© Ralph Nelson 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 6, 2006

Do you believe that it is possible to love your anger? To embrace, and maybe even cherish your anger? As you're pondering an answer think of these two scenarios: 1. your anger is insidious, pervasive, and deeply damaging, or 2. you embrace, cherish, and work with your anger in a healthy manner. Regardless of which manifestation you chose the anger still resides within your body.

I understand if you are having trouble with the concept of loving your anger. So, let me offer you another thought, and, if you will, try it on: you no longer inappropriately exercise your anger and you no longer deeply hurt the people who love you.

I want to talk about making friends with your anger, and I wish to break it down into three segments. The first is: What is the difference between being angry and being mad? (I'll give you a hint, they are the same.) Secondly I will talk about how anger is made manifest; and thirdly I will show some techniques to help deal with anger.

What does it mean to be angry, and what does it mean to be mad, and how are they different?

The word mad, of course, has many meanings: Mad can be fun - I was mad with laughter; Mad can be loving - Oh! I am mad about her; Mad can mock temporary insanity - I was mad to go along with your crazy idea. So when we use the word mad it does not necessarily have a connotation of anger. The word mad, because of its many lighthearted meanings, is a "softer" version of the word anger. However, perhaps, the foremost definition of the word mad is anger.

What is anger? It is a strong feeling of displeasure or hostility. When we are experiencing and feeling these emotions we are mad or angry, the two words have the same meaning.

I have heard people say that they would rather view themselves as mad while viewing other people as angry. Some people believe that being mad is temporary and being angry is a permanent state of mind requiring treatment of some sort. I suppose that this perspective has some validity, I don't recall ever seeing a "Mad Management Class".

I have, in the past, been afraid to describe myself as angry because I felt much more comfortable with the word mad. I did not want people to see me as the sort of person who would think or do the things that an angry person would do. Even though, all the while, I was raging, pounding my fists, throwing things, and yelling on a fairly regular basis. However, I would much rather call myself mad than angry.

I now realize that when it comes to strong feelings of displeasure or hostility, being mad and being angry are the same. I believe that human beings, generally, are afraid to use the word angry, especially as it pertains to themselves. And, speaking of pertaining to one's own self, I submit to you that if you start naming these feelings anger, you will take a major step towards reconciling with your anger.

Having these strong feelings of displeasure or hostility does not necessarily mean that we are violent, and it certainly does not mean that we are wrong. We can have these feelings and speak with words instead of fists. The most important issue is: how do we deal with the anger that we see and the anger that we feel. I will address this issue more in part three. Now, however, let me address the second issue: How does anger show up in our lives?

Sometime ago my wife Mary Ann ran into a friend from high school who she had not seen in a long time. They were having a great time catching up when Mary Ann happened to ask him if he is going to the reunion. His demeanor instantly changed, she saw anger and hatred in his face and body, and he said, "why would I ever do that?" Then Mary Ann recalled seeing him being picked on in class, being abused and berated by his classmates. At the time she thought, "oh he is just brushing it off there's no problem". Obviously she was wrong because they spoke twenty years later and he was still deeply troubled with anger about his high school years.

I was at Marineworld one time and saw a father and son walking side by side and the son was looking forward. Suddenly the father grabbed his son's chin and violently yanked his head sideways and yelled into his son's face.

Seeing this touched me deep in my soul, because I was beaten regularly by my dad's fists throughout my childhood.

When I became a parent I made the decision to never do what my dad had done, and I have not. However, when my son was young I started seeing myself relate with the kind of anger my dad expressed. And although I never touched him with my fists I did spank him. After realizing that I was spanking too much and seeing that my anger was being expressed inappropriately, I sought professional help with my anger issues; again, more on that in a moment.

I discovered recently that one of the ways I express my anger is to insult people. I have refined the art through the years and now I can do it and make it seem like I am "just kiddin' around". But, I recall very clearly times in the past when I would capitalize on someone's weakness, point out their shortcomings and, in a very sick way, try to elevate my status. This was a clear manifestation of my anger. And now I have to be very careful when I joke around and make fun of someone.

One of the things I regret most about my abuse of anger is how I used it to manipulate my son and daughter when they were young. I don't know how many times I said to them, "If you don't want me to be angry then do as I say". I will never again use this cruel technique with another human being.

Another way anger is shown is by bullying and demeaning people. When a person is oppressed and invalidated they sometimes turn this pain into hurting other people. I want to sing a song that talks about bullying and demeaning. It's written by Steve Seskin and Alan Shamblin. Steve wrote the song about his daughter who was being made fun of at school. It's titled, "Don't Laugh at Me".

Don't Laugh at Me
Words and music by Steve Seskin and Alan Shamblin

I'm a little boy with glasses, the one they call a geek.
A little girl who never smiles cuz I got braces on my teeth.
And I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep.

I'm that kid on every playground the one who's chosen last.
I'm the one who's slower than the others in my class.
You don't have to be my friend, but is it too much to ask?

Don't laugh at me, don't call me names.
Don't get your pleasure from my pain.
In God's eyes we're all the same.
Some day we'll all have perfect wings.
Don't laugh at me.

I'm the cripple on the corner, you pass me on the street.
I wouldn't be out here begging if I had enough to eat.
And don't think I don't notice that our eyes never meet.

I was born a little different, I do my dreamin' from this chair.
I pretend it doesn't hurt me when people point and stare.
There's a simple way to show me just how much you care.

Don't laugh at me, don't call me names.
Don't get your pleasure from my pain.
In God's eyes we're all the same.
Someday we'll all have perfect wings.
Don't laugh at me.

I'm fat ... I'm thin ... I'm short.
I'm tall ... I'm deaf ... I'm blind.
Hey aren't we all.

Don't laugh at me, don't call me names.
Don't get your pleasure from my pain.
In God's eyes we're all the same.
Someday we'll all have perfect wings.
Don't laugh at me.

Steve and Alan's song clearly describes ways that we exercise anger by demeaning and insulting people. But the biggest message in the song is - have empathy for the other person.

Empathy happens to be a tool we can use to help us deal with our anger. This brings me to the third part of my talk: What tools can we use to help bring about a healthy relationship with our anger?

In May of this year I finished a nine-month anger management class that is taught by an MFT in Richmond who specializes in helping people with their anger difficulties. The learning is presented as a combination of classroom and group therapy.

The course is broken down into three semesters, each lasting for three months. The first semester is to "Stop" the angry behavior, the second is to have Empathy for the other person, and the third is to try to determine where the anger comes from and also to deal with shame issues.

The first three month "Stop" portion is geared towards learning how to recognize when anger hits and then take steps to stop the unhealthy and sometimes dangerous expression of the anger.

Most western mental health professionals agree and certainly eastern philosophies teach us that anger has a "trigger thought". The trigger thought is the point when the feeling changes from stress to anger and it needs to be dealt with.

This can be thought of in three steps. First comes the arousal or stress, then comes the trigger thought, then comes the anger.

The trigger thought is an instantaneous thought that sends us into anger. Some trigger thoughts can be based on a belief that we are entitled to have people treat us with respect, and when we don't get that respect we may think, "How dare they do that to me", and then we move into anger. Or we think that we can change other people by "showing them the way", when they don't change we may say to ourselves, "Why won't he listen", this trigger thought brings us into anger. We can also assume that we know the other person's motives and see them as doing something on purpose to hurt us and we think, "She's not going to get away with this", and this can also be the trigger thought. Other trigger thoughts we may use that bring us to the point of unhealthy anger are thoughts like: "she should have", or, "you are this, or you are that", or, "who does he think he is talking to me like that?".

So, how do I work with the trigger thoughts?

First of all start looking at the situations you are in when you become angry. Try to feel the three steps of the process: the stress, the trigger thought, and then the anger - learn to intimately know this part of yourself, and be healthfully honest about your anger. Look closely at the stresses that pre-existed your trigger thought. Were you feeling tired, upset or depressed? Were you feeling sad or inadequate because of a mistake that you made? Journal this process; write down your stresses, trigger thoughts, and how you made manifest the anger.

Understanding our trigger thoughts can help us realize the moment that the anger hits, and knowing this can help us to direct our anger. So, what does it mean to direct my anger?

Once anger hits we have three choices of how to handle it: we can stuff it, escalate it, or direct it. Directing the anger is working with it instead of letting the anger run the show by escalating or stuffing it. We all know the unhealthy results of escalating anger - namely, screaming, raging, violence, etc. And many people believe that stuffing the anger can lead to untold emotional and physical problems. Directing the anger is simply working with it instead escalating or stuffing it. Directing the anger is where the profound healing can occur.

When I think of directing my anger I like to think that I am massaging, and embracing my anger; making friends with my anger. It is going to be there anyway, so way not try to get along with it? And at the same time I can stop letting my anger hurt the people that I love.

You can direct your anger by using "coping scripts" such as: "my unhealthy expression of anger will not get me what I want"; "the person I am angry at is trying to do the best they can with their resources and abilities"; "just because I think that I am right, does not mean that I am"; "two people can have different points of view, and it does not mean that I am right and they are wrong"; when my blood pressure is elevated because of anger, it is still dangerous.

I want to do a visualization with you to help you understand more about directing your anger by working with your trigger thoughts and coping scripts. Please do this only if you want to.

Before we go into it let me explain what we are going to do. First, if you would right now, think of a place you dearly love, where you are peaceful and contented. OK, now erase that image, but we will go back to it.

Now think of a minor irritant in your life, a very minor one please. This can be something that happens on a regular basis that makes you mad. Feel where you have tension in your body. OK, now erase that image.

Now here is what we're going to do. I will ask you to think of the place you love, and then ask you to think of the minor irritant, and then we'll travel back to the place you love.

So, if you wish, close your eyes, go to the place you love, see the beautiful things there, wonderful feelings, warm thoughts………. Now, go to the minor irritant, feel the sensations, notice the shift in your body, try to fully accept and embrace this feeling……….. Now, go back to the happy place…….. and I'll count back from three and at the count of one please open your eyes.

The point when you went to the minor irritant was the trigger thought transitioning you into anger; the point when you went back to the happy thought was the coping script whereby you directed the anger instead of stuffing or escalating it.

Try practicing this so that you can see how the trigger thoughts and the coping scripts occur and how they feel in your body so that you will have a better idea of when they occur, what they are, and how to work with them.

My personal method of using this technique is to do the following: I will go about my daily activities constantly saying to myself, "I will know when the trigger thought occurs; I will then know that the anger has surfaced; and I then use my coping scripts to direct my anger in a healthy manner; and nothing that happens today is going to send me into an escalation of my anger!" I continually repeat this routine, in my mind, perhaps a hundred or more times per day.

Another method you can use to direct your anger, while arguing with your significant other, is to call a time out when you have hit the trigger thought and anger is present. Lift up your hands, make a "T" sign, and say, "I want a time out". Practice this ahead of time and have each person sign a contract, so that both of you understand that no one is to say another word when a timeout has been called, and you will take a one-hour break from the conversation. Then, after one hour, resume the discussion in a less stressful environment.

The second three month period of the anger management class deals with having empathy for the person that we are mad at.

I've found that the more empathy I have for people that I am mad at, the more I am able to help myself direct my anger and not stuff it or escalate it. A classic story that tells about empathy is:

A man was on a bus one day and a father and his young daughter got on the bus and the father sat down next to the man. The daughter immediately started to run up and down the isle bumping into people, stepping on their feet, and yelling and making a lot of noise. The father completely ignored her. The man finally said to him, "Sir, are you aware that your daughter is annoying the people on this bus?" The father replied, "I'm sorry, we just left the hospital where my wife died, I guess my daughter is not handling her Mother's death very well either."

Having empathy for someone you're mad at can be in the form of questions that you silently ask yourself such as, "What is this person feeling or needing? (This could help us identify their needs and feelings), or, "What are the influences that have brought this person to behave in this manner". If we can connect to the other person - without the anger! - we are much more likely to diffuse the anger and relate in a healthy manner.

It can be very helpful at this point to go back to your trigger thought and look at why you are reacting in an angry manner.

The final three months of the class addresses the issue of where does the anger come from, and what does shame have to do with the process.

The most important thing I learned here is that I try to avoid feeling my shame by getting angry. Instead of saying, "I'm sorry, I was wrong". I have been much more likely to get angry at the person I have wronged. Instead of admitting my inadequacies I would rather lash out at someone. This behavior deeply troubles my soul.

The part about tracing the source of anger is obviously the purvey of a qualified therapist and a therapeutic environment. As such, I'll hazard only one suggestion: to cloak it in the vernacular, be brutally honest and open with yourself about your anger.

For me, tracing the origin of most of my anger was easy - my dad hitting me with his fists when I was a child. I carried this anger through many years and different forms of therapy. About a year and a half ago something shifted in my soul, and for the first time in my life I felt compassion for my dad. I felt sorry for him; his horrifying Prisoner of War experience; his tremendous insecurities and self doubt; his alcoholism; and his upbringing with an alcoholic dad (who I suspect beat him too). After I made this shift I was fully able to address my own anger. Empathy and compassion for my dad unbolted the door.

On Tuesday August 8th, of this year, I celebrated one year of abstinence from raging, pounding my fists, screaming and yelling, throwing anything, and angry outbursts of any sort. Except for a couple of, "Liz will you please stop", directed at my teenage daughter with the intensity and volume that I just demonstrated. Speaking of my daughter Liz, last Father's Day she said to me, "I appreciate that you're not the way you used to be."

I still have my anger, but now we're working together as a team.

Dealing with my anger is the most significant event of my life. It profoundly enhances my spiritual growth. Spirituality, from my perspective, is a deep understanding of the essence of who I am and how that relates to God. Unhealthy anger severely limits this understanding.

Healthy expression of anger brings about unlimited potential.

Go with healthy anger, and go in peace.