It’s easy to let go of yourself in a moment of anger and say and do things that you will only regret later. Here’s how you can control anger instead of it controlling you
We know it too well – the familiar stirrings of anger, whether just plain annoyance or full-blown rage. Sometimes we can just shrug it off, cursing silently and letting the anger dissolve in the daily stresses and joys of our existence. And yet, there’s a kind of anger that won’t easily go away, one that torments our whole being, demanding release. In a perfect world, we can unleash our fury in every delicious way imaginable without having to worry about the consequences… or, perhaps, in a perfect world, anger wouldn’t exist to begin with.
But, this is real life with its endless sources of vexations – a sneaky motorist cutting you off while giving you the middle finger, a neighbour pumping up the volume of his stereo just when you’re dozing off, or discovering your girlfriend has been sexting her ex right under your nose. Of course, you should get angry! Some people become so livid they become homicidal which, if anything, only ensures the livelihood of lawyers and policemen worldwide.
Anger never acts alone. It needs input from its cousins, ego and pride. The bigger the input, the more potent the anger. Each potentially anger-inducing stimulus goes through certain filters: How is this hurting my ego and pride? How does this go against everything I hold dear in myself?
Anger, Ego and Pride Are Normal
Whether the slight is real or imagined, anger is a normal human emotion until it gets out of control. Getting angry in itself is not bad; experts say a healthy dose of anger is the best motivator and energiser. Many a successful public figure who came from humble background used rage as motivation. The late comic Richard Pryor, considered by many the funniest comedian of all time, was said to have used bottled-up rage as a result of a life riddled with physical and sexual abuse, poverty, drugs and prostitutes, to be the best in his field. Picasso’s anger and frustration over the Nazi bombing of a Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War found an outlet in his mural-sized oil painting, “Guernica”, described as “the most important work of art of the 20th Century.” American musician/writer / actor Henry Rollins described this kind of anger that induces creativity as “cayenne pepper in the blood.”
Experts say rage also helps us make better decisions because it makes us focus on what matters the most. However, if you have a short fuse and find yourself getting into all sorts of arguments inside or outside the home, making your family and friends feel like they’re walking on eggshells all the time, you have to learn how to rein in your temper.
To help understand anger and learn to keep our outbursts in check, we need to take an honest look inside ourselves and confront what’s hiding behind it: ego and pride.
Ego (Latin for “I”) refers to the “self”, the part of us that defines who we are as a separate entity from the outside world. It is our sense of self-importance. In psychological terms, it refers to the part of the psyche that reacts to the stimuli provided by everything around us. The ego itself is not bad; it’s necessary for survival, although it often gets a bad rap for creating hate, fear and delusions of grandeur within the self. But without the ego, we become doormats – a bunch of “yes men” willing to kowtow to everything thrown at us.
When we feel afraid or slighted, our ego gets up in arms, and we feel the need to lash out at the source of the aggravation. Ego makes us territorial; it sets our boundaries and demands respect from others. Ego’s aggression is an attempt at self-preservation. When our boundaries are crossed, we become defensive and angry. When we feel anger towards someone who has wronged us, or feel insecure about something, or feel jealous of anyone, that’s the ego baring its claws.
To feed the ego, we need to prove that we are right; we need to impress someone because these form part of what we believe define us. The more inflated the ego, the harder it is to get along with other people. In its most negative form, the ego is like a five-year-old in the company of adults, screaming, “Me! Me! Me!”
And then there’s ego’s equally maligned cousin, pride, which can also be either considered a virtue or a vice. Pride in its raw form is said to be a higher octave of ego. St. Augustine defines it as “the love of one’s own excellence.” Unlike ego, which demands more so it can show off, pride is content with what is; there is a sense of self-assurance and self-fulfilment, of high regard for one’s achievements. Like ego, pride is also a survival instinct; it helps us say no to things that are not to our best interest. When used positively, ego and pride help us steer clear of negative situations to protect ourselves from getting hurt, and make us aim higher to improve ourselves.
The problem arises when we use our ego and pride to make others feel bad. Pride becomes false pride, giving us an inflated sense of our accomplishments, constantly hungry for flattery. It makes us believe that we are better than the rest and that we can do no wrong. Such a distorted sense of self makes us magnify other people’s shortcomings while underemphasising our own.
Our sense of superiority and self-entitlement, when challenged, are the main triggers of anger. When one’s pride and ego clash with those of another person, anger ensues. And it is how we deal with this fiery emotion that determines whether we land in jail or not.
The Side Effects
When people perceived us as someone with a short fuse, a false sense of pride and a gigantic ego, we become isolated from the outside world. The smallest of things gets under our skin and our friends and loved ones feel immense pressure trying to please us just to keep the peace. If these emotions remain unchecked, they can make us physically sick, mess up our state of mind, strain our relationships and sabotage our career.
When we’re fuming, it triggers our body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood the adrenal glands, and blood surges to our muscles at increased speed to brace for the physical exertion. We may feel knots in our stomach, clench our hands or jaw, and feel clammy or flushed. Our shoulders become tense, our heart starts pounding, and our breathing becomes faster.
Indulging our anger raises our heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. According to a study from Washington State University, people who are over 50 years old and who freely express their anger explosively, are more likely to have calcium deposits in their coronary arteries. This puts them at high risk for a heart attack.
How to Rein In Anger
Keeping ourselves from flying off the handle as a result of wounded ego and pride is a war in its own right. The key is detachment. Ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu said it best: “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror; it grasps nothing, it refuses nothing; it receives, but does not keep.”
We know we have gained detachment when something which usually irritates us no longer provokes that response from us. Positive pride means respecting and honouring who we are and what we are capable of without the need for external validation or approval. We derive satisfaction from the actions that we take, instead of expecting it from the outcomes of those actions.
To master control over our temper, we must learn to recognise certain anger triggers. Remember that external stimuli per se are not the ones that arouse the anger, but our own perception of the situation. Overgeneralising, having a rigid viewpoint, jumping to conclusions, blaming others, painful childhood memories, and collecting minor irritations and letting these build until one day we just erupt like a volcano are things that fuel the intensity of our rage.
Recognising the physical signs and negative thought patterns that indicate we’re about to blow our fuse allows us to deal with the emotion before it spins out of control. When you feel anger rising within you, remove yourself from situation right away. Take deep breaths, meditate and / or self-talk your way out of your frustration.
You can also channel your rage into something creative and/or productive like exercise, art or being in tune with nature. If you feel that your anger is really out of control, it may be best to let a professional counsellor or psychotherapist help you control your reactions to aggravating stimuli. Anger management therapy can be run as group or one-on-one sessions and gives participants the tools necessary to express their anger in healthier and safer ways.