Empathizing Anger

The therapist was just starting to dig into my childhood. “Why were you so angry?” he asked.

“No particular reason,” I said blithely. “I was just an angry person.”

“Really?” he asked. “Surely something or someone made you angry.”

I was dumbfounded. How could I have missed that?

When what’s obvious to everyone else strikes you as novel, you know you’re on to something. I didn’t just gain the freedom to stop blaming myself; I also got a rare opportunity to examine an unexamined assumption: that anger is bad.

There are still families today in which children are expected to be seen and not heard. Respect for elders is demanded of many who receive little in return. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they internalize their frustration until sooner or later the dam bursts. This ‘proves’ their lack of control and justifies those who accuse them. The worst of it isn’t just that they’re labeled as angry people, but that those they trust reflect this image back to them relentlessly, until they end up believing it themselves. Without therapy or mindful reflection, they grow into dysfunctional parents themselves, continuing the cycle of disrespect and bottled-up rage.

It’s not anger that’s poisonous; it’s carrying it around

As I untangled my ball of defensive yarn in the weeks following that conversation, I realized I had a right to be angry. It was natural. It’s not anger that’s poisonous; it’s carrying it around. Sometimes, it’s the only appropriate response.

The mind is not a lump of clay. It’s a tumbleweed of interdependent thoughts and feelings interacting with a constantly changing world. We have a say in it — enough to keep up appearances — but if experience is contingent, how can we expect to control our minds? All we can do is manage the way we respond to thoughts and feelings — and even that’s conditioned. Accepting such powerlessness flies in the face of the self-control we expect of ourselves. Meditators especially want that control; if we’re determined we may find peace in retreat, but returning to ordinary life we find ourselves as bound as anyone else.

Turning away from your own negativity is utterly self-centered

Just this week I got angry. First at the Boston Marathon bombing, then at the media frenzy that fed on it. Our local press was at the airport interviewing people returning from Boston as if they were celebrities. It was obnoxious. I was angry.

What? Am I supposed to feel calm and collected?

I’m not afraid of negative truths. I want to know the facts of the world I live in, but I can’t languish in so much tragedy. I have to reserve myself for those in my world. When the news gets too much, I turn it off. On the same day as the Boston bombing fifty people were bombed to death in Iraq, and over a hundred armed conflicts were ongoing around the world. Are we supposed to feel it all?

Meanwhile, the terrorists win whenever we feel terrorized. The only way I know to resist that is by harnessing my anger.

I was reading other news last week. I didn’t realize until I turned the page that I’d scrolled indifferently past the story of a father killing his own children. I turned back and read it, partly out of guilt, partly thinking ‘I shouldn’t ignore this.’ The story was sickening; my seeing it as commonplace was almost as bad. That makes me angry, thank God.

So there. I’ve made my point. But the question remains, can we really change the way we process anger? Is accepting our animal nature incompatible with empathy?

For years I turned the other cheek
thinking I was being morally superior

Not at all. I was never more self-centered than when turning away from my own negativity. Empathy means feeling-into. If we don’t bathe in our own emotions, how can we feel into other people’s? Religious, spiritual and new-age attempts to transcend contingency and remain positive at any cost are not just fantastic; they’re also counter-productive.

Saying that we need to see and feel things as they really are isn’t secret code for some transcendent reality. It means seeing without projection, without yearning for things to be otherwise. That uncontrived perception is peaceful. Clarity and empathy are conjoined twins. One can’t go without the other. To care properly, we must be clear; to be clear we must extend beyond ourselves.

It’s not complicated, but it takes time to change habits of perception. More than anyone else, my wife Caroline has been a role model for me. She’s a particularly honest and forthright person. Disrespect her and it won’t go unremarked, but she’ll tell you what she has to say quietly, directly, without rancor. She has tact. Right there and then she gets it off her chest — literally. There’s very little residue.

This is a successful life strategy; the feedback encourages her and she keeps getting better at it. The way I once saw myself as inherently angry was a very different sort of feedback loop, one that carried me deeper into negativity. Such is the power of habit.

For years I turned the other cheek thinking I was being morally superior. In the name of ‘compassion’ I pretended that ignoring the barbs of my adversaries was a kindness to them. I didn’t speak my mind until I was at boiling point, and you can imagine how much tact went along with that. It was neither courageous nor honest. It certainly wasn’t a kindness.

Every state of mind is contingent. Certain situations will make us angry, but whether they increase or diminish our empathy depends on how we process that anger, not on how we judge it. To the extent that we are unhesitating, clear and frank we grow more stable.

Peace and calm are not the goals of mindful reflection; they’re just tools. What we need to carry into everyday life is the instinct to explore our feelings as they are expressed, to know our underlying motives and to not waste time trying to be good.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

22 thoughts on “Empathizing Anger”

  1. Hi Stephen.
    As often, I find in your insight and in the way you argue your point, really valuable stuff to think about. thank you.

  2. Hi Stephen
    I’m not sure I understand this post, so instead of responding directly I will, if I may, make a (rather long) comment that I feel is related to your post on empathizing anger.
    The way I understand it, sentient beings have two emotions: Pleasure and fear. Both emotions are biologically driven. Pleasure is an emotion that is gratuitous and desired. Fear is an emotion of aversion that elicits one of two responses – fight or flight.
    Pleasure and fear also elicit a variety of mental states in humans due to conscious cognition, often labeled (and experienced as) emotions. These (human) emotions can be heightened to the point of over-stimulation to positive and/or negative effect. At the point of over-stimulation it is difficult to have clarity of thought, to be mindful, and to have a ‘space between stimulus and response’ so that we may act rather than overreact. Fight and flight responses to fear are biologically driven for survival in situations of real threat. All sentient beings have this response to fear. However, humans have an additional conscious, cognitive response to fear called anger.
    Anger is a human mental state arising from fear. Fear is an emotion of aversion to a circumstance (real or imagined / present or future). Fear is an aversion to being parted from or not acquiring something/someone which one desires, or being inflicted or imposed with something/someone to which one is averse. Anger arises from conscious or subconscious mental thoughts and is experienced as over-stimulation. Hence it is not a reliable state in which to make decisions. People tend towards anger as a mental response to fear as anger invokes feelings of potency and righteousness, whereas fear invokes feelings of vulnerability and impotency.
    Humans, by virtue of consciousness and cognition, are able to override, reduce and/or remove the anger response to fear. Humans are able to research knowledge to be informed, and to reason. The more mindful, practiced in ‘the middle way’ (such as not being over- or under-stimulated in daily life), informed, and the more critically reasoned, the more easily and quickly one can consciously and actively (rather than re-actively) respond to the source and experience of fear. Decisions made from this space of the middle are very likely to be useful and not cause harm (i.e. moderated, wise and compassionate). Decisions made from this space are assertive rather than aggressive or passive.
    I have found that a good question to ask someone who is feeling angry is “what are you afraid of?” This is the question that requires empathy. This is much harder than empathizing with anger: Empathy requires feeling with, not for (as in sympathy) and no-one wants to feel fear because it evokes a sense of vulnerability and helplessness. Asking this question requires courage and honesty because the answer requires a relinquishing of anger in order to face and address the fear. It is only in addressing the fear that real strength and competent action can come. This practice should not be done with children or persons who have no capacity to alter the circumstances/conditions (and/or is dependent upon that) in which the fear is arising (i.e. an abusive caregiver) as the fight/flight biological response and the anger cognitive response are likely those that are keeping the child/person as safe as possible.
    Many times our fear is reasonable and sane given the circumstance. Sometimes, however, we might find that our anger isn’t based on reasonably justifiable fear at all. For example, identifying the fear that is ‘causing’ our anger at the slow driver in the car in front of us, we find that our fear is that we will be late to work. That is certainly worth critiquing on many levels!

    1. Kataraina: however you theorize anger (which I’m certainly not doing here), it is something we all experience. You may choose to ‘relinquish’ it, as you say, but how can you do that without first acknowledging it? That is what mindfulness is for: not just to be mindful of the good stuff but of everything. Perhaps you believe, as many people do today, that anger is never appropriate and that joy always is. I don’t.

      As for asking someone who’s angry what they’re afraid of, as you suggest, that’s a great strategy. By facing them towards a situation they’d prefer to turn away from, you’re opening them to the possibility of change. That is my point.

  3. Hi Stephen, This is the first post of yours that i have a completely different take on. I don’t want to go into it at length (because of laziness) at the moment. I feel i know exactly what you are saying but i i don’t think your experiences with anger apply to all or even most people. Perhaps there are a few naturally occurring ways of experienceing and dealing with anger. I think the ways you discuss are just two. One good and one you find bad or less good. But i think there are different bad ways and different good ways.

    Your reaction to the Boston story is understandable. But some people who get angry about it, get angry about it in a different way because they are depressed. When someone is depressed there is a sort of self-righteous type of anger that arises and it is fuelled by thinking about the injustices and screw ups in the world. This type of anger i think helps bolster the persons low self-esteem arising from depression. Such people have a pervasive negative view of the whole world. They block out the good stories and only seek and give attention to the negative stories. I know about this because firstly i’ve experienced it and secondly because i’ve read lots of accounts of it from people who admittedly struggle with depression.

    The anger in these cases is not healthy at all and i believe it needs to be pointed out to them that it is arising from their own depressed state of mind as a symptom. I point out the good stories they are missing and recommend they get help if they are not, or to consider how this point of view stems from their depression.

    Nothing of what you’ve described above i think relates to this type of anger. I think its a very important and not much addressed type of anger. I think its relevant to the Boston story also because i suspect it may be behind what led the brothers go ahead with their plot to bomb the marathon if we can assume there is truth to what the uncle of the men says about their not fitting in with America and hating it. I’m not saying that all people who feel this self-righteous anger at the world stemming from depression will go ahead and do harm but i think a great many people do even in small ways. One post i read recently mentioned how his anger at the world made him angry at home with his loved ones. So you can see how this sort of depressive anger can lead to domestic violence and family discord. But it can also lead to terrorism and crime. I should note the sort of depression i’m referring to is not major depression but something less deep and debilitating but depression nevertheless.

    For those scenarios to be nipped in the bud, the first thing that needs to be done is to get those angry people to understand their anger as part of depression, how it builds their suffering self-esteem, how they are not seeing the full picture, and how they need to get help to address their depression and to try to tackle and either suppress or resolve their anger until the depression has passed.

    The hard part is if one is feeling this negativity and compelled to express it, even understanding and accepting it is wrong, how to stop it being played out. I don’t know the answers. Perhaps the best thing is just to remove oneself from situations where one can hurt others and/or to get oneself into a situation where one can work intensively on one’s depression so that the anger is resolved quickly. Or in a family situation to let them know how one is feeling and enable them to train themselves up to defend against it in the way your wife does for example.

    I had a lot more to say – about other aspects of your post – but i don’t want to go on and on at this point. Suffice to say i think your article is a very narrow and limited take on anger and how to deal with it. It is works for you what you say, and represents your experience but i think its not true for a lot of people and a lot of other anger situations.

    1. Andrea: I disagree. Dealing with anger constructively and early is key. People are angry because they feel powerless. Saying things like “Get THOSE people to understand their anger” sounds a little off to me. First, I think it is important to respect and acknowledge where it came from. As long as someone isn’t actively hurting another person, (in which case.. use that anger to define your own boundary! ) telling another person that they “need to” do this or feel that is not the way to go, in my opinion. But I do agree that awareness is important.. but it is neither respectful or realistic to expect someone to just jump out of a deep black hole upon command. I was in this place too, and I had a therapist that was one of the types who believed that it was his job to “get me to..” and he would define me, tell me how I should feel, that what I was feeling was wrong. To my credit, I left.. it was the smartest thing I have ever done. I listened to music, ALLOWED MYSELF TO EXPERIENCE the “dark side”, read books, talked to others who have been through similar experiences, wrote a lot, and made myself go snowboarding a lot (in the sun!) I felt much better.

      Personally, we all go into the dark places at some point in our life. When we are there, we may not have a map, but I think having a good guide is a great idea. I like Thomas Moore’s book: Dark Night of the Soul. It is respectful, and never attempts to define another person or tell them who they are or what they “should” be feeling, or makes an attempt to “get THEM to” understand. Each of us has our OWN journey to work through, and there are no shortcuts.

      1. Akane: There are lots of bad therapists out there. I met three of them before lucking out with this one. Telling clients what’s wrong with them is no biggie; a friend can do that. A good therapist leads them to that realization from within their own mental space. It’s a rare skill.

      2. Akane, i don’t feel what you said is a responding to what i said. I certainly agree that dealing with anger early is key. I agree that sometimes people are angry because they feel powerless or even frustrated. I’ve certainly experienced both of those often enough. But its not an explanation that covers every situation.

    2. Hi Andrea: My point here is that anger is not always bad, and that whether good or bad, should never be ignored. The destructive anger you wish me to address is amply documented elsewhere.

    3. Andrea: “…to let them know how one is feeling and enable them to train themselves up to defend against it in the way your wife does for example.”

      How did you construe this from what my husband wrote? My point is to avoid the ‘same-old’ of mind-control and self-control. Instead, I face my discomfort, fear, uncertainty and anger. Acceptance and letting-go are the way I move forward with compassion, humor and purpose, no defenses necessary.

      1. Caroline i remember and understand about what your husband said about you was that you respond straight away telling him that he’s out of line – or his anger is out of line. (sorry i don’t want to go back and reread what you said so i hope you don’t take offence at my choice of words. That is the extent of what i was construing about you.

        I am not saying you are being defensive but from an objective point of view, i think it does amount to a self defense position. Otherwise what is it? Otherwise you could just be exposing yourself to more anger, no?

        When i say let them know how one is feeling etc i think that this is also what you are doing isn’t it?

        I think you express yourself as you do, it can still be facing your fear etc as you say but it isn’t it also telling him your feelings and so on. I wasn’t trying to say what your actual subjective feeling experience was. I was trying to say that from my point of view as a reader, it sounds like you are making sure you don’t get more anger coming your way.

  4. Excellent article. Every time I see one of those lame motivational memes with the pics of women in soft lighting holding a flower or with their arms in the air, I want to post this as a counterbalance. I knew that there was something I didn’t like about the self-righteousness of the current thinking today that demands us to “Just Choose to Be Happy” but I could not put my finger on it. Thank you!

    1. Thanks Akane. Still, I understand why there’s such general resistance to this approach. On the surface, it’s tough. Give it a chance, however, and it leads to real change and deep contentment.

  5. The point is to see things as they are. All of these solutions and rationalizations (in the comments) are redundant. What matters is that I am angry and I am going to say or do something I regret if I don’t get it under control.
    You can say my anger is just fear or some other reduction, but I know what I feel. Saying it is fear and not really anger is to trivialize my own experience and it is your way of gaining control and domination over me. You try to determine what my feelings are. But the fact is you don’t know.

    1. I agree. I think its become a bit of a formula to say that anger is fear just the way people used to say that rape is always about power.

  6. Engaging with anger is something I’ve been wrestling with on my own account, both in terms of when I feel angry, and when someone else is angry with me.

    The pith seems to be in how that anger emerges. Is it used as a destructive weapon, or as a constructive tool? To hurt or to provide the impetus for a better situation? The difference between these, I think, lies in the incorporation of tact – which when properly applied is really the empathy to use skilful means so that the recipient (probably a better word than target!) can stay open enough to hear what you’re saying, rather than shutting down into a self-protecting ball.

    What I’m not clear about is how to deal well with being the target (sic!) of destructive-weapon anger. My general response is to cut the connection. Not because they’re wrong and I’m right (although I am right really, aren’t I? Sigh, no, try harder.) But because there appears to be no (safe) ground on which to work with the situation. I’m not talking about when one’s obviously done something egregious – then acknowledging and apologizing is straightforward, if painful. Where I find it difficult is when the anger has been directed against a chimera – a perception of what was done, said or intended that is completely orthogonal to my own perception. Both parties are lost in conflicting (literally!) illusions. I can acknowledge that I was acting on through my perceptions – but that doesn’t help when the other is armed with “the truth”!

    So I look back at a few of these conflicts in my past, and feel a profound sense of failure. With some of those, of course, it’s taken time for me to be more honest with myself about seeing the beam in my own eye. Other times it was a bit like being struck by lightning – I was a convenient conductor for overwrought energy. Wrong place, wrong time. Both feel like I should have been able to do better.

    So what to do with that sense of failure? I’d like to say “do better next time”, but so often conflict seems to arise without volition. And yes, to be “unhesitating, clear and frank” will do it. I normally manage that as l’esprit de l’escalier, staircase comments – the words that come to mind far too late, as you’re on your way out of the door.

    Interestingly, the anger that arises at the major events – bombings, murders, wars, famines – seems more “usable”, more easily directed to action. Probably because the ego isn’t so directly involved.

    It also occurs that the sense of failure, and anguish over that, is a result of believing that it’s possible to live without that kind of carnage in one’s life. The belief that one can live an unmessy life, and fix any problem that arises. Even in the face of Buddha’s “dukkha”, Virgil’s “lacrimae rerum sunt”, and the Bible’s “this vale of tears”. Pathetic, innit?

    I am now going to go and write “I must develop tact” 500 times!

    1. A very thoughtful comment Kirsty.

      There are some people with whom we just aren’t on the same wavelength, and doggedly pursuing a ‘good connection’ is an exercise in futility. It’s important to let go of that effort so we can put our energy into what’s doable.

      A bodhisattva is supposed to never give up on any soul, and yet we’re also encouraged to dump ‘bad friends.’ To make clear decisions we have to discriminate. When the relationship has already created bad feelings, guilt rears its complicated head — which is to say that we’re not necessarily guilty, just neurotic about our imperfection. One more thing to let go of….

      These were my thoughts on universal love just six months ago: https://www.thenakedmonk.com/2012/11/03/love-and-compassion/

  7. Thanks for writing this article. I’ve slowly been coming to the realization over the last few years that I have trouble not accepting my anger — facing it and feeling it. All my “negative” emotions and thoughts, actually. It’s been a long time since I found anything that spoke so much to me, and I desperately needed it. Thank you.

  8. My meditation group had an entire discussion session at our meditation sit last night based on this quote from your article:

    Peace and calm are not the goals of mindful reflection; they’re just tools. What we need to carry into everyday life is the instinct to explore our feelings as they are expressed, to know our underlying motives and to not waste time trying to be good.

    It was interesting, the thoughts and comments that arose from this, and gave each of us a lot to consider. I have been saving this quote for several weeks, and the timing finally presented itself, as our discussion sessions were increasingly moving in this direction.

    Interestingly, and perhaps you will find this interesting as well, the women in our group were the first to immediately offer that they embrace the ‘being good’ exercise constantly in their lives and with regard to their practice. The men said, ‘no,’ but after some discussion, a couple of them admitted they do this as well. The response of the women was immediate and caused a chuckle. The women are wondering if you have seen this recognition more in women than in men, and I said I would ask.

    I am enjoying your posts immensely and we will continue talking about your ideas at our meditation sessions. I find your ideas extremely interesting and thought provoking. I was told last night that everyone is enjoying it.

    Thank you, and keep it up. I haven’t been this excited about a quote turned into a teaching in a very long time.

    1. Hi Tanya: I’m pleased that this post is provoking thought and discussion. No, I haven’t noticed a particular male-female split, though I do recognize a difference between ‘spiritual’ types, who sorely need to see and do good, and pragmatists, who are willing to take a step back and be brutally honest about what goes on in their own minds. I’m not suggesting that one approach is better than the other; we need both in balance. However, pragmatism is counter-intuitive, tougher and needs more encouragement. As one of my students said to me this morning, “You teach a scary meditation class, Stephen.”

      1. Thank you so much, Stephen. I will pass this along to the group, and your response give us even more to discuss on this subject, such as balance, boundaries, and guilt, a recurring theme and question in our topics of discussion:

        “A bodhisattva is supposed to never give up on any soul, and yet we’re also encouraged to dump ‘bad friends.’ To make clear decisions we have to discriminate. When the relationship has already created bad feelings, guilt rears its complicated head — which is to say that we’re not necessarily guilty, just neurotic about our imperfection. One more thing to let go of….”

        These were my thoughts on universal love just six months ago: https://www.thenakedmonk.com/2012/11/03/love-and-compassion/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.