Dealing With Anger
I was recently asked how to deal with clients when they are really mad. I think this is a worthwhile topic because all of us find ourselves in situations with people who are extremely angry sometimes. The common responses are usually to shy away from the encounter or meet it head on and get angry ourselves. This is the fight or flight response that is hardwired into our DNA. Adrenaline spikes and our bodies activate to confront the perceived danger.
The best place to start in this discussion is to ask a simple question. Why do most people equate anger with danger? There are a few answers. One is that we have all experienced anger ourselves and we know there is a sense of feeling out of control. The Western world is obsessed with rational thought. Intense anger leaves the door open for actions that you might not commit when you are calm. But most people do not commit violent acts even when they are really angry.
I think a more important factor is a holdover from your youth, and this is that when caregivers are angry children have little recourse. They have no political power. They can’t leave home. They have no money. They are usually not allowed to argue back, nor do they have the education or ability to intelligently defend their positions. They are powerless. Also, when your parents were angry with you it almost always led to negative consequences like loss of allowance, alone time, or a spanking. The feeling of powerlessness in a hostile world is terrible and produces massive amounts of anxiety. You may be an adult now but this relationship to a caregiver’s anger is your heritage.
You are not powerless anymore. The truth is that changing your mentality and internal response to anger is more important than anything you could say or do with the person who is angry. What I always try to remember is that a strong emotional reaction of any kind is better than no emotion at all. In our schizoid society the fact that some people are still turned towards life and relationships where they can feel provoked to anger is a good thing. Everyone wants the pleasant emotions like happiness, love, or excitement. We want these emotional states to last forever. But emotions don’t last. They are transient because they are symptoms of being plugged in and connected rather than root states of being. Sometimes you are going to experience unpleasant emotions like fear, anger, or sadness when you are connected to other people and to life.
When you believe this truth in your bones you automatically become less bothered by the unpleasant emotional states of others because they are a normal part of the existential situation and unavoidable. You start to feel okay with giving them space to experience these emotions freely rather than trying to limit them for your own needs of comfort and security. Obviously you have to use your common sense and discretion to avoid dangerous situations but most people who are angry are not dangerous. One of the most common reactions when someone is angry is to say “Calm down.” I always chuckle to myself at that one because it’s the worst possible thing you could say. If they could calm down they probably would, and hearing someone command them to is only going to set them off more.
If you can remember a time when you were in a state of rage you will probably concede that you couldn’t think very well or form too many coherent thoughts. Imagine trying to recite a poem or read a book. It would be impossible. So you want to keep it very simple for a person who is angry and just open up a safe space where they know it’s okay to be mad. You can say something like “I can see by your facial expression and body posture that you’re angry.” This shows a person you are tuned in to his or her experience without being disrespectful or trying to change it. Then you can mirror back what they say to keep it simple. For example “You really made a fool of me back there!” “I really made a fool of you back there.” If the rage is directed at you there will be plenty of time to defend your position once they have calmed down. Abusive relationships are a different entity of course and what we are talking about here does not apply to instances of emotional abuse. These instances need to be named for what they are rather than given more room to breathe.
No one can stay angry for long in the presence of the Buddha. Imagine ranting and raving to a peaceful person who is encouraging you to express yourself. You will either start to feel childish and embarrassed or else grateful. Either way your anger will quickly dissipate. This is one of the paradoxes of life. When we truly feel we have free rein to express all of our emotions we spend most of our time experiencing the pleasant ones.