When we react in anger

Why do I get angry?

Say my wife does something selfish or my children don’t listen to me; I get angry.

I am not reacting to their behavior.

I’m reacting to the way I feel about it inside.

At first glance, this may seem like a distinction without a difference. But the difference is vital.

This is the true power of “I feel” statements in counseling. Of course, there’s no difference in modifying “you’re an asshole” to “I feel that you’re an asshole”. We’re not reacting to someone being an asshole. We’re reacting to something much more basic and deeper inside of ourselves.

So how did it really make me feel?

In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach explained it like this:

The Buddha called our persistent emotional and mental reactivity the “waterfall” because we so easily are carried away from the experience of the present moment by its compelling force. Both Buddhist and Western psychology tell us how this happens: The mind instantly and unconsciously assesses whatever we experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A titillating thought or tingling sensation — pleasant. A bad smell or sudden, loud sound — unpleasant. Noticing our breath — usually neutral. When pleasant sensations arise, our reflex is to grasp after them and try to hold on to them. We often do this through planning, and with the emotional energies of excitement and yearning. When we experience unpleasant sensations, we contract, trying to avoid them. Again the process is the same — we worry and strategize, we feel fear, irritation. Neutral is our signal to disengage and turn our attention elsewhere, which usually means to an experience that is more intense or stimulating.

All our reactions to people, to situations, to thoughts in our mind — are actually reactions to the kind of sensations that are arising in our body. When we become riveted on someone’s ineptness and are bursting with impatience, we are reacting to our own unpleasant sensations; when we are attracted to someone and filled with longing and fantasy, we are reacting to pleasant sensations. Our entire swirl of reactive thoughts, emotions and behaviors springs from this ground of reacting to sensations. When these sensations are unrecognized, our lives are lost in the waterfall of reactivity. We cannot cut through our chain of reactions if we are not mindful of sensations. — Tara Brach

Going back to the two examples above: if my wife does something selfish, perhaps I actually feel unloved. If my children don’t listen to me, I may feel powerless to change the current situation. It is these sensations which provoke my response; this is what I’m reacting to.

Framing our reactions in this way is so helpful because it’s the first step in modifying our response to the unfortunate behavior of others in my life. This understanding doesn’t change that I may feel unloved or powerless in a given moment, but when I’ve realized that these feelings are what actually triggers my emotional response, I can focus on more useful ways to address the underlying problem.

It also helps to understand that reacting with anger is always a choice. I may not have chosen to feel unloved or powerless; we naturally feel different impulses in response to events around us. But we are responsible for the way we respond. In Real Love in Parenting, Dr. Greg Baer has this to say about our reacting to these sensations:

“Every day other people do rude, thoughtless, selfish, inconsiderate things around us, many of which affect us. People inconvenience us, disappoint us, or attack us, and on each such occasion it’s as though they’re taking two emotional dollars from us. If those are our last two dollars, their behavior is a big deal, but if we have twenty million emotional dollars, losing two dollars becomes meaningless. When we have enough Real Love in our lives, we feel as though we have twenty million emotional dollars with us all the time. With that greatest of all treasures, the little inconvenient things people do become relatively unimportant.

As proud as we are of our ability to make our own decisions about everything else, why is it that we are so quick to claim that other people can make us angry? Whenever we think or say ‘You make me so mad’ — a common expression indeed — we are giving up our right to determine how we feel, and we do this quite often. We claim that we can make our own decisions about everything else but not about how we feel. Why is that? Because we claim the ability to make choices only when it suits us. We like being responsible for choosing what we eat, and what we wear, and where we live, and whom we’ll marry, because we like the consequences — the rewards — of those choices. But we don’t like being held responsible for our anger. We’d rather blame that choice on someone else.

Rain makes the ground wet. The sun makes the grass warm. The ground and the grass have no choice in the matter. But we human beings are not dirt or grass. We do have choices — about many things, including about how we feel. When people treat us badly, we make decisions about how we will respond. In the absence of Real Love, our ability to respond is certainly impaired — sometimes severely — but we can still choose to limit our Getting and Protecting Behaviors (including anger) to some degree. The more we understand about the behavior of other people, and the more loved we feel, the more able we become to make wise and loving choices.”

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was subjected to unfathomable horror in four different Nazi concentration camps; he lost everyone, including his pregnant wife. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he says:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.” — Viktor Frankl

Can you imagine?!

If anyone was ever justified in their anger, it would be Viktor; but even in the midst of such evil, he maintained his power to choose for himself the way he would respond to his tormenters.

Very, very few of us have ever experienced anything like what Viktor Frankl endured in a Nazi concentration camp. If he was able to transcend such unspeakable horror, it stands to reason that we are capable of reacting with kindness and compassion to the comparably minor stressors in our daily lives.

Dr Baer goes on to say:

“Some of us get angry when other people are inconsiderate toward us, but others of us do not. Clearly, the problem is not the people who are inconsiderate. If that were so, everyone would become angry when he or she were treated badly, but that does not happen. Anger is always a choice. In any given situation, some people choose to become angry and others do not.

We blame people for our anger because it seems easier than taking the responsibility ourselves, a technique we learned from birth. When I blame you for my anger, however, I’m stuck. I’ll be angry forever unless you change. That’s unfortunate for two reasons: It’s very impractical to have my happiness chained to your decisions, and it’s simply untrue that you cause my anger. When I realize that my anger is a reaction to the emptiness and fear caused by a lack of Real Love in my own life, I can now do something about it. I can tell the truth about myself and get the unconditional love I need.” — Dr. Greg Baer

Finally, I’ve found it helps to simply recognize that we are more likely to react sometimes and less in others. We’re human, after all. When we’re tired from lack of sleep or stressed after a long day at the office, we are less likely to exercise our willpower, pause and reflect on the true nature of our feelings. Conversely, we are more apt to be kind when we’re well rested, grateful and mindful of all the blessings that life has provided us.

I encourage you to spend time reflecting on exactly what it is you feel, whenever someone’s behavior frustrates you. Try to pause and see exactly what sensation inside of yourself is triggering your emotional response. As you develop awareness of your internal state, this understanding of yourself actually becomes very empowering.

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.