Grasping a Hot Coal

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”  -The Buddha

Anger is a common emotion that is normal and healthy. Anger itself is not a form of aggression, rather it is a felt emotional state that can be informative and can enhance performance at moderate levels. However, sudden and intense feelings of anger, and the angry outbursts or destructive behaviors that may result, can lead to significant problems in our relationships.

As with all emotions, our ability to step back and observe our emotional state can be very useful. One approach to better understanding your anger involves paying attention to what triggers your anger and how you appraise or interpret the situation at hand. When you break down your experience of anger, you can increase your awareness and change your relationship to your anger, allowing for greater freedom to behave differently.  

Think of a recent time when you became angry and review the following questions to help you better understand your anger:

  • How did the experience of anger start? Can you identify a particular trigger or situation?  Did you experience a conflict, rejection, teasing or disappointment? Was it a particular person? Is there a common trigger or theme that you notice?
  • What was your internal experience? What did you think and feel? How did you appraise or interpret your anger? Did you experience exaggerations, incorrect views, blaming, irrational thoughts, personalization, all-or-nothing thinking or other cognitive distortions or assumptions? Did you assume you were right or that your way was the best?
  • How did you express your anger? Did you raise your voice, yell, pound your fist, glare, speak abruptly, make sarcastic comments, or withdraw and become quiet? Did you turn on yourself with your anger? When did you realize you were behaving this way? 
  • How did other people react to your anger? What might others have been thinking when they noticed you were angry?
  • What was the outcome? In what ways did your behavior impact others? What is your relationship like with the others involved? Do certain people in your life trigger your anger frequently? If so, why might this be the case and how could this knowledge help you navigate these relationships more effectively?  

Answering these questions is a great way of increasing your awareness around anger and the chain of events and reactions that often happen automatically.  

Changing your relationship to anger involves becoming aware of what triggers your anger and increasing your ability to observe how you appraise or interpret such triggers. It is helpful to notice your angry cognitions or what you tell yourself when you are angry, such as “I’m right,” “they are stupid,” or “I’m not good enough.” It is also important to practice noticing and moderating your physical arousal by using emotion regulation skills such as deep breathing or other grounding exercises. Finding ways of expressing your anger by talking with others about what upsets you is also helpful. Lastly, you can work towards reducing your overall stress level by taking care of your basic needs and increasing your capacity to be more flexible and open when managing difficult situations.

Once you have identified the hot coal in your hand, you can begin the work of loosening your grip by learning how it became hot in the first place and discovering new ways of letting it cool down.    

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Published by tlindquistpsyd

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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