Do You Ever....
• blow up in times of stress?
• focus on things, situations and people then become angry?
• feel out of control sometimes?
It's Just a Feeling Not a Fact
Of all of our feelings anger has the worst reputation. It's thought to be the cause of everything from divorce to murder. Yoga teaches us a different way to look at this much maligned emotion - with wholeness. To do this we need to step back and look at a bigger picture.
Anger is a feeling. It is energy that supplies you with information about a situation that can be used to hurt or heal. Feeling angry may seem like a problem because the sensations you feel when you are angry are intense. Because of our social conditioning most of us never learned how to take care of ourselves when we feel angry so we don't know how to respond to those sensations. Instead we learned to react, lashing out or stuffing our anger so we don't feel so much. So the problem isn't so much feeling angry it's what we do when we are angry. In our yoga practice we learn to observe all sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgment, bringing a compassionate presence to whatever is going on inside. As we do we learn that even when the sensations are intense we don't have to react. We can focus our attention on our breath and notice that we have everything we need in the moment. If you have never been "lucky" enough to have felt angry in a yoga class you can always use this transformative practice by asking yourself what you were thinking, doing and feeling right before the last time you felt angry.
You may be thinking, “I was fine before so and so cut me off” or “before _____ didn’t show up on time”. Most people do feel justified in feeling angry because someone did something wrong or something has just happened that was unpleasant. What I have found in my work as a psychotherapist, and in my life, is that no matter how wrong the other person is or how unfair the situation, what's most helpful is to look at what is true for us in the moment. Sometimes when you are able step back and take another look inside, you see the sadness or fear that underlies the anger. By curiously observing your reactions and being open to learning more you are learning to take loving care of yourself. This includes responding compassionately, accepting your feelings and acknowledging them. Then you are ready to respond rather than react to all your feelings. Most people need help with this process.
One Man's Story
Sam (not his real name), a loving husband and father, made it a priority to prepare breakfast for his wife and gave his son a ride to the bus stop before he went to work in the morning. Even though his commute to work took about 45 minutes on a busy freeway Sam rarely left himself enough time to get to work on time. As Sam entered the expressway his thoughts went to how inconsiderate the other drivers were. Someone who took the rules of the road very seriously, Sam felt incensed when a driver inevitably changed lanes in front of him without using a turn signal. As he gripped the wheel feeling the pressure to hurry so he wouldn’t be too late for work and upset his boss a driver would thoughtlessly speed up or slow down just when Sam needed to move to an exit. Before he knew it Sam was pounding the steering wheel, cursing at drivers and feeling his blood pressure go up as his face flushed red.
Sam’s level of stress was so high when he came to see me that his sleep was affected and he was beginning to feel irritated and angry most of the time. Although he was able to control his behavior around most people his outbursts were straining his relationships and negatively affecting his health.
During a thorough assessment process I learned that Sam had grown up with an alcoholic father who had few positive interactions with him. More recently Sam’s wife’s drinking had become a concern. Sam had learned and continued to believe that he was responsible for the people he cared about. He had learned to care for the people he loved rather than care about them. Consequently Sam made everyone else’s needs more important than his own.
As I helped Sam to use mindful awareness and C.O.A.L.(Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love)*, he was able to learn about his tendency to put himself last. Over time with therapy and the help of Alanon, 12 step recovery for friends and family who are affected by someone else’s drinking, Sam could finally take better care of himself, as well as be the loving spouse and father he wanted to be.
When Sam did the things he needed to do for himself he was more relaxed, forgiving and available to his loved ones. At first Sam didn’t believe there was a way for him to feel less angry unless other people learned the rules of the road and became more considerate in general. Now when Sam starts to feel annoyed by other drivers on the road he remembers that he has slipped back into putting other people’s needs above his and takes the action that is needed to give himself enough time in the morning. Sometimes this means asking for help in preparing breakfast or with other tasks he had taken on. Sam also learned skills that help him to relax and take the time to understand how he is feeling and what he needs in the moment. Taking deep calming breaths is one thing he learned to do that nourishes him and helps him to feel more relaxed and present. Adding a simple yoga and meditation practice into his day is another way he has learned to help himself to the benefit of his whole family.
Learning what is behind your anger gives you valuable information. This knowledge is an essential first step in ending the cycle of self-defeating behavior and feeling more contentment and ease in daily activities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help to start the process that leads to more freedom and greater happiness.
Next, Anger – Part 2.
*From Dr. Dan Siegel from the Mindful Brain, 2008
Elle Garfield, ACSW