I talk a lot on this podcast about anger because it’s something that I’ve been working to manage in my own life. And today, I want to talk about the language of anger, and about learning to redefine and talk about anger in a different way.
For those that struggle with anger, we often get stuck in a bad pattern of mismanaging how we deal with strong, negative emotions. Something comes up and kicks off your fight or flight instinct kicks up and you find reacting in a way that is way out of proportion to the situation. And the worst part is that we often feel so helpless like it’s a split second reaction to things that are happening around you. You often go from 0 to 60 in just a moments notice. Often, that response is left over programming from things that you had little control over as you were growing up. Trauma can miscalibrate our ability to read a situation properly. Something that might just be annoying or frustrating gets treated with the same level as something more threatening.
And it sucks.
Once you finally get back in control of yourself, you feel like shit and feel ashamed of your behavior. You feel like you’re a bad person. You feel like you’re broken. You feel like it’s just one more instances showing that you fail at being the kind of person that you want to be. You feel unworthy, unlovable, worthless. That your failing as a human being.
And it sucks.
And after you blow up, you just want to hide. You want to push everyone away because you don’t feel worthy of being loved by others. You feel damaged at the core. Maybe even irredeemable.
So what do you do?
“When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts.”
— Marcus Aurelius
You listen to that anger. You sit with it and listen. You can question it. “Am I doing this to cause hurt, or is it really what I feel about this situation?” Because if you really feel that strongly about something, then maybe that anger is telling you something important. It is something that you should listen to. Maybe it’s anger at injustice. Maybe it’s anger at how someone else it treating you, and you really do need to take some action. If something upsets you that much, it should not be ignored.
Part of the problem, when we ignore our anger and feel bad about feeling any anger, at least for me, I feel terrible after I feel angry about anything. Even when it’s something that is probably okay for me to feel angry about. Because there are things that we should feel angry about, but when we blow up at seemingly trivial things, we start to feel shame towards any anger. Appropriate anger and inappropriate anger get lumped in the same pile.
And it’s hard sometimes when you’re caught up in it to know the difference. But when you’re in an argument and you feel that urge to just lash out, and you can catch it, count to 5 or even 10 before you say it. And ask yourself, “Do I REALLY mean what I’m going to say?” And if you do, then say it. Maybe try to say it in a way that is not confrontational. Maybe try to say it softly.
But if the compulsions that you have are things that you are doing or saying only to cause harm or to push someone’s buttons, then it’s probably better that you stop and sit with them a while. Give yourself some time to cool down. Take a break.
Being a stoic about anger doesn’t mean that we don’t feel it. It means that we learn to manage it. That we don’t let it ruin our lives. That we learn how to communicate what we feel in more productive and helpful ways. That we find new tools to talk about these things.
“For if anger listens to reason and follows where reason leads, then it is already not anger, of which obstinacy is a proper quality; if, however, it fights back and does not become quiet when it has been ordered, but is carried forward by its desire and ferocity, then it is as useless a servant of the soul as a soldier who disregards the signal for falling back. And thus, if it suffers a measure to be applied to itself, then it must be called by a different name, and it ceases to be anger, which I understand to be unrestrained and untamable.”
And what I think Seneca is telling us here is that we should learn how to label things better than just anger. It’s kind of like the old saying, if you only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you only know how to be angry in one way, or to express distress, irritation, annoyance, sadness, depression as anger, then you can’t deal with these strong emotions in an appropriate and useful way.
So what are some of the tools that we have? I think the biggest thing is to expand our vocabulary on our emotions. Rather then everything boiling down to anger, can we learn to identify more nuanced emotions. Maybe what we’re really feeling is frustration, or humiliation, or rejection. If we can learn to better identify what we’re really feeling, then we can start finding different ways of viewing the feelings we’re having.
When we can identify our emotions better we can see that dealing with annoyances is different than how we deal with frustration or resentment. But if we only have one word for it, then we don’t deal with effectively.
On my website, I created a worksheet that I’m calling the emotional vocabulary worksheet and basically what it is, it’s an exercise you can go through when you’re dealing with the strong emotion. And maybe you are in a situation where you didn’t deal with things very well. And it kind of walks you through trying to identify some of these different emotions and look at how these emotions maybe were appropriate or inappropriate for the situation. And if our reaction was appropriate or inappropriate for the situation.
Dealing with strong emotions in life is something that all of us have to do. But in order for us to actually deal with these different emotions that we have, we need to be sure what we’re actually feeling. So expanding our emotional vocabulary will give us the words to be able to really identify what it is that we’re feeling and then respond appropriately. So if you’d like a copy of this worksheet, if it’s something that sounds interesting to you, you can go to my website and download it from there will be a link on the front page. My website is www.stoic.coffee and I’ll have the link sitting there on the front page.
And that’s the stoic coffee break for this week. Remember, be good to yourself and be good others, and thanks for listening.
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