I was an angry kid. I was an extremely angry teenager and young adult. Angry to the point that I got into fights, I regularly had violent outbursts and I was just fuelled by rage. If I wasn’t angry, I was hyperactively happy, or depressed. I didn’t have a medium setting. If I was bread to be toasted I’d either be frozen or burnt. I had lots of ‘reasons’ to be angry. I’d copped an unfair share of drama, I’d been around domestic violence and seen people I love get hurt. I’d had to put up with drunk people keeping me awake at 2am fighting (and this was when I was 12). Combine my very colourful choice in friends, and the drug and alcohol fuelled environment I placed myself in as a young adult, and there were always plenty of reasons to be angry.
I was angry if someone did the wrong thing or said the wrong thing. I was angry if someone didn’t show up on time (and I’m talking 6 minutes late and I was fuming on the inside). I was angry if things didn’t go my way. Angry about things other people were doing or not doing. I was angry I didn’t have a Dad. I was angry that my Mum was having a hard time. I was angry that my life wasn’t like other people's lives. But mostly, I was angry at myself.
I was a very angry young adult because I had high expectations of myself and I would frequently mess up. I had so much going on in my head. It never let up. That voice in my head that told me I would amount to nothing, and go nowhere would relentlessly harass me every waking minute and I would drink for relief and then inevitably I would do something stupid while I was drunk, and then have yet another reason to hate myself. I would try so hard to please other people that I would practically turn myself inside out trying to fit in, or to be liked and when I failed, I failed so miserably that I couldn’t find a reason that ANYONE would like me. So, rather than be hated, I hated first. Anger was a safe place for me. I used anger to build up walls and keep people out. But it came at a cost.
I felt anger was safe because it kept people out. It kept me from being vulnerable and in my life and my lifestyle, mostly in my own head, vulnerability was weakness. I couldn’t be weak. I had to be tough. I had to be strong, and keep my shit together and be tough because if there was weakness, then people could take advantage of that. Also, I was afraid that if I admitted any weakness to myself then maybe I would completely fall apart. Anger made me feel stronger and tougher so I could hold it together. It took me years to realise that it wasn’t making me stronger, it was making me isolated. It might have been keeping the ‘bad’ out, but it was also keeping out the ‘good’ that I so desperately needed.
We need human connection. We need to be known, on a deep, transparent, authentic level. Now I’m not saying you should have that with every single human you meet – you need people who are worthy of your trust, to trust. But you’re not going to find authentic, loving, healthy people to be close with if you’re still out there playing the ‘tough’ game. In fact, to me now, I see it so clearly, it’s the most vulnerable, the most broken who have to put up the most walls. People who allow themselves to be vulnerable and admit it are the most courageous. It takes courage to let people see your human-ness.
When I realised that my anger was a defence mechanism, I also realised it wasn’t very effective. I was still hurt by people. I was still devastated, disappointed, and all sorts of stuff; it was just masked to the outside world as angry. But on the inside I had it all. All those emotions under the surface with the anger on top. So I was getting double for my trouble. When I realised how little it was gaining me, and how much it was costing me (the anger was actually making me sick), I realised I had to let it go.
Letting go of anger is up there with giving up smoking. If you’re an angry ant, changing that mindset is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But it’s worth it. When those walls that I had built started to come down, my relationships changed for the better. In a big way. I was able to connect with my friends like I have never done before. I was able to care more deeply, be kinder, more patient, and understanding. More than that, I was able to stop being so bloody angry at myself.
I am going to do another post just on choosing good friends but I think it’s necessary that I touch on that here; if you have friends who encourage you to be tough, who applaud that tough guy attitude, or who make fun of any weakness in others, you need to limit your time with them and pick better friends. You will never ever grow if you surround yourself with people who consistently bring you down. I’m not saying ditch people and never talk to them again, but you will need to limit the time you spend with negative people. I use an 80/20 rule – I spend 80% of my time with people who will call out of me a better human. I spend 20% investing in people who need someone like that for them. BUT, when I first started to change my life, I avoided everyone who would encourage my old behaviours. If that means you’re alone well then you need to find a community to surround yourself with. A mental health group, a church, a yoga class, a recovery group – whatever, you need to find a group of people who are focusing on personal growth and not getting trashed every weekend.
Ok, so that being said, here are a few of the realisations I had, that helped me to get rid of my incessant anger.
1) Forgiveness. I am going to do a whole other article on this as it’s incredibly important to every single aspect of personal growth. But, for now, if there’s something you know that you need to forgive someone for, decide to just do it. It doesn’t make what they did ok, it just means you’re letting go of the rage about it. There is a saying that ‘holding a resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to drop dead’. If you’re holding onto resentment towards someone, let me tell you right now, its affecting you more than its affecting them. So let it go, and if you don’t know how, then don’t panic, I’m writing about that very, very soon. Just make the decision that you’re going to forgive them and whenever you think about it, think, “Oh that’s right, I’m going to forgive them. It doesn’t make them right, but it means I’m not going to hold on to the anger any more”.
2) Decide what is more important to you. Is it more important to be kind or more important to be right? For me, I was consistently having to back myself up on anything anyone would challenge me on. I had something to prove. Now, I don’t give a rat's if someone agrees or disagrees. Just because someone thinks I’m wrong, doesn’t make me wrong. I can be right whether or not someone else agrees with me. BUT, I can’t force that down someone’s throat and be kind at the same time. So, if someone has a different opinion to me, now instead of arguing until I force them into submission, I just accept their view as their view and KINDLY keep my mouth shut if it’s not that important, and believe me, most stuff is not that important and I’m aiming for the long term here. Someone might not believe me at first, but if I am right, then long term, they’ll come around – but not if I’m arguing with them.
3) Stop trying to control everything. This is huge and you know I’ll probably have to do a whole post on this too but I still remember telling my support group that I think I’m a control freak and everyone laughing their head off. I realised when everyone laughed that I was not alone. Every other person in the room had had the same realisation. It just happens that I was the newbie making the realisation for the first time. I am a control freak. I like things done my way. I like to know what’s happening, when, and why. I think I’m mostly like that because I spent so long with all of those things outside of my control and having no consistency or solid foundations. But, you don’t have to control everything. You need to control your own emotions before you bother trying to control anything else. Start with what is actually within your power.
4) Let people make their own choices. This is massive too. I don’t like seeing people I love make poor choices but I’ve learnt to accept that the only life I have any real control over is my own, and the best way to influence others is not by telling them that they’re wrong, but by living your own life to the fullest and to the best of your own abilities. This speaks louder than any words so keep your mouth shut if what you’ve got to say isn’t going to be supportive, or wanted, and worry about your own crap.
5) Let people make mistakes. You make mistakes, I make mistakes, so why get so angry when someone else messes up? We all do it. It’s how we learn. It’s actually important for learning because if you constantly step in for someone and take away their natural consequences, they won’t learn. Sometimes it is really, really important that they feel the pain of their consequences so they don’t make the same mistake twice. I’ve watched so many people bail their friends and family out only to keep having to do it. Let THEM feel the pain of their consequence – not you. Or you’ll find you’re building up rage while their life goes on as normal. This is a big thing for me because I hate watching people in pain. I want to fix it. But sometimes fixing it means actually doing nothing so that they can learn. It’s so hard. But it is important.
6) Learn to breathe. My younger years, and earlier adult life was spent in a lot of seedy bars. I learnt to have an overactive alarm system in my head. My fight or flight system was in overdrive. It lead to me never sitting in the middle of a room. I would always sit off to the side, back to the wall so that I could see the room from every vantage point. The last thing I wanted was to find myself in the middle of a bar fight, so I was attuned to facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, everything that was going on in the entire room so I could see things happening way before they happened. But, that left me with this overactive alarm system. My sympathetic nervous system was in overdrive. So the slightest hint of conflict would set me off. One of the things that I have had to learn is how to kick my para-sympathetic nervous system into action. Basically the opposite of the fight or flight, is the rest and digest and one way to kick that in is through really slowing the breathing down. I learnt a technique called buteyko breathing, and it will be in the resources page of the website. It has helped like you wouldn’t believe. Now, when I feel like my adrenalin has started surging, instead of launching into an argument, I take myself away, I do this breathing thing, and I put my pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for cognitive thinking) back into gear, and THEN ask myself how important is this… ? Most of the time, it’s not that important and I’ve just avoided an argument about nothing.
7) I sit and ask myself what is really going on. Because anger has been a default position for so long, sometimes it’s hiding something else. If I can find out what that is, then I can actually deal with it properly. I might have had my feelings hurt by what someone has said, and if I can name that I can address it, either by reminding myself that what they say is not that important (or in some cases not even true), or I can tell myself something else until the feeling goes away. Or actually develop a course of action. Journalling is important because it can help me get to the bottom of it. Sometimes my journal looks like this:
- I am angry.
- Why? I am angry because they are late.
- Why does that make you angry? Because it tells me that they don’t care about my time. That they disrespect my time. That they don’t care about me.
- Does it really? Do you really think that they don’t care about you? Would they be coming at all if they didn’t actually want to be here? No, I guess not. They are coming because they want to. They are probably just running late because they weren’t organised.
- So, really, that’s a reflection on their ability to be organised, not a reflection on how they feel about you – right? Right ok.
Rage avoided. It comes in many forms, but if I can get to the bottom of it, I can talk myself out of it. Sometimes it means that it leaves me with something that I actually need to do. That can look like this:
- I am angry.
- Why? I am angry because this is the third time that I have leant her money, and she hasn’t paid it back.
- Why does that make you angry? Because, it wasn’t a gift it was a bloody loan! She should pay it back! Why should I go without because she wastes her money?
- Yes, why should you? I shouldn’t. She should either pay me the money she owes me, or I should stop lending her money.
- What are you doing to do about it? I’m going to ask her to pay me the money back and then if she doesn’t pay me back this time, I’m not going to lend her money again.
You can see by the last example, that sometimes the rage isn’t so much at the other person, but it’s kind of me being angry at me for being a sucker. I was angry because I didn’t want to confront the other person and I wanted to avoid conflict, but if I did that then it would be letting them get away with something that wasn’t right. That is like what I was talking about with the natural consequences of things. In this case the natural consequence for that person is me asking for that money back, or not lending them money again. Sometimes anger is there as a warning, or as a little red flag that is saying ‘Hey! Something isn’t right, you need to look at this and do something’.
If you actually address things as they come up, on a daily basis, they don’t build up so much. If they aren’t building up too much, you’ll find that the anger isn’t as big.
Another thing I do is say 'The Serenity Prayer'. Regardless of your faith or religious persuasion (I promise I’m not here to convert you to any religion), but whatever your beliefs, the prayer is so, so useful. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. I once heard a variation on it that made me laugh and was extremely helpful in dealing with people close to me that drove me nuts. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that one is me”.
I used to say that over and over and over and over again. Now I spend more time with people that don’t drive me crazy I find I have to say it a little less. But I still say it when things aren’t going the way that I would like or if I am struggling with things that feel outside of my ability to handle them. It brings it back to the simple fact that the only thing I have control over is me and I can do that with a little bit of extra courage and help.
None of these things will make an overnight difference for you. But, aim for 1%. If you’re 1% better each day, eventually that’s going to be 100%. It takes practice. Practise shutting your mouth and exercising self control and actually looking at what your anger is actually hiding. You’ll probably find that you’re not that angry at all. You might just be hurting and trying to hold it together and that’s ok, because you can handle that with forgiveness, and learning to talk to yourself positively which is what I’m going to talk about next time. Positive self talk. Because that has really helped me to stop being so mad at myself all the time, and when you’re not mad at yourself you stop being so mad at everything else.
Michelle Cashman Singer/songwriter, speaker and podcaster. Founder of The Deciduous Tree Project and host of the weekly 'Transformational Personal Growth' podcast.