Managing Anger in the Forgiveness Process

There is no such thing as a bad feeling. There are unpleasant feelings, feelings that disrupt our peace. But, an emotion itself is never objectively wrong. It just is.

What is Anger?

Anger is a universal human experience. Whether you’re from a small village in Thailand or Manhattan, you’ve probably experienced anger at some point in your life. For those who have been wronged or done something to harm another, anger can be a common occurrence.

Its universality raises an important question. If this potentially disturbing response is natural, what is its purpose? The function of anger is to help us learn something about navigating life. Anger in the face of injustice compels us to action.

But, how do we learn to integrate the experience without being an angry person? To answer this question, we need to dig a little more deeply into how the experience of anger manifests.

What Does Anger Feel Like?

Take a moment now and see if you can beckon the emotion. How does your body respond? For many, the breath shortens, muscles contract. We experience tingling in our hands and feet. The jaw tightens.

What about the mind? When we elicit anger, the mind begins to race. We often latch onto the story that evokes the most indignation and outrage. This creates a cycle of feedback in the body that reinforces the embodiment of rage. The story makes us madder, and the body responds even more aggressively.

Discerning the mind/body aspect of an emotion provides essential data on how to healthfully manage the experience. Rather than ridiculing ourselves for “giving in” to anger or shaming ourselves for somehow failing to be a good human, we move into the sensations of anger and begin to disarm the experience by gently combating the response.

The sensations of anger create an intensity and energy in the body that can be addicting. Anger originates in the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response. The limbic system controls the release of adrenaline.

Anger also triggers dopamine, the same neurotransmitter in the brain cocaine and other drugs stimulate. Despite knowing it has the potential to upset our peace and usurp our liberty, it feels good.

This is an important point because we have to be honest with ourselves about the relationship we have to anger and indignation. Its natural occurrence provides us with a tool to learn and grow. Anger as a habit, on the other hand, serves only to arouse. That charge comes at the high price of weakened vitality and isolation in the long run.

How do we Healthfully Deal with Anger?

There are many devices we can use to move through the experience of anger more gracefully. Find an activity you know you are willing to use consistently that involves rigorous physical activity and mental focus. Kickboxing, jogging, some types of yoga, strenuous hikes, even screaming into a pillow will do the trick. One of the simplest yet most effective tools is merely standing up, jumping up and down, and shaking the hands and feet swiftly. It might look silly, but it does the trick.

Notice what is missing from the list? Meditation, gentle yoga, a casual stroll. Why? Because we need to begin by teaching the body to release the anxious sensations associated with anger. With practice, however, these too can be profoundly useful. The key is not to move away from the anger. Repressing it can cause chronic health and psychological issues.

What meditation does well is treat the mind. Choosing an activity that requires both physically-demanding action and focus helps move our attention away from the story we are running through in our minds. Meditation, i.e., learning to detach from mental activity by simply observing thoughts, also does this. It is important, however, to develop this ability in emotionally stable states before trying to apply it in challenging situations.

Anger is an integral part of the forgiveness process because it illuminates the stories we have about the injustices we perceive. As we raise our awareness, we can learn a great deal about what we can forgive to begin to free ourselves from anger that disrupts our lives.

Ultimately, anger is trying to tell you something you need to know. Denying it won’t help you learn. When it emerges, look at it. Ask what you need to know. Forgive. Adapt, and move on to the new lessons life has to offer.