June 2014: No One Can Make You Angry, Part 1

by Brad on May 31, 2014

“Let us not look back in anger, or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – James Thurber

Do you believe what he did? He made me so angry!” How often do you hear something like that? How often do you say something like that? The fact is no one can ‘make you angry.’ You make yourself angry by how you react to the behavior of others. It doesn’t matter if you choose to ‘go silent’ with your anger or choose to ‘go violent.’ It’s still anger, and it’s going to seethe or explode until you learn to deal constructively with it. The good news is that you can expunge angry behavior, your own and that of others, from your life … and the “bad guy” doesn’t even have to play.

A bold claim, so let’s explore. Anger is a natural emotion. To claim you never feel it is denial. Like most emotions, anger carries a message. It asks you not to react, but to listen and learn. Anger usually signifies three things: (1) you care about the topic (if you didn’t care, you’d not even bother with anger); (2) you’re not 100% clear about your own truth on the topic; and, probably, (3) you don’t know how to share your truth with others in a way that’s constructive.

photoHere’s a very personal example I’m working right now. My dad is 92. He moved nearer to me last fall, to offer him a greater sense of safety and community than his 4 acres of woods in New Hampshire. Although he can be mostly self-sufficient, he sees me as his lifeline, and projects his needs and fears on me. “His neediness makes me angry.” No, it doesn’t. My own lack of clarity as to where to draw the line between yes and no makes me angry. Also, I don’t know how to declare that line in a way he will hear constructively. The facts: (1) I love him; (2) I love my quiet space and my work in the world. Somewhere between these two, I must find peace. That’s my work, not his; he’s just being 92.

So, what’s the path forward – for me, for any of us – with upsets we invariably have with the behavior of others? The answer lies in setting personal boundaries. A boundary is a line you draw (and uphold) around what you consider to be unacceptable behavior of others. Boundaries are personal; each of us has a different limit for what we’re willing to accept from others. On the other hand, boundaries are also impersonal; they don’t disrespect or distance people, but serve only to limit behavior you consider unacceptable – a way to protect yourself from behavior that robs your sense of self (peace, dignity, soul, presence, etc.).

There are two big steps in setting personal boundaries with anyone. First is to gain clarity on what matters to you – your personal truth. Second is to declare, then uphold, your truth. I’ll save the second step for next month. For now, let’s look at personal clarity. This is often far more elusive than knowing how to declare it.

When you feel anger, your unconscious mind swings into action; its work is to defend you from danger; of course, it perceives anger as a danger sign. If you don’t stop to question this ‘advice’ quickly, you unconsciously revert to your “prevailing strategy,” either silence (going quiet, saying nothing, yet seething inside), or violence (lashing out at the other person). Continued unconscious response serves only to offer anger a permanent home in your life – you justify your anger, but never resolve it. With practice, you can learn to re-wire this unconscious reaction.

Exercise: Anger as teacher. Unconscious reaction is a human default. You change it only with conscious awareness. That takes practice. At least once each day, stop for a few moments of quiet reflection. Replay an “anger incident” from the day. (Distance from the anger allows you to see it more objectively.) Yes, notice how you may have reacted at the time, but now, ask yourself new questions: How am I not clear with myself on this topic? What did I want for myself? What behavior was I willing to accept from the other person and what was I not willing to accept? Name them. If I actually received what I wanted, would I have been at peace? (If not, stay with the questions.) The only objective here is personal clarity – to know exactly what you want and how you’d like to be treated. Don’t consider now how you’re going to make it happen (see that story next month). This practice, done repeatedly until you truly feel the power of your own clarity, rewires your mind to see anger as a teacher, not as an attack by someone else. To blame is easy; far more powerful, however, is to become an expert on yourself, not an expert on others.

A River Runs Through It [Life lessons offered by nature]

If you’ve been in true wilderness, you may have seen it first-hand. If you haven’t, you’ve probably seen it on TV. A predator (cheetah, wolf, lion, etc.) tries to take down its prey (wildebeest, deer, antelope, etc.). A scuffle ensues, but this time the prey escapes. Genetically programmed for times just like this, it gets right back up, vigorously shakes its body, and gets on with its day – eating grass, or whatever. There is no apparent hostility or anxiety over either the predator or the incident. That’s because there is no hostility or anxiety over the predator or the incident.

Nature’s creatures have keen awareness. Unlike humans, however, they’re not aware of their awareness. So they can’t fret about the past, worry about the future, make judgments about the predators, or draw conclusions about the likelihood of their survival. When they escape a predator’s attack, they literally “shake it off” and get on with things. (That’s probably where the term came from.) If you think about this in evolutionary terms, no other response would give them a better chance of survival than to get back to the awareness of the present, when yet another attack might come. Fretting, worrying, judging or speculating would serve only to limit their chances, because those things rob them of awareness in the present moment (the attack now lives in the past, even if only 10 seconds ago).

Why are things so different for us? If we were to look at it rationally, we’d reach the same conclusion about our own lives that we do about life in nature. To the extent that we can “shake off” the inevitable trials and get on with life, we’d experience more peace, presence, joy, and openness to life. The thing that stands in our way is the programming of the unconscious mind, which inserts into our day the idea of “how life should be.” It’s our own human version of being programmed to deal with danger, but our upbringing and life experiences have played a trick on us, one that allows the unconscious mind to see its story as “truth.” If we don’t interrupt this stream of unconscious thought with conscious thought, we spend life freaking out over how to restore the “shoulds” embedded in the unconscious. The problem is that “should” exists only in our minds, not in the real world. As a result, this kind of trying is futile, so it leaves us perpetually dissatisfied. Nature doesn’t suffer from this “should” thing, and that’s why animals don’t freak out after an attack.

For us, the path beyond is to learn to use our conscious awareness to see things “as they truly are,” rather than trying to manage how things “should be.” See this month’s exercise. It’s a powerful path, one that allows us to live life, not a story of life. As in nature, it’s conscious awareness that brings us to the present.


Openings to New Possibility

Available for you:

  • The Road Not TakenCommunity, a no-cost subscription that offers you connection, interaction, challenge, and learning. See articles, newsletters and blogs; you’ll find “new stuff” here regularly. I welcome comments and conversation; this kind of dialogue is an example of how we may all learn together.
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An invitation to possibility:If you have the courage and determination to step apart from the crowd and challenge conventional thinking … so you can live instead with authenticity and freedom, contact me for a conversation that can energize your dream. I will help you reach a level of clarity and perspective – about yourself, others, your life, your work and the world – that allows you to live your truth, every day. Trade the way it is for the way it could be.

Book of the month The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner. It seems so limiting that she subtitles this a “woman’s guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships.” It is not just for women and not applicable only to intimate relationships. All of us relate with others; all of us get angry now and then; most of us are ineffective at dealing with either in a constructive way. Her exploration offers insight, examples and practical advice that can change how you relate with others and with yourself, too. If you are connected with anyone in any way (that’s everyone), this book is worth reading … And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons – 508-539-6985.


Download June 2014 pdf


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