should work as an instrument of the Divine, not an egoistic holier-than-thou do-gooder. I should be grateful for having been given by the Divine the abilities and the circumstances to do something about an evil. This is the spirit of karma yoga. If I work in this spirit, I expect no credit, reward or recognition for my work. Not only that, even if I fail to eradicate the evil in spite of putting my heart and soul into it, I do not lose my peace of mind. If I am not the doer, how can I determine the outcome? On the other hand, if I succeed, the success does not go to my head. In either case, I thank the Divine, by whose Grace the mission was begun and concluded.
I might master my anger, but how should I react to somebody else’s anger directed at me. For one, I should certainly not react with anger. I should also not respond with compliance unless I am in the wrong. To determine whether I am right or wrong, I should contact my deepest self, my psychic being. If I am still confident that I am doing something right, I should follow the Mother’s dictum: to go on doing with simplicity and sincerity what is right without bothering about the reactions of others.
Posted earlier on the author’s blog www.theshishu.com
Dr. Ramesh Bijlani is a medical doctor, educationist, writer, inspirational speaker, teacher, scientist, and above all a person committed to using his unique blend of talents for touching the hearts and lives of his fellow beings. Dr. Bijlani describes himself as a pharmacist who dispenses small doses of love and wisdom from the inexhaustible pharmacy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.