The Intelligent Approach to Controlling Anger

controlling anger

The single clenched fist lifted and ready, or the open hand held out and waiting. Choose: For we meet by one or the other.

— Carl Sandburg

In my practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen people experience so much pain around anger and it breaks my heart. It’s an emotion that either sits in us like a cancer eating away at our happiness and peace, or it explodes out into our closest relationships causing distress and disharmony to all involved.

And it’s not just the anger. When we come to our senses, we’re often consumed with shame and regret about how we’ve reacted.

Anger feels so out of control, we just don’t know what to do with it. So let’s bring anger out of the shadows and explore it. In my own life and in my work with clients, I’ve discovered how essential it is to form a friendly relationship with anger. I know what you’re thinking: “Why would I ever want to be friendly with my anger?”

But here’s the truth. When we let anger run wild it wreaks all kinds of havoc on ourselves and the people we care about most. It’s a powerful force that separates us and sucks us dry of joy and well being. Unexamined anger keeps us on lockdown with no choice about how we react.

And when we approach anger with intelligence, we rise above it to see clearly. We become curious about it so it’s no longer the raging beast that’s driving us.

Becoming familiar with our experience of anger brings flexibility, openness, and heart to challenging situations and helps us to formulate a practical plan for how to deal with it when it appears.

How does anger stir you up? Below are descriptions of different ways you might feel stuck and suggestions for how to practice the alternative: the intelligent, conscious choice that frees you from the prison of anger.

But realize that none of these suggestions is going to be the magic bullet that takes away your anger. If you’re interested in befriending your anger, see it as a journey back to your whole, peaceful, loving self. And, believe me, the journey contains gifts you could never imagine. Know that it takes time, and have patience with yourself.

How you’re stuck: Your anger feels out of control.

Conscious choice: Be super honest with yourself and reflect on what you really want—in your life, in the situations that trigger you, in your relationships. Keep reminding yourself of these priorities in the morning when you wake up, after each episode of anger, and before you go to sleep.

Surround yourself with people that support them. Orient your whole life toward what you really want.

How you’re stuck: Anger seems to come suddenly from out of the blue.

Conscious choice: When you’re not angry, reflect on what triggers you. Is it a particular person or situation? Or an internal state such as stress, loneliness, or fatigue?

Prepare how you’re going to deal with the situation before it happens. Take good care of your needs so you’re not cranky, making sure you’re well fed and relaxed. Take deep, conscious breaths when the anger starts to fire up. Graciously step away, if that’s helpful.

How you’re stuck: You get caught in your mind in a story of blaming someone else. You compulsively believe that things should be different than they are.

Conscious choice: Know what anger actually is. It consists of a story in your mind about what shouldn’t be happening and physical sensations in your body. Repeating the story endlessly and ignoring your body only keeps the anger firmly in place.

When the story starts running, know that it won’t help to release you from the anger. Shift your attention away from it, and instead make a space to feel the sensations in your body—which might be very intense. Every time, as often as necessary, let the story go, and bring your attention to your body, letting the physical sensations run their course.

Even if the story feels justified, you get to make a choice for your own peace and happiness. Do you want to be right and keep the story going? Or do you want to be peaceful?

How you’re stuck: You feel guilty and ashamed for how your anger affects others.

Conscious choice: Have compassion for yourself because now you’ve embarked on a journey to do something about this out-of-control emotion. See each anger episode as an opportunity to loosen its grip on you.

And make amends. Saying a heartfelt, “I’m sorry,” that you truly mean is a good start because it acknowledges you’re taking responsibility.  Show empathy for the other’s upset and suffering.

Don’t just vow to be different. Make a plan for consciously dealing with your anger and continually take action on it. Now you don’t have to feel so guilty about what you’ve done because you’re beginning to make better choices.

How you’re stuck: You’ve seriously tried to implement these tools without much success.

Conscious choice: Often, people find it easier to be angry than to feel the painful feelings of sadness, fear, and despair. See if there are feelings hiding underneath the anger that are fueling it. With curiosity and great compassion, begin to bring these out into the light of conscious awareness.  They are now part of your journey to freedom.

How you’re stuck: You stuff anger.

Conscious choice: You can’t really hide anger. If you’re stuffing it, it comes out in unhappiness, unskillful life choices, and even physical illness. Begin to turn toward the anger with friendliness and curiosity and bring it out of the shadows. If you’re afraid it will overwhelm you, don’t hesitate to get professional help.

How you’re stuck: A part of you enjoys the experience of anger.

Conscious choice: Reconnect with what the wisest, most sane part of you really wants. Let that guide you.

And don’t give up on the power and energy of the experience of anger, which can feel incredibly alive. Channel this passion in more harmonious ways.

How you’re stuck: You feel like doing damage or hurting someone.

Conscious choice: Try a “conscious rant,” suggested by my friend and author, Robert Masters. Go to a private, soundproof place, and for a few minutes express your anger in exaggerated ways. You can scream, stomp, say words or make sounds, wave your fists, beat a pillow, anything that lets every ounce of the anger be expressed. Make sure it’s over the top.

In a very short time, you’ll feel finished—and enlivened. It’s so extreme, you’ll be laughing, as I can tell you from personal experience.

And if you genuinely want to hurt someone, please seek out assistance from a professional who can help you address these urges.

Your Turn

Now that you have some ideas about befriending anger, make a plan. How are you going to get back control when you’re in the grip of anger? How can your lifestyle choices support inner peace? How can you be kinder?

But don’t assume you’ll get rid of anger. Hopefully, it will lessen, but that will happen because you’re now dealing with it in conscious, supportive ways when it turns up. Once you’re in control, and not the anger, it won’t matter that it arises because you’ll have confidence that you’ll know how to respond.

See your anger as a gift. What wondrous things does it have to teach you?

How do you get stuck with anger? What have you learned from it? Please feel free to share your own anger plan in the comments.

13 thoughts on “The Intelligent Approach to Controlling Anger”

  1. I know my anger over so many past situations, controls me, instead of me controlling my anger. I usually don’t or can’t express my hurt directly to the person, or incident that has made me feel like I am being treated unjustly. So I have stuffed it. But it comes out as sideward anger, directing my rage (from My previously hurt feelings n wounded self-esteem) on a usually unsuspecting and undeserving person. I couldnt speak up to an abusive husband (now ex), over 18 yrs ago. At the least provocation I can “flip” off the world, n swear like a trooper. I treat others now like I had hated being treated. I totally over react to minor situations. Someone once told me that I would talk so nasty to them cuz I knew “it was safe”. Yes, I only let my anger out when I know someone won’t or can’t harm me. I know I became what I felt such anger at. I am not proud of myself n if I saw a tape of my behavior, I would feel guilt n remorse. I am 60 yrs old, I need to treat everyone like I want to be treated WITH RESPECT REGARDLESS OF PROVOCATION. If someone treats me nice n fairly, I fall all over myself trying to show that person overwhelming appreciation n gratitude n will do all I can to do something nice for them. Hmm, sounds like I need to find a balance. Your article is so timely n I need to assimulate what you have expresed. Thank you.

    1. I can see this really touched a chord with you, Terri. Spend some time thinking about what’s really important to you, and start orienting your life in that direction. I love that you want to treat others the way you want to be treated. Every time this happens, give yourself a pat on the back and feel good about it. Be very kind to your anger when it appears, but step back from it and tell it that its days are numbered. That way you become empowered.

  2. Thank you, Gail, for this very insightful post. It was a pleasant surprise to read this post today because I was experiencing a particular moment of irritation that was leading to anger. This was unlike me and I didn’t like feeling so much negative energy. I turned to writing out my thoughts and feelings to help me understand why I had been so irritable lately and, like you mentioned, I realized that there usually was another emotion behind my irritability and anger. Once I understood the root of my anger and the real emotion I felt, I was able to better cope with and resolve my anger. Thank you for your suggestions. I’m sure they will help me in dissipating future moments of anger.

  3. It takes practice and real awareness because the grip of anger can cloud and even block our ability to look at it intelligently until afterwards and the damage is done. Self observation is essential in recognizing the triggers and at that point making the better choice. We can allow, even use, the anger to lead us to clarity within, instead of spreading it around to others or at another individual. Thank you for the article, it had a lot of good information and ways to deal with this beast.

    1. The key to dealing with anger, as you say Tod, is awareness. If we’re not consciously aware of what we’re doing, then things run wild out of control. But awareness offers a choice to align ourselves with what we really want in any given moment. Anger is absolutely an opportunity for clarity within, if we use it that way.

  4. I am very unfamiliar with my own anger and rage, I am unfamiliar with what triggers it, I am in the beginning stages of learning what my triggers are. Rage comes up from past traumas etc… but I fear the rage because it does make me feel out of control.
    I know I have to find a way to release it but when it comes up or is triggered, I find it very hard to stay in a rational head space and find a healthy release for it.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Jamie. I’m so glad to hear you are beginning to identify the triggers for the rage you experience. That’s an essential first step.

      Since the anger is strong and has been with you a long time, it’s probably going to take some time for you to gain some control. But keep at it – you will make progress. After you become aware that you’ve been angry, that’s the time to take some breaths, go to a relaxing place maybe in nature, and begin to be very kind to yourself. Reflect on what happened, and see how you might prepare next time you are in the situation.

      When the anger is strong, release sometimes helps – by yourself or with a trusted friend. Do the conscious rant I describe in the article so the energy has an outlet. You get to scream and beat your fists all you want in a safe way!

      You are now on a journey toward balance and well being. Anger has a beautiful fiery energy to it. Let that show in healthy ways in your life and stay committed to what you really want for yourself.

  5. I just dont know how to say it in ways never said before. I am sorry. Yes I, too have been so unfamiliar with my own anger. I feel mistreated and felt such injustice when she repeatedly say that I am ‘unbalanced’. That is my trigger word. I love her so much and I dont want us to be in discord because of our own fits of rage. After I insist she stop saying the word, I then want to go drink water, then she pushed the water, spilled it all over the floor She started talking nasty to me without realizing she shouldnt have further fueled me, and at the same time I should have tried something better to counter my anger (i.e. saying I dont want my anger, taking deep breaths, picturing myself angry). These things that are all over the articles advising people on how to take control before the lamp of their mind shut off on anger. Thank you so much for the article.

  6. This is such a wonderful article. What I struggle with is while I am calm and unangered I will have a whole plan set up of how next time a trigger happens how I am going to respond better and kinder than without thought when the actual trigger and situation arises I react sharply, rudely I find myself getting really upset when people ask me questions or aren’t catching on to what I am explaining or saying…I feel like i react to every little penny annie thing and I don’t want to i want to be kind and calm despite all anger feelings that rise up within me i want to be loving for real not just in public but in my private life. I want to show more love to my family i dont want to make them feel stupid for asking me a question or for caring. Life is just too short…I struggle with not responding when the feelings rise i feel like i just give in and go off without even thinking and these things and situations arent really serious…😢 I want to change I really do because it’s affecting my personal relationships people walk on egg shells and tread carefully with me because they have no idea how I’ll act 😟

  7. Thank you for acknowledging that anger can feel good. It can feel empowering. Managing anger it in a way that doesn’t feel/isn’t unempowering is important to me, what I somehow need to figure out.

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