There is an old folk tale about a Cherokee grandfather who tells his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, resentment. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, and love.” The boy said, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man replied, “The one you feed.”
As we talk about stress this week, I wanted to discuss anger. Anger causes a lot of stress in our lives. When we are angry, we lash out, say things we regret, and behave impulsively. Although it is normal to feel angry, how we manage and handle our anger is particularly important. When we hold in our anger, bottle it up, it will come out in unexpected and sometimes harmful ways! I love this clip from “Seinfeld”. Frank Costanza is advised to say “Serenity Now” every time his blood pressure starts to rise. Kramer tries to apply the concept in his own life. Here you will see the results:
So, obviously, stuffing our anger doesn’t work. But, letting our anger express itself isn’t always helpful either! Here are four ways we can manage our anger, instead of feeding it:
1. Take a break! I call it time-out, but whatever you name it, it is the same. This literally means going away for a few minutes and taking time to calm down. When we are angry, we are like an open sore. Whoever and whatever touches it is going to get a response, and not always a reasonable one! When we take a break to cool down and calm down, we allow ourselves time to reevaluate and respond more effectively.
I remember when I was in college, I had a roommate that would take time-outs when she was angry, but her time-outs consisted of sitting in her car listening to heavy-metal, angry music. She never came back happy. She was feeding the wolf of anger. I always tried to be securely shut in my room when that happened… When you take a time out, be sure that you are doing things that will calm you and help you let go, not things that will only exacerbate the anger.
2. Distract yourself. Ever hear someone say: “Count to ten”, or “Take a cold shower”? These are ways of distracting yourself from the anger. When we feel anger, our body responds with adrenaline. When we take a minute or two to distract our brain, this will allow our body to calm down, and we give our body a chance to recoup from the adrenaline response.
Here are a few examples of using distraction to calm down: Get a drink of water. Eat a small snack. Count to 25. Take deep breaths. Think about something else. Read a book. Watch a short tv show. Although these things will not solve the problem, they may help you calm your body down enough that you are able to think clearly again. Once your body is calmer, your ability to reason and concentrate will improve, and then you can evaluate what truly made you angry. This will give you greater abilities to find solutions.
3. Control your thoughts. When we are angry, we have “verbal wildfire” rushing around in our heads. We have a million things to say, but not all of them are reasonable (or repeatable). After you have taken a time out and allowed your body to calm down, look at your internal dialogue and listen to the tone associated with those thoughts. When we are angry or frustrated, we say things to ourselves that add fuel to the fire: “Don’t they care about me and what I think and feel?!?” “How could she be so stupid?!” These thoughts are literally “feeding the angry wolf”, and are not likely to help you manage things calmly or effectively.
Challenge those thoughts and your tone. Change your internal dialogue to something like this: “I felt really hurt.” or “I was overwhelmed and busy and didn’t intend to create such a problem.” These will be more effective in helping you see the real issue. They will help stop the angry wildfire and the damage caused by it. When you challenge the negativity associated with anger, you will be able to look more clearly towards solutions and resolutions.
4. It is sometimes more important to be together than to be right. I cannot tell you how many relationships I have seen hurt and even demolished because someone was so intent on being “right” that they forgot about the feelings and humanity of the relationship. We are human. We are imperfect. We get things wrong. And, even if we are right, sometimes it is more important to be together.
It is essential to learn how to compromise in a relationship. It is essential to learn when enough is enough, and it is time to simply “let it go”. Now, this is not brushing it under the rug. When we do that, we will only trip over it in the future. Letting go and compromising is a form of forgiveness and empathy that will only strengthen your relationship and make the other party more willing and able to listen to your side as well.
Working on anger is difficult, and yet essential if we want to improve the relationships around us. It is much more effective to stop an angry word, than to try to repair what has been said that cannot be taken back. Remember, words leave wounds as well, they just cannot be seen.
I hope these tools are useful in helping manage anger appropriately. Which wolf are you feeding?