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A valuable tool, if you know how to use it

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Anger can be a very valuable tool, if you know how to use it. I think of it like modeling clay. If you use it, learn from it, and go on, you can grow from it. But if you just hold on to it, or wallow in it, or don't deal with it, it will harden into a lump of ugly that will gnaw at your soul.

We all have a lot of things in life to be angry about. But the more you wallow in anger, the angrier you become. The more you think of things that make you angry, the more angry you become. Heck, when I start thinking or talking about those vile rat-bastards at the IRS, I can feel my blood pressure going up, my voice raises, and I start looking for bugs to squash as I'm stomping around (pacing). So it is best for me to just let it go, and think about it as infrequently as possible. I do not ignore it completely, nor pretend it isn't there, but just accept it and my impotence to do much about it, and let it go. It is the way those people are, and karma and life will have a way of catching up with those sick bastards that have nothing better to do than hurt others -- they will reap what they sow on their own, and I don't have to give up my control and calm and let them win. In fact, I actually pity them for what they are (which allows them to do what they do).

One of the tricks to controlling anger is just learning when to let it go, when to put it out of your mind and when to stop wallowing in it.

I think the majority of humanity is subconscious (or unconscious) -- they don't think about their actions, they just do them. They react to whatever is going on. Someone says something, and they respond -- usually in the same way they've responded 1,000 times before, with no difference in effect. You'd think that if they were human beings, that are sentient and capable of learning "cause and effect", that the thought would pass through their head, "Every time I've reacted in this way, I've failed to achieve the desired effect, and only caused a heated arguments and made myself and others mad... so perhaps I should try something new". But no, it is far easier to be on autopilot and just respond, as are the other people involved. Usually an observer could have scripted the whole event out before hand, if for no other reason then based on the experience of the dozens of times it has happened before. Neither side thinks, both only react -- and they might as well be plant life as they are not thinking ahead and behaving like a higher life forms.

Anger is often subconscious lashing out. Not thinking, just reacting. It is a low emotion -- autopilot. The fight or flight mechanism stuck on verbal fight.

When someone attacks me verbally, by saying something hostile or provoking -- especially when it is a hot button, and I know it, they know it, and we both know that each other knows it -- I try to just pause and think "Why?". Why are they trying to either hurt, anger, or provoke me? Are they trying to distract from something said to them that they are uncomfortable about? Did they take something as a slight and they are trying to retaliate? Are they just trying to play puppet master and see if they can control me? Usually there is a reason, and just trying to think about it can calm the situation down. I often ask, "What was that about?" or "Why would you try to start a fight". Often that will cause them to start thinking about their actions, and briefly become conscious again.

Another trick to anger is thinking about why? Why are you getting angry, why is the other person trying to make you angry? What is going on? Always try to assess the situation before reacting.

Of course I am not flawless, and was far less so in my past. I had plenty to be angry about. My little brother was the darling child in my family that got what he wanted because he was more needy than me (because I was better at many things, was more independent, and needed less) -- so I received far less attention and fewer material things. What attention I did get was not very good -- I was physically and sexually abused as a kid (though mildly compared to many). I suffered mental and physical abuse at home from an angry step father who never learned how to deal with his anger issues (about being abused as a child). School and play was little better -- I was a small, asocial, brainy kid, with a mouth -- which is a recipe for regular beatings by large physical kids with attitudes and anger problems that they didn't know how to control. My mother used to joke that kids would line up around the block to beat me up, which was too close to the truth for my comfort. There was a lot of things that frustrated me in my early childhood.

Anger is frustration. Usually you are a frustrated about someone's actions, and so you get angry with them. Recognize that it is your frustration causing you to react.

In school or play, some bigger kid would usually pick on me, and pick on me until they finally got he response they wanted (or thought they wanted). They would get me to fight (by striking me first). I learned that it didn't matter how much they hurt me in a fight, if I just kept hurting them (and left them something to remember) it would teach them to leave me alone in the future. It worked, more or less, but there were enough stupid bullies that each had to learn the lesson one at a time to keep me in trouble. So I was marked as a "troubled child" -- the system blamed me for getting in fights with kids twice my size after they hit me first. Of course it didn't help that I was a nasty fighter -- biting, scratching, kicking, elbows, knees, head butting, whatever it took to give them a momento to leave me alone. I vented my anger on those that did me wrong (like picking fights with me) as a way to try to teach them to avoid the actions that got me angry.

One of the problems with anger is that it is often held in, and misplaced. When people vent they usually aren't venting about what they are really angry about -- usually they are venting about all the other injustices of their past as well. That is not right. Don't let irrelevant things get brought into the fray -- stick with the ONE issue at hand, not all the wrongs of your life. Gain control, don't let anger control you.

It sort of worked. I did get some of the desired effects, and got labeled a crazy little spaz in a fight that should be left alone, right after two kids picked a fight with me and I kept pounding one of the kids head into the sidewalk until a teacher pulled me off. After that (5th grade) the kids decided there were easier targets of torment. But I don't think I really won the bigger battle. I was able to stop the undesired actions only by become that which I didn't really like anymore. I gave them the control to pick fights with me, I just responded. I was the puppet.

Letting anger rule you, lets others control you.

Over time, I had learned how to fight (the hard way), and I was bigger than at least some kids. Shit rolls down hill, and I was no longer the valley. So in my early teens I was somewhat a nasty kid. I was never the full bully (I bullied only after some transgression), but I did torment and "pass it on". I was repeating the pattern and becoming that which I despised. I remember, in 8th grade (13), basically tormenting a kid until he sucker punched me. (I never crossed the physical torment barrier first). That poor kid punched me in the head with with everything he had, and I just snapped my head around, glared and said, "Now your dead!" I saw absolute terror in that kids eyes, and learned that terror makes the other part of fight or flight (the flight part) work really well. I stalked that kid for days, eager to seek revenge. Until finally the Principal called me into the office (with the other kid), where he talked to us -- I sat there giving the other kid death glares and freaking him out more. But I got home and kept thinking about what the Principal had said. He asked if I had ever been tormented into fighting, and did I like it? Did I enjoy tormenting someone that I could obviously beat up (even if he was bigger than me). What did I want to become?

Basically, I had a slow-burn epiphany. I built my philosophy that "you are what you do" (we are the sum of our actions). I had no right to be angry at this kid for acting in the only way he knew how. Me "getting him back" at him, was still doing that which I despised -- I provoked him into responding, and then was going t take it out on him? I eventually caught up with the kid one day (from behind, since he avoided me quite effectively), and turned him around (he was white as a ghost when he saw who it was), I put out my hand (to shake) and apologized for tormenting him. He was surprised. It felt good. Contrary to popular adult psycho babble fluff, we never became friends -- far too much water under the bridge, but we got on with life. I let the anger go -- not just for him hitting me, but for all the other kids hitting me as well (which is what I had really been mad about). I look at many people and feel sorry for them, since I realize that they never get beyond that angry kid that I once was. It didn't happen over night, it took me years of work to really learn how to control it, but that was a very important first step.

Another important step was my years of Martial Arts. I learned that I could be struck without getting angry (and to control it). I learned to control the frustrations we all deal with in life, at least partly by desensitizing myself towards frustration. Frustration (Anger) and loss of control at those better than you, usually only earned you more pain and frustration. But not giving in to the anger was much better. Good lessons there.

It took many more years to learn to forgive my abusive step-Dad (who had long been replaced by a non-abusive set-father). I learned to forgive my mother for being in denial about the abuse and ignoring my cries as a child (though honestly he was far worse when my mother wasn't home to hear). I learned to forgive my parents for the unjust way they treated me compared to my brother (they were only doing the best they could). I learned to forgive life for all the little crappy things that happened to me -- and I've always been one of those people that things happen to (been hit by a car four times, cracked my head open while backpacking in the mountains, had bad acne, many broken bones, and many other circumstance that most people never have to learn about). I got over it all. I learned to learn from anger. I sleep much better because at the end of the day because I don't have to carry all that anger with me.

Actually, I now look at all the positives in my life, and those have been many as well. I've had many, many experiences that were "learning opportunities". I was forced to grow in ways that many have not had to. I have many funny stories (in hindsight) to tell -- as painful as they were at the time. I've had an interesting life.

Good from Anger

After all those experiences I had that made me angry (frustrated), I just tried to take the good. What would it teach me? What positives were left? If people constantly tried to make me angry, I would talk it over with them -- try to get at why. Anger became a tool to increase communication, not to eliminate it. That was good. If people kept being angry and hurtful (and trying to anger me), then I learned to avoid them -- anger was like pain/feedback, "Doctor it hurts when I do this", to which he responds, "Well don't do that". I learned to make my life more pleasant by avoiding those that were less pleasant. I made better choices in life. I broke up with a girlfriend because she was angry all the time, and couldn't learn to get over it -- so my life became much better than it would have been otherwise. Those are positives as well. Learning from anger taught me more than almost anything else in life. Learning to get beyond anger, and forgive, made me a better person.

Forgiveness needs to be in moderation. Sometimes you can't forgive or it is not wise to do so -- it makes no sense if the person is just going to keep doing it. But at least you can learn to avoid. Most things you can get past, and you will feel better when you can finally put them in your past, instead of dragging them with you and beating people in the present (or future) with them.

Now when someone tries to make me angry, my default reaction is not anger back, but sadness or empathy. What cruel injustices are they suffering to make them lash out? How sad it must be for them to give up control because of their hurt. I feel compassion for their frustration. I try to give them empathy. Learning from my anger may help me to help others get over theirs. Some people take my attitude at not getting angry back as condescension, and it can make them madder. So there are still pitfalls on this path -- but overall, I think it is a better path than before. I know that I like myself more.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm no saint, and I'm very human. But at least I know I've found the better path to be on. Over time I've learned to be one of the least angry people I know -- but it has been a long road, with many slip-ups along the way. I forgive myself those slips (as well as others), and let the anger (at myself) go as well.

Anger taught me to write to get over what I was angry about. Sometimes I just wrote to myself, then threw it away, or put it in a drawer (the issue was completed). Sometimes, I let others read what I wrote so that they could understand where I was coming from. Sometimes I used it to confront others so that the issue could be exposed and explored fully (and eventually gotten over). Dealing with anger gave me more tools to cope with life and it taught me to appreciate NOT being angry all the time. I can't thank that anger enough for what it has taught me.


Life is too short. It seems like a week ago I was learning to tie my shoes and playing with Lincoln Logs in preschool. A few days ago I was getting beaten up in elementary school or at home, and hunting and fishing in my creek. I just passed through the awkward stages of puberty, sports, high school, peer pressure (fitting in) and cars. Just yesterday I got a job, made it a career, found a loving partner and got married. Now I'm 35 and time and life is just flying by -- it is going by way too fast to waste time being angry all the time and not enjoy what time there is left. My wife's health problems, near death experiences (parachute malfunctions, crash landing an airplane, serious car accidents, and so on) are all there to remind me (us) about how precious and fragile and brief life really is. Next week (or so it will seem), when we are all on our deathbeds (or in our graves), do we really want to look back on my lives (or have others do so) and remember us as being angry all the time?

Why the big sermon? It is the holidays, of course. No one can push our buttons like our families. (They've had a lifetime of practice). I know at some of my family gatherings, one member will start pushing another members buttons, and the others will retaliate by sandbagging them with some event (where they were wronged, or embarrassing situation) that is 5, 10 or 20 years in the past. All that hurt and frustration. Remember, those people won't be around forever. It is a time to forgive the past (when possible) and go on from here -- enjoy what time is left. When you get sucker punched with some transgression of the past, or embarrassing event that you didn't really want to talk about, try to think about what is really important in life. Think about anger, and what is going to be the reaction to you reactions. Maybe you need to take it into a separate room and finally have it out, so you can get beyond whatever it is. Maybe you should just let it go (and let the comment go by) and feel better about yourself for taking the high road. Maybe you need to write it all out, all the issues about what happened and what you feel, and send it to them (or not). Don't discount your feelings of anger, they are real and exist for reasons -- but break out of autopilot, rise above the emotion, and do something that will make you feel good about yourself. Laugh at the silly little things that make you mad, and those things that you've been holding on to for decades or generations. Forgive others, and forgive yourself. Start becoming what you want to be. Don't let anger rule you -- instead use anger as the tool for teaching, for communication, or for thinking -- let anger help you grow. If you don't use anger constructively then anger will become the puppet master and you will become the puppet, and you will probably not like what you will become -- we are only the sum of our actions.

Created: 12/05/98
Updated: 11/09/02

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