Sunday, July 27, 2014

Overcoming Anger

I am writing today about overcoming anger.  So many people seem to be struggling with anger.  It is a very dangerous and destructive emotion.  Some people direct their anger outward.  They harm people around them, psychologically if not physically, and they may destroy inanimate objects.  Others direct their anger inward.  These people destroy their own self-esteem, willpower, and identity.  This results in much suffering and an inability to be a good and loving friend to those close to them.  These two groups are not mutually exclusive.  I tend to fall in the second group.  Although I’m not immune to anger, perhaps my story and the progress I have made can provide inspiration or an example for others.

Over the past many years, I've made three cognitive changes that drastically reduced my level of anger.  Firstly, as a generally analytical person, and with an education in social sciences, I learned to view the preconditions, causalities, and intricacies in human interactions.  With that perspective, I began to more accurately observe the complexity of events that upset me.  Secondly, as an agnostic I actively worked to rid myself of a dualistic worldview and adopt a monistic one.  Thirdly, as a Buddhist, I learned to view each person with compassion and empathy.

As a teenager, I was generally unhappy.  Accordingly I had a lot of anger.  Much of my unhappiness and anger came from sexual frustration.  For reasons I understand much better today, I was extremely unattractive to girls.  Of course, many reasons that I was not attractive resulted from my unhappiness.  I’ll spare the psychoanalysis to arrive concisely at the point.  I had entered into a vicious cycle where my anger and unhappiness resulted in social problems, and my social problems engendered more anger and unhappiness. 

--- Dependent Origination ---

So my first step to reducing anger was to view situations that upset me in a more nuanced and holistic way.  Unfortunately, that the vicious cycle was a huge obstacle to actually doing this.  I found that while I’m acutely angry, I cannot accurately view the object of my anger.  I must wait until the anger naturally subsides a bit, and I can get a more impartial perspective.  Then I can analyze the situation retrospectively.  And in my experience, anger does naturally subside, at least to a point, all on its own, given that I remove myself from the offending situation and that I do not nurture my feelings of anger. 

Once I was able to break out of the vicious cycle and began observing the complexities and preconditions of the events that upset me, I realized that I could not blame a single person or event for any misfortune.  My anger was, at the very least dissipated, and in many situations reduced.  For example, if someone mocks me and makes jokes at my expense, I could respond with anger toward that person.  But instead I try to understand that person’s motivations.  I might intuit that he or she has low self-esteem and is acting out to try to impress others.  Understanding this, I realize the negativity is only directed at me arbitrarily; it’s not personal.  Knowing that the jokes are not personal, I’m less angry about them.  For those interested, this general concept is described in Buddhist teachings as dependent origination.

--- Monism ---

As a Christian and as an American, I was raised with a dualistic worldview.  As I turned away from Christianity, I also began to abandon the dualism that accompanies it, which is much more difficult.  To stop being a Christian, one just stops believing.  To stop thinking dualistically, one must make a complete paradigm shift, unlearning fundamental cognitive constructs and replacing them with completely new and foreign ideas.  Dualism was linked to thousands of other ideas and memories in my brain, and each one of those neural connections needed to be broken before I could genuinely view the world monistically.  For those that have not done this, and are interested, it will likely take lot of effort and a long time.  And by long time, I mean it took me many years.  But it was absolutely worth it. 

A dualistic perspective allows us to easily place blame and avoid fully engaging with the world and people around us.  For example, I used to observe the suffering around me and in the world at large, and I would blame the rich and the powerful.  If only the plutocrats and oligarchs would act with more benevolence and altruism, the world would be a better place, I thought.  I saw the ruling class as self-interested and greedy; I saw them as evil.  But now I understand that it’s not black and white.  Aside from true sociopaths, people almost always intend to behave in a moral and ethical fashion.  They often fail to live up to their own moral code for many reasons which can be understood.  For example, many people refuse to acknowledge the negative impacts of their actions.  But even this denial is not immoral.  It may be a lack of psychological fortitude.  Or it could just be simple ignorance. 

Dualistic thinking allows us to dehumanize and vilify anyone we view as ‘the other.’  And the dehumanization encourages anger, hatred, and generally destructive and irresponsible behavior.  Ridding myself of dualistic thinking alleviated much anger in my life.

--- Compassion ---

Compassion is the polar opposite of vilification.  Both Buddha and Jesus recommended approaching every person and every situation with compassion.  I’m not too familiar with Islam, but I think Muhammad taught this as well.  As fundamental as this message may have been to Christ’s teachings, it seems it does not resonates within his churches.  Essentially, this is a monistic message and conflicts with Christian dualism.  So I learned the message from Buddhism.

I’ve found that in the same way that dualism encourages anger, a general attitude of compassion discourages it.  To be compassionate toward a person is to directly think in a way that diminishes anger.  If I view a criminal without compassion, I will want to punish the criminal.  But if I view the criminal with compassion, I will seek to learn what problems led to the criminal acts.  I will then want a psychologist or social worker to resolve the underlying problems.  And I understand that if the causes of criminality are erased, then crime will generally cease.  Understanding the complex conditions that led the perpetrator to commit crimes, I find it easy to forgive, even when anger does arise. 


All three steps that I have described are in a way, three different paths to the same conclusion, three different ways to view the same understanding.  These three cognitive shifts allowed me to greatly reduce anger in my life.  But based on my anecdotal observations, the biggest obstacle that many face in overcoming anger is a complete lack of desire to do so.  I see many people nurture their anger.  They derive self-righteousness, confidence, and a sense of power from their anger because they have not learned to nurture confidence and empowerment from within.  They make excuses, telling themselves that their anger helps motivate them or to focus their energy.  But even for those people, if they follow the steps that I have, their anger will subside even if they don’t intend it to.

One last thought: your anger is more corrosive and harmful to yourself than it will ever be to the person with whom you are angry.

Thank you for reading.  Please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

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