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Anger: The Inner Teacher

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Anger: The Inner Teacher

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Anger: The Inner Teacher
By Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
ISBN: 1-57819-175-0

Chapter 6 from Anger: The Inner Teacher: A nine-step program to free yourself from anger.

Tools and Techniques to Prevent and Control Anger

There are many tools and techniques that will either prevent anger in the first place or will enable you to calm down after you have become angry. Different techniques work best for different people. Also, you might find that at times one technique works best for you, while at another time you need a different approach. This part of the program presents a selection of known, effective tools. Familiarize yourself with them and experiment to see what works best for you. Be creative and create your own variations.

1. What has worked in the past?

First of all, think of what has worked for you in the past. When you have been able to overcome anger quickly, how did you do it? Even if it took you a long time to overcome your anger, when you finally let it go, how did you do it? Some people eventually tell themselves, “This anger is just harming me and wasting my time. It isn’t worth it.” Then they are able to mentally move on. If you can do this, then practice giving yourself this message earlier on. Some people tell this to themselves after just a few moments of anger, and you can too.

Keep a journal of self-mastery. Every time you successfully handle a difficult situation write down how you handled it. Writing down successes will remind you of what you can do.

2. Learn from everyone

A wise person learns from everyone (Pirkei Avos 4:1). Learn from people who are able to remain calm in situations that get you angry; learn from people who are able to let go of their anger easily. Ask them how they do it.

Ask them questions such as:

• “What made you able to stay so calm? How did you view the situation?”

• “How did you handle this so well?”

• “What approaches or techniques have you found helpful?”

• Most people will be glad to share any strategies they have found helpful.

3. Count from one to ten

The classic way to give anger a chance to subside before speaking is to count from one to ten. Some people count from one to 20 and some need to get all the way up to 50. This can be even more beneficial when the words “more and more relaxed” are repeated after each number. Or, you might find that repeating the words “centered and balanced” or, “patience and humility” or, “serenity and compassion,” between each number will have a calming effect. By practicing when you are not angry, this technique will have a more relaxing effect when you need it.

It is almost guaranteed that any anger will have cooled somewhat by the end of the counting. This makes it easier to rationally decide on the right move. At times remaining silent and letting the issue pass is the wisest choice; at other times it is preferable to speak. The clearer your mind, the better chance you have of making a wise choice.

4. Breathe slowly and deeply

Breathe slowly and deeply to access calming states and release stress and anger. As soon as you notice that you are feeling angry, breathe slowly and deeply. Exhale slowly. As you exhale, feel all the anger, frustration, and stress being blown out.

When you breathe in slowly and deeply, feel the fresh oxygen energizing you and giving you greater feelings of serenity. Feel grateful for being alive and for each breath of air. If your mind wanders, calmly bring it back to watching your breathing. One try is all it takes to prove how highly effective this technique is. Be patient. Some people take only four or five breaths and claim it doesn’t work. Be willing to keep this up for 10 to 20 minutes in instances of strong anger. As you practice this form of breathing, it works faster.

5. Keep a journal

In trying to reduce anger it is very helpful to keep a list of every time you get angry. Write down the situation, the person involved, and what the subject of the anger was (such as poor service, insults, nagging, lack of consideration, unfairness, etc.). Note the time of day, place, and your general state before the incident (tired, rushed, or under stress, etc.). By doing this you are likely to find patterns. See STEP 2 for various patterns with which you might identify.

Ask yourself what was going through your mind at the time you felt angry. How were you viewing what happened? Then challenge those statements. See STEP 3 for ways to reframe. The habit of writing down incidents along with your challenges of the attitudes that caused the anger will enable you to gain greater control.

Don’t forget to write down your victories, too. Keep a list of times when you didn’t become angry in situations that could have been very anger provoking.

Some people find that if they keep a journal of their anger, it tends to increase their anger. If this is true for you, only keep a positive trait journal.

6. Give up blaming and faultfinding

Make a conscious decision to give up the detrimental habits of blaming and faulfinding. Learn to see things from the other person’s point of view. Make it routine to ask yourself, “How does this person view what he or she has said or done?”

Learn to judge people favorably. This will eliminate much anger. Ask yourself, “How can I judge this person favorably?” Perhaps he is not even at fault. Often, too, understanding why a person acts the way he does will decrease and possibly remove all anger towards him.

View other people’s anger as a message that they are in pain. Ask yourself, “What pain is this person experiencing?” and, “What is most helpful to say right now?”

The Chazon Ish wrote: “A wise man will not get angry at an insane person who wrongs him. This should be our attitude towards someone who wrongs us because of a lack of spiritual sensitivity and lack of good character. There is really no difference between a person who lacks sanity and a person who behaves improperly” (Chazon Ish, Shabbos 56:4).

A great deal of the anger in the world is over trivialities. Realize that most situations are so trivial that it is not worth the harm to your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being to get angry. When you feel angry, ask yourself, “Am I angry about a triviality?”

7. Go to the opposite extreme

The Rambam wrote: “Behave in a manner that is at the opposite extreme of your fault until you are able to behave in the middle path. If you have a bad temper, completely ignore all insults until you no longer feel anger when insulted. If you are arrogant, behave in an extremely humble manner until you no longer feel conceited. Then you can behave in a moderate manner which is the good path on which to go” (Hilchos De’os 2:2).

8. Silence, low voice, and don’t look

Orchos Tzadikim (ch. 12) gives three practical ideas for dealing with anger:

A. Learn to remain silent until you feel calmer.

B. Practice speaking in a low tone of voice. This prevents your anger from increasing and also has a calming effect on your emotions.

C. When you are angry at someone, don’t look at him straight in the face because this can increase your anger. By speaking to him without looking at his face, your anger will subside.

9. Decide to release anger

When you feel yourself becoming angry, at first just silently experience it. Feel the sensations of anger in your muscle system. Mentally, check each limb, from head to toe. Then ask yourself, “Am I ready to release my anger now?”

If you can say, “Yes,” then follow this by saying, “I now release my anger.” Feel your anger being released from every limb of your body. To see how this works, right now make a fist with one hand. Tighten it. Now tell yourself to release those muscles, and allow your hand to relax. This shows that you do have the ability to release stress and tension at will.

If you are not yet ready to release your anger, say to yourself, “I choose to hold onto my anger for one more minute.” After one minute ask yourself again, “Am I ready now to release my anger?”

Repeat this process each minute until you allow yourself to release your anger. Realizing that holding onto anger is your choice makes it easier to let it go.

10. Take a sip of water

Some people have a habit of taking a sip of water and holding it in their mouth for three to five minutes until their anger subsides. This prevents them from saying something in anger that they will later regret. The effort to keep from swallowing the water has a calming effect.

Other people drink a glass of water to reduce anger. The blessing they make before drinking reminds them of their Creator. This in turn reminds them that everything that happens is only through His will. This helps them calm down.

11. Let off steam by walking, dancing, gardening

Seek healthy ways to let off steam when you become angry. Physical exercise releases anger. Take a brisk walk, run, dance, or engage in other exercises such as jumping with a rope or on a mini-trampoline. This will dissolve stress, frustration, and anger.

One Torah scholar even said that dancing to release anger can be termed “rikud shel mitzvah,” a form of dance that is a mitzvah!

For some people, gardening releases stress and anger. Attacking weeds is much better than attacking people.

12. Go to the balcony

If you are in a situation that could easily get you angry, mentally go to the balcony. That is, imagine that you are watching the scene from a distant balcony. This will enable you to emotionally dissociate yourself from what is happening. You are able to observe the entire scene as an outside observer and will therefore find it much easier to remain calm. Some people even imagine that they are in a balcony watching themselves in the audience watching themselves on stage. This is a double dissociation and if you try it you will see that it allows you to observe an otherwise anger-provoking scene as if you were watching the entire scene in a play. From this perspective you will be able to think much more clearly and rationally.

When you are not involved emotionally, you can coolly observe the other person’s words and pattern of thought as if he were talking to someone else. This is a skill that many professional negotiators use to remain objective in difficult negotiations. When you master the ability to become an objective observer, you will even be able to enjoy watching yourself in a scene that used to get you angry.

A good example of when to use this is during discussions with someone who is very mistrustful and tends to be suspicious that the other person is trying to cheat or deceive him. When we are accused of ulterior motives, most people feel hurt and often angry. But by going up to the balcony and watching the other person as if he were an actor on stage it becomes easy to ask, “What is this person’s pattern?” When we are aware that someone’s brain constantly warns him, “Danger, someone might be cheating you,” we won’t take his accusations personally. Even though we won’t necessarily like what he is saying, we will have the freedom to take a more objective look at the situation and choose our strategy.

Right now think of how “going to the balcony” will be helpful to you. Think of someone who easily provokes your anger. Visualize yourself using this tool and remaining calm as you interact with that person.

13. Stay out in the car and send in an actor playing psychiatrist

A highly successful sales consultant with a sense of humor gives the following advice to anyone wanting to be more effective when trying to influence others:

“Stay in your car. Don’t go out ‘yourself’ to meet someone who might be hostile or intimidating. While ‘you’ are sitting calmly in the car, send in ‘an actor playing psychiatrist.’ A psychiatrist doesn’t get offended or thrown off balance by what anyone says. Since you are only an actor playing a psychiatrist, you are even more emotionally safe. Your feelings of safety are increased by the consciousness that the ‘real you’ is sitting peacefully in the car.”

Look forward to the next time you will need to interact with someone who might possibly provoke your anger, and experiment with this approach. It’s amazingly effective for anyone who has a basic knowledge of how to interact well with others, but whose fear or anger prevents that knowledge from being accessed. Seeing yourself as an “actor playing psychiatrist” lets you access more of your knowledge.

14. Find a partner or coach

If possible, find a partner, coach, or mentor who will help you work on your anger. When you report back to someone about your progress, it is easier to stay motivated.

Tell family members that you are working on anger and that if they see you becoming angry, they should remind you of your resolution to control your anger.

Rabbi Avraham Yellin (Erech Apayim) suggests that parents can even ask their children to help remind them to conquer anger. Children must be careful to speak to parents in a way consistent with the obligation to honor parents. A child can be given permission by a parent to say something to the effect of, “You asked me to remind you to stay calm.”

15. Focus on your body’s inner reactions

An experiential technique that is effective for overcoming feelings of anger is to focus on your body’s inner reactions when you are angry. Stop thinking for a moment about the topic of your anger and focus totally on what is going on inside of you. Focus on your shoulder muscles, stomach muscles, face and forehead muscles, arms, and any other muscle tension. Mentally travel up and down your muscle system. Many people find that this alone releases their muscle tension. If not, then practice tensing and relaxing each muscle group. When you yourself tense your muscles, it is easier to let them go. As you let your muscles go, say, “Relax.” After enough practice, just saying the word “relax” will cause your muscles to let go and relax.

16. Torah meditations

A meditative approach is to repeat either of the following two verses over and over again as you breathe slowly and deeply.

A. “Ein od milvado -- There is nothing else besides Him” (Devarim 4:35). Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin wrote that there is tremendous power in repeating this verse as a meditation. Reflecting on the profound concept of this verse causes anger to disappear.

B. “Yehi ohr -- Let there be light” (Bereishis 1:3). As you repeat this verse think about how the entire planet was in total darkness until these two words were said by the Creator. Feel the Creator’s light entering you and calming your muscles and cells from head to toe. Visualizing this light will have a wonderful effect on your nervous system, and will melt anger.

17. Watch yourself in a mirror, or listen to yourself

One cure for anger is to see and hear yourself as others see and hear you when you are angry. Decide that the next time you get angry you will go to look at yourself in a mirror. There is an ugliness to anger, and especially if you contrast it with the way you look when you smile, it will strongly motivate you to do whatever you can to conquer anger.

You might want to ask someone in your family or office to record you the next time you lose your temper. Give them permission in advance to tape you surreptitiously so that you can later hear exactly how you sound to others. When you are calm, listen to the tape.

18. Envision your role model

Think of a role model who is able to react with calm certitude in every situation. The next time someone does or says something that used to get you angry, pretend that you are the calm role model and react the way that person would.

19. Role playing / Two-chair method

If you are afraid you might say the wrong things to a person you are angry at, or alternatively, when it is impossible to speak to someone, role-play a dialogue with him. Imagine that he is in the room, and tell him out loud why you are angry. Since he isn’t present, you can express yourself more freely than if he were there.

Then role-play the other person and state his defense as best you can. This technique will help you understand him better and will make it easier for you to overcome your resentment.

The two-chair method can add to the effectiveness of role-playing. Use two chairs. When you are in one chair, speak as yourself. Then sit in the second chair and role-play the other person. Respond to yourself as if you were that person. This will frequently be helpful in trying to gain a better understanding of that person’s position.

20. Write a letter ... but don’t send it

Write an angry letter without sending it. Write down all your angry thoughts in a letter addressed to the person you are angry at. Since you are not going to send the letter, you can express yourself more spontaneously and less tactfully. Then make certain to tear the letter up into little pieces. Make absolutely certain that no one else will see the letter you have written. Expressing yourself in writing will release some of your pent-up anger in a harmless way.

Important note: Even if you haven’t finished writing all that you wanted to say, tear up the letter if you have to leave the room. You can always repeat yourself in the next imaginary letter. The harm caused by someone else mistakenly seeing words written to alleviate your own pain can be grievous. So is the harm of expressing angry thoughts and words that are not filtered with tact and a focus on your goal.

21. Focus on good qualities

If someone has done something to you that you feel angry about, focus on some good quality of that person. That person might have done you favors in the past, he might have done much good for other people, or he might have certain virtues that you respect. Even though you don’t appreciate the way he interacts with you, you can still respect him for the positive things he has done in his life (Tomer Devorah, ch. 1).

When you are angry at someone, your focus is limited to what he said or did that got you angry. By focusing on what is positive about this person, you will have a more balanced perspective and will find it easier to say things to resolve the issue at hand.

22. What would you advise someone else?

When you become angry, ask yourself, “What would I advise another person in a similar situation?”

It is much easier to tell other people reasons why they needn’t be angry. Viewing the situation as if you were talking to another person might help you find a better way of looking at it.

A similar idea is to ask yourself, “What would a wise person tell me right now?” You might think of a particular wise person you know or have read about. Imagine what he or she would tell you. This will help you access knowledge that you already have stored in the wondrous data base in your brain but might not have thought of without this approach.

23. Imagine a large crowd

If you are angry at someone, imagine a tremendously large crowd cheering you for your self-mastery as you courageously remain silent until you feel calmer. Since you are creating this crowd in your mind, you have the ability to create a crowd of millions cheering for you with intense enthusiasm. Some people increase the effects of this imagery by playing a tape with a crowd cheering and mentally imagining that they are shouting words of encouragement. Imagine what it would be like to win a trophy for self-mastery.

24. Develop perspective

Develop a sense of proportion. When something is about to get you angry, ask yourself, “How important is this in my life?”

Other questions that will help you get a more accurate sense of proportion are:

• “What is my actual loss?”

• “Why is what happened not really so awful?”

• “How will I look at this in a week from now?” “In a year from now?” “In ten years from now?”

• “How will I look at this after 120 years?”

• “How could this be worse?”

• “Compared with what people went through in the Holocaust, how terrible is this?”

And the final question:

• “In the scheme of the entire universe how important is this?”

25. Choose a better state of mind

You can’t be in two incongruent states of mind at the same time. Therefore whenever you feel angry, ask yourself, “What state of mind would I prefer to be in right now?” It might be a state of patience, a state of joy and enthusiasm, a state of serenity and tranquility; it might be centered and balanced, it might be calm persistence, serene empowerment, love and compassion, or it might be self-mastery.

Then act as if you were in that state. How would you talk if you were in that state? What would your posture be in that state? What would your facial expression be if you were in that state?

Remember a time in the past when you were in the state of your choice. Imagine it vividly. How did you feel then? What was your posture and facial expression? How did you breathe? What did you tell yourself?

Think of what it would be like to be in such a state in the future. Imagine a situation in which you would naturally be in that state.

Think of a role model who personifies the state of your choice. Imagine for a few minutes that you are that person. Think, talk, and act like that person would.

Imagine having an inner part of you that is serenely empowered, joyous, patient, centered and balanced, calmly persistent, or loving and compassionate. When you begin to feel angry, allow that part of your choice to take over for a while. Some people find that thinking in terms of parts makes it much easier for them to enter a specific state.

Practice accessing your favorite state. It might help to practice in front of a mirror for instant feedback. A small mirror is one of the most accessible and inexpensive biofeedback machines available.

Some people find it helpful to write the states they want to master on cards that they carry with them, or they attach the cards to a wall where they will frequently see them.

26. Imagine a relaxing or cooling scene

If you start becoming angry, focus your thoughts on another scene. Start off by visualizing peaceful and relaxing scenes such as waterfalls, gardens, forests, mountains, and lakes. You might think of places that you actually visited in the past, or you can even imagine being in a place that you have only seen in photographs.

It can be useful to imagine yourself in the snow in a freezing climate. Anger makes a person hot. Seeing yourself in freezing snow has the ability to cool you off. Either remember a specific cold winter snow scene that you once experienced, or imagine what it would be like to be in the North or South Pole, or high up on Mount Everest or the Alps.

If these images don’t work for you, imagine yourself standing in the middle of a cemetery. This has the ability to give you a different perspective on the situation and will help you calm down. It is a way of reminding yourself of the brevity of life and what a shame it would be to waste precious time and energy on anger (see Chochmah U’Mussar, vol. 1, p. 69).

27. Replace anger with humor

Laughter is totally incongruous with anger. When we laugh, our brain produces chemicals which give us a good feeling. Every time you recall times when you laughed or giggled, you are momentarily returning to that state of being. Research has shown that laughter can be a powerful painkiller. The endorphins produced by laughter coat the nerve synapses, reducing the pain message they are able to transmit.

From now on, every time you laugh make a mental note of the entire scene. Then, whenever you feel yourself starting to get angry, replay your laughing scene. If you haven’t yet mastered the ability to laugh at will, imagine what it would be like if you could. When you are by yourself, practice making faces at yourself in a mirror to see how quickly you can start laughing. If it’s appropriate right now, see if you can say something to yourself or visualize a scene that will make you laugh.

28. Accept in advance

Before asking someone for a favor, realize that he may not grant you the favor. Although you can use strategy to try to influence him to help you, learn to accept a “no” with grace. Even before you ask him for the favor, think how you can judge him positively if he does not help you (see Mivchar HaPeninim, Sha’ar HaTikvah).

29. Create new associations (“Anchors”)

Much anger comes from associations, or by what is known as “anchors.” Any stimulus that elicits a specific response is called an anchor. That is, the brain links a certain image or sound with anger. The most famous example of an anchor is the Pavlovian bell which at first signaled that food was going to be offered to dogs and eventually triggered their anticipation of food automatically. Unfortunately, many people associate classical conditioning with dogs and fail to see how pervasive and powerful anchors are in our daily lives. We all have thousands of anchors. Sounds, words, and music all automatically evoke memories of the other times you have heard them. Pictures and images remind you of those times when you have seen them or similar ones. Touch, taste, and smell create similar associations. This gives us a powerful tool for conquering anger. You can reassociate any anchor and therefore even anchors that previously provoked anger can now provoke joy, courage and confidence, humor, and even a calm, relaxed feeling. Some people have flexible natures and can do this fairly quickly. Others do not; it will take them more time and effort to reprogram their associations, but it is a worthwhile investment since it will free them from a great deal of anger.

If a person has a certain facial expression that until now has provoked your anger, reassociate that facial expression with feelings of joy. Repeat to yourself, “Every time this person makes that face I will feel more joy.” As you say this, remember a time when you felt totally joyous. Vividly remember details of that moment. Experience it as if it were happening now. As you feel those feelings of joy, visualize this person making that face. You might want to associate the facial expression that used to get you angry with a funny Purim scene. Visualize someone with a clown outfit. Then associate that with the facial expression. As this takes effect you will find yourself smiling or laughing in situations that previously evoked your ire.

If it is a certain tone of voice that gets you angry, repeat to yourself, “From now on, this tone of voice will give me a sense of being serenely empowered.” Or, practice associating this tone of voice with a humorous scene. Mentally visualize something you find funny. See the scene in vivid color and detail. Then mentally replay that person’s tone of voice and respond to it with your new attitude.

Think back to a specific time when you felt totally calm and relaxed. It could have been on a vacation, or it could have been some time many years ago when you were a young child. As you remember vivid details of a specific scene, you will experience relaxed feelings in the present. Now think of something that triggers anger in the present, yet continue to feel as if you are in the safe, relaxing place you envision.

Used by permission, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications

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