Have you ever been so angry that you were enraged? So upset that you were ready to scream and throw things? Felt your heart about to pound out of your chest at the wrong done to you? Or how about just annoyed? Something, or someone, just irritated you so much that you felt your head and maybe even your body start to ache?
Perhaps you tend to either stuff that anger down deep, or you display it in more passive ways. Maybe you become “forgetful” about something, or get just a little bit sarcastic and righteous. “Just kidding,” you say. Or do you never get angry at all? Always cool and calm, nothing ever irritates you. Now that would be a miracle, because to be human is to get angry at least sometimes.
Andrea Brandt grew up with anger. As she writes in her new book, we first learn anger at home. In her case it was from her parents, and primarily her mother. Her journey into healing began with a meltdown as a client in a group therapy session with her then-husband, followed by withdrawal and tears. She is an expert in anger from firsthand experience, but then we all have firsthand experience. What is different with Brandt is how she chose to handle it.
A clinical psychologist, she came to realize that anger is our friend. It is there to try to protect us. The difficulty is when we act blindly and use the self-talk that we learned as a child. We act as soon as the emotion rises without really taking the time to listen to it and get to know it.
Mindfulness has become a buzzword in psychology these days, sometimes used with no notion of its depth. Brandt defines it as “a thoughtful and intense focus on the present moment in which we allow sensations and feelings to reveal themselves without judgment.” In this case, we use it to stop that roaring rush of adrenalin, or at least slow it down, so that we can process our feelings, and the feelings behind the feelings, and then choose how we want to act on that knowledge. We listen openly to our mind, to our body, and to our emotions.
Brandt helps us learn how to make anger a teacher that can have compassion. She prescribes extensive journal writing to help the reader track and build on change. The first step is getting to know yourself and your relationship with anger. How do you feel it? How do you handle it currently in your life? Do not get rid of your anger, she writes, but learn from it and use it.
The book includes exercises and examples from clients — and Brandt admits it can be a difficult and painful process:
“I see patients who would prefer to talk right over their feelings and continue to tell a version of their lives that keeps them stuck in victimhood,” she writes. But “[c]ontinuing to tell the negative story only perpetuates it. Focusing on their story also makes it possible for these patients to avoid their feelings.”
And so, she continues, “I encourage them to slow down to see what’s going on inside of them. Progress may come in fits and starts before they get used to the mindfulness process. And when they start to get to their feelings — the feelings begin to surface — I work hard to keep them from running for the exit.”
I like Brandt’s holistic approach. She describes the physical feelings that occur in the body that let us know what our emotions are, even when we were are intellectually denying them. She teaches us how to find the feelings that underlie or are linked to our anger.
There is also a cognitive-behavioral aspect to the teaching: how your beliefs affect your anger. As part of your mindfulness and anger journal, you look at your expectations and assumptions about others and yourself, and examine just how realistic those are.
So once we have come to better know ourselves and our feelings, how do we achieve emotional freedom, and just what is that? A big part of emotional freedom is an honest and respectful relationship with yourself and others. Brandt gives us a five-step method of mindfully releasing our anger, which involves meditation, writing, telling your story to another, finding your new truth, and performing a ceremony as a way to release yourself from wounds, hurts, angry feelings, limiting beliefs, and other toxins in your life.
The last part of the book is on communication: taking your new skills and beliefs and way of being and connecting with others in a healthy way. Brandt does an excellent exploration of forgiveness and gratitude — two concepts that people have trouble with because of the way they define them.
We do not have to be captured by our past, Brandt shows. Not by the wounds of our childhood, or by the anger that we learned growing up. I have already recommended her excellent book to some of my clients.
Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom
W. W. Norton & Company, March, 2014
Hardcover, 240 pages