There is a Firefighter in All of Us: How to Let Go of Your Anger
If you are ready to stop being angry, have I got a trick for you!
But first, let’s check on that question first…
Are you ready to let go of your anger?
For some, that sounds like a silly question. Why would you want to be consumed by your anger? Why would you want to lose sleep or be preoccupied with upsetting thoughts about what has or hasn’t happened? Of course you’d like to be less angry, right??
Well, let me ask you this, Why would you want to let go of your anger and perhaps in doing so, let someone who has wronged you off the hook? Why would you so readily stop being “right” and allow what is to just exist, even though it’s wrong or flawed?
Suddenly it doesn’t seem so simple, does it?
Yes, anger serves a purpose. And before you try to reduce or eliminate your anger, you first need to examine what purpose your anger serves. If it serves a worthy purpose, no therapy, no self-help, nothing will help you get rid of something you are invested in.
What are some purposes anger serves?
● Anger makes us feel right.
Who doesn’t like to be right? Some of us like it more than others. When we’ve been wronged, and we feel justifiably angry, it’s not easy to give up that emotional trophy. Being right gives us power, even if it’s in our own minds. Some of my clients hear themselves talk and say, “Ugh, I sound like some kind of a martyr.” If that sounds familiar to you, then you might consider that you like to be right and just. Being angry with others who are NOT right keeps you in that honorable position.
● Being angry keeps us protected.
Anger is often – if not always – a secondary emotion. Something else came first. Was it hurt, embarrassment, disappointment, sadness, betrayal, a combination? It’s incredibly difficult to feel that pain, and anger is empowering. I’m not suggesting we consciously move to anger to stop being sad, but I AM suggesting that we unconsciously do exactly that. We move from pain to anger and then we can vocalize, stand up for ourselves, make a new decision, cut someone off – essentially, protect ourselves. Anger gives us the guts to do something to protect ourselves, especially after we feel we’ve been let down. Here comes another primary emotion: fear. We are afraid of more hurt, and so anger helps us keep a distance. It’s a fence, or in some cases a very high cinder block wall, lined with electrical razor wire at the top. What does your wall look like?
Sometimes that protection is crucial. Sometimes a person cannot assert themselves until they get good and angry. They use the power of anger to lower their fear of what would happen if they did what they wanted to.
● Being angry keeps the focus off of us.
We can use that anger to be stymied in our own progress: “I can’t do any better because of what so-and-so did to me.” “I’d be better off right now if x,y, and z hadn’t happened.” When we are treated poorly and we have justifiable anger, it’s a perfect excuse to turn away from our own shortcomings and to not expect more of ourselves. We’re too busy expecting more of others. Meanwhile, our own personal growth atrophies. Or, a variation of this, perhaps we are SO focused on our personal growth that others’ shortcomings are frightening to us. What if we screw up too? As if being harsh about making mistakes somehow safeguards us against it.
So, first take a look at why you might have been willingly fanning the flames of your anger without even realizing it. See if you are ready to loosen your grip. Then you will be ready for the trick.
The Antidote to Resentment is Compassion
Yup, I said it. Compassion.
No, I’m not asking you to like the person you are angry at, feel sorry for the person you are angry at, or – gulp – nurture the person you are angry at. I’m not even suggesting you understand the person you are angry at. Nor that you respect the person.
I am suggesting that you have compassion for the human experience, it all of its flawed glory. That people are each on their own journey, and some are further along than others. Some are more enlightened, more kind, more self-aware. And others simply aren’t. We can hope that everyone is learning from their mistakes, but that may not even be the case. Have you ever just seen a miserable person and felt sorry for their spouse? Or can you imagine being that person yourself. You have to put up with them for a certain amount of time, but they have to live inside themselves. You might not choose to be around them anymore because of how they are, but you don’t need your anger to protect yourself anymore. You set your boundary, and let go. Let them be on their journey.
And then, sometimes the person you have to have compassion for is yourself. I once spent a lot of time angry that someone took advantage of me, and treated me in a way I felt I didn’t deserve. At some point, I realized that the person I was angry at was ME, for being such a chump. That was a turning point. Once I realized that, I scooped up the lesson and made a promise to myself about how I would better gauge people in the future. And in my head, I silently thanked that person for the lesson that made me wiser and stronger.
Difficult people and situations are our teachers. Our mistakes are our best teachers.
If you CAN have compassion for a person with whom you were angry, that is most certainly helpful. For example, you are waiting in a long line, and are getting progressively more aggravated, thinking what poor service, and why can’t customers keep their stuff moving along, when you see that the person at the front of the line has a disability, or is elderly, OR the cashier is in training. When we can understand why something is happening, it does make us feel less resentful about the situation.
However, if the person at the front of the line wittingly entered the express lane with 86 items, or if the cashier is rude and chitchatting with coworkers instead of tending to the customers, it’s a much bigger challenge to find compassion. Try this one on: Their arrogance is likely to catch up with them sooner or later, and it won’t be pretty. You simply have compassion for their difficulties in this life, and whatever obstacles might be created by those difficulties, knowing that it is not yours.
Or you know what? Maybe today is the day that you are angry enough to say something!
Just make sure you take a deep breath and choose your words carefully. Remember that everyone is on their own path, and if you could be a positive influence on someone’s path, you are more effective as a voice of wisdom and reason, not as a raging lunatic. It is not your place to judge, to condemn, but to live your place in this world in a way that gives you the most meaning.
So – suppose they thumb their nose at you and your wisdom is lost on them? Doesn’t matter. Because speaking up was doing right by you. And maybe you also did right by someone who observed you and was inspired by your action.
That’s how you become a firefighter, dousing the anger and conflict you feel, restoring peace.
This one is for Amy, who isn’t very angry, but loves firefighters.