How to embrace anger and not repress it: insights from poetry

(photo (c) Marco Fedele via Flickr / Creative Commons)

Do you handle your anger, or does it handle you?

We need to skillfully deal with anger when it arises, lest it derail our better intentions and lead to hurtful words and actions to those around us.

We get angry for legitimate reasons.  A plan didn’t turn out as we’d hoped.  We feel hurt by someone’s actions or words.

But that doesn’t mean the best response is to lash out while we feel ablaze with fury.  Doing so usually pushes people away – intimated or scared by our fiery side – or escalates a confrontation instead of allowing us to negotiate productively.

How can we engage with anger, instead of treating it like a feared tornado that rages into our psyche without warning, razing our best-laid intentions?

There are several elements to dealing skillfully with anger.  The first is admitting to ourselves that we’re angry when we actually are.  The second is practicing ways to transform the energy.  The goal is not to repress our anger – good luck with that! – or steer it.  The third is to understand why we get angry and what impact it has on those around us, so that over time we can anticipate it and connect more with those we care for.

To plant some seeds for discussion of each of these three elements, below we share two original poems plus one by Thich Nhat Hanh from “Present Moment Wonderful Moment”.  While we’ve started writing about emotions in general, and about anxiety, we haven’t done much yet with anger other than in our recent Inspiring Dads interview with Bryan Hansen.  In my opinion, any publication that seriously focuses on manhood needs to enable a dialogue about strategies for dealing with anger.

To be clear, I’m not making any judgments about anger as an emotion per se.  Anger often points the way to fruitful new solutions.  For instance, anger may motivate us to organize others to make a political change, or to change something painful at work or in a relationship.

Readers, please share your comments (anonymous is fine).  What have you found that helps you deal with anger?  What resources would you recommend to others?

 * * *

Anger pulls at me

Anger pulls at me,
like a barbed chain,
once fatigue has pushed me
too far away from myself,
sleep-deprived for days on end,
little time for self-expression
other than daily half-hour of writing,
maybe some quiet time
yet not enough to keep me from
the unrelenting vortex
that channels teeth-clenching,
imagines an aneurysm rupturing,
spilling blood around my brain.

But instead I collapse in exhaustion,
the babies asleep finally —
and I having practiced withdrawing myself
to a corner when I sensed the anger flaring,
tried to avoid raising my voice or hurting with words,
sat there looking at the wall
bumps, cracks, and shadows,
tried to feel my breath
chest rose and fell,
shoulders rose and fell.

In all these moments,
I forget how this too shall pass,
the good and the bad will flow on,
and can’t be grasped anyway,
and I often forget a four-line poem
by Thich Nhat Hanh
that reminds me to smile and befriend
my fatigue, frustration, and tension
as if greeting an old friend.

— J. Andrew McKee, MD (July 2014)

* * *

Hugging the fiery guest

Confusion rushes anger in,
in the silent seconds as the toddler cries
for a Mommy just off to work,
and the older sister is already at the end of her rope;
it’s not even eight in the morning.

I have a meeting, too,
but experience has taught me:
first engage with the kids,
so I hold the younger one against my chest,
then squat and hug them both,
imagining as I do my heart swelling with love and tenderness,
absorbing them, the dog, the house, the forest.

Slowly I calm myself down,
and then can hear what they need.
Really Dad — it’s just hugs this morning.
Then, oatmeal and milk on the table.

But as I hug them, I hug myself,
especially the anger
that calms when acknowledged and loved,
but blazes when repressed.

— J. Andrew McKee, MD (August 2014)

* * *

 Smiling at Your Anger

Breathing in, I feel my anger.
Breathing out, I smile.
I stay with my breathing
so I won’t lose myself.

–Thich Nhat Hanh, “Present Moment Wonderful Moment” (p103)

Editor’s note: To apply this poem to other emotions and situations, try reciting it silently if you’re able to remember, and replace “anger” with any other emotion, pleasant or unpleasant.  For instance, “Breathing in, I feel joy.”, or, “Breathing in, I feel nervous.”  You may also enjoy Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on practical engagement with and transformation of anger, “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.”

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