‘The fault lies not in our stars, dear Brutus, but in our ‘selves.’”
– Julius Caesar
Most people are surprised, and sometimes even amused, when I tell them that one of the issues I’m trying to sort through in becoming a better person is my anger. One common stereotype about anger or rage is that it predominantly affects men, or more specifically, anger is only socially acceptable for men to display, since women must be seen in nurturing roles as altruistic peace-makers.
In fact, studies have shown that women are afraid of the consequences of displaying anger, so in order to cope, they suppress it, channel it toward something else, or downplay what caused it. Misconceptions aside, anger is not gender-specific but rather an universally felt emotion that most of us have never been taught explicitly how to cope with or process in constructive ways.
Anger can be a source of empowerment when used to address injustice, whether it is social or personal. When it is channeled in a healthy way, anger can be used to as a tool of introspection. However, most of us haven’t been conditioned in our minds to see it that way, hence the common use of anger management as an approach in cognitive-based therapies.
There is much literature surrounding the managing of anger, but I want to examine some spiritual approaches in understanding the root causes, rather than just deliver strategies on how to squelch the powerful and negative emotions that anger manifests. Since there is a plethora of material and I want to give this topic the justice it deserves, I will cover this in a two part series.
As humans, we develop belief systems that initially begin as observations of the way adults behaved during our in childhood. It is a widely accepted theory in psychology that the spectrum of experiences from that crucial time in childhood can shape our systems of thought and behavior as adults. Adult issues with anger can be traced to lifelong feelings of resentment, bitterness, and hostility. Thus, in order to deconstruct and break negative patterns of these belief systems, we must understand the root causes of anger.
Because anger is a symptom of a deeper issue that is buried deep within our psyche, it is rarely felt as an isolated emotion. In his spiritual approach to deconstructing anger through teaching of the Bible, Charles F. Stanley suggests the roots of anger have corresponding negative emotions. Daoism and Buddhism also support this theory and expand on these roots, providing practical ways to address them.
These solutions are not easy paths to freedom - they require radical honesty, critical thinking, and changing unhealthy patterns- but in reality there is no other way to a lasting inner peace. Here are a few common associations with anger.
Blame and Shame
Adam blaming Eve for their expulsion from the Garden of Eden is a poignant biblical example because blaming others is a denial – a way for us not to accept responsibility for shame resulting from our own actions. When we have done something disgraceful or dishonorable, a natural reaction is to externally designate blame and internally feel shame.
Although this brings some measure of temporary relief, it rarely creates a permanent resolution. According to the Dao, if we blame others, there is no end to the blame. A common misinterpretation of Buddhist instruction is one must always remain calm, which can repress anger, but the true lesson is that there is no shame in anger, because it a seed that is present in all humans. The only way to end the blame game, which has no real benefit, is to accept our faults because when we completely accept and forgive ourselves, it is much easier to pardon the mistakes of others.
Pride is a very complex emotion: on one hand it fuels our basic need to be desired, recognized, admired, and loved. On the other hand, it can also spark unpleasant and dangerous emotions such as greed, envy, and jealousy.
As children, when our needs are not met, we get upset and throw tantrums, but sometimes we never release this pattern - it becomes our modus operandi way past an acceptable age.
If we decide that we must get what we want when we want, then we will feel disproportionate anger and out of control when we don’t get it. In Daoism, it is stated that when we are constantly in a state of wanting and trafficking with our desires, our heart will never unclench. Changing our belief system here is crucial because when we display this dissatisfaction through anger or bitterness, we rarely achieve good results.
Learning to accept that it is rare in life to always have control of situations and others is done through compromise. Finding gratitude for what we already have such as good health or the support of family and friends can profoundly affect our disposition, and ease our sense of entitlement for demanding what we want. Releasing the need for constant control of our circumstances can help eliminate feelings of hostility and bitterness.
Insecurity is at the heart of most of our fears, whether it is rejection, loss, disappointment, inadequacy or unworthiness- and it can also cause anger. This specific root is very destructive because we blame ourselves for things that we cannot change. Whether they happened in the past or are associated with how others have behaved toward us, this can lead to overwhelming frustration.
Unless we examine this emotion thoroughly, it can prevent us from having lasting, healthy relationships, can withdraw us from life, or make us act out our fear by resenting the happiness or success of others.
Often, resolving deep insecurities are difficult and require us to seek help from mental health professionals, spiritual guides, or other trusted people. It is vital to seek this out because fear can prevent us from living the life we truly want. Discovering that we are valuable and lovable can turn the tide in our lives and allow us to see ourselves in our true beautiful light. When we come to see we are vulnerable creatures and understanding that all of us live with some fear builds self-compassion and empathy for others - both antidotes to insecurity.
While anger is normal and even healthy to experience, hanging onto to it is toxic.
There are many more emotions that can be discussed as contributing factors, but it is important to also remember that anger is unpredictable and sometimes we must give ourselves the proper time and space to address it in a healthy and productive manner.