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Anger - Controlling the Demon Within

Third in the Making Peace series

Copyright © 2000 Dorian Scott Cole

Giving Away Control | Is Anger Controllable? | Understand It, Control It, Use It |
Conflict Resolution - Characterization Exercise |

Giving Away Control

Life isn't fair. If our thoughts are dominated by a childish preoccupation with fairness, you can guess the odds on spending our entire lives being angry. Living in anger is the way to maximize the control that others have over you, and to maximize the pain that others cause you. Some anger is justified, and perhaps destiny even uses anger for motivation to resolve injustice. But to break free from the cycle of retaliation that only perpetuates the injustice forever, anger must be controlled. If there is a first essential step in getting to peace, then controlling anger is it. This is adapted from what I told my children.

To repeat, those who create anger within us control our destiny. For complete control, all they have to know is which anger "buttons" to push. When it suits them for us to be peaceful, they can lay off pestering us for a while, or even pacify us. When it suits them for us to be hostile, unproductive, and destructive, all they have to do is make us angry. For example, peace negotiations are often disrupted by terrorists who inflict damages on the other party to provoke anger and a hostile response - peace returns to war. Controlling anger is our first step in gaining control over our lives.

When I was seventeen, I was keenly aware of all of the unfairness in the world, and I thought that I was going to set it right. Fortunately for me I don't like to live in the negative, so my life did not turn into an endless preoccupation with unfairness. But my beginnings did give me some incentive to find positive ways to change things. It was myself that I had to get under control first.

Is Anger Controllable?

Self-control and self-improvement things always intrigued me. Somehow I got the idea when I was seventeen that all physiological reactions could be controlled. Emotions such as anger are mental reactions that have physical responses - they aren't just mental, they are physiological. Pavlov's dog sees food and salivates - a physical response. The mind releases chemicals for all kinds of things, such as during fear or anger or hostilities or stress or even exercise. The chemicals make the body more able to respond and may even further alter mental states.

Their was great interest in this in my youth. People in the sixties were using biofeedback and other techniques to learn to control the flow of blood to their limbs, control their heart rate, and alter their mental state for relaxation and stress control. Evem hypnosis can be used to help the brain ignore some level of pain. It can be used to help ignore chronic pain, and sometimes can even be used for dental work and minor surgery, although it hasn't proved as effective during major surgery. Not only can the brain ignore pain, it also releases chemicals (endorphins) that make us feel ecstatically happy and also block pain.

Biological man is a "chemical" being, and in coming to understand this there have been many myths developed regarding the nature of man. At the turn of the 19th. Century some believed that aggression was a biological heritage from animals that couldn't be resolved or controlled. War was considered to be an inevitable outcome of man's nature. If an outright aggressive nature wasn't presupposed, then at minimum testosterone was blamed. And there is a link to testosterone.

Another widely held myth is that suppressing anger causes pent-up rage, and when triggered by some little thing it will explode like gunpowder and destroy everything around it. So theorists held (and some still believe) that anger had to be redirected, displaced, or sublimated toward constructive ends. Perhaps that is also instinctive: my mother was surprised one day to find her angry five year old beating a broom to pieces on the sidewalk. I have experience here.

Recent studies have shown that the essential "need" to release anger is not true. Most of us can swallow a little normal anger regularly without harming ourselves or others - we won't even get ulcers. And while testosterone seems to be a contributing factor in aggressive behavior, aggressive behavior is something that we can control and is not necessarily the feature manifestation of testosterone. Just try threatening the babies of man or beast and watch the aggressive response elicited from the female version, who is normally more passive and has much less testosterone. Just as it doesn't take testosterone to be aggressive, control can be learned. Teachings and programs administered by parents, religions, psychologists, and sociologists can be very effective at reducing and controlling anger. While it is difficult to not let things anger us, we don't have to let anger become a runaway train that destroys our lives and everyone around us.

In my youth I felt that anger was very destructive and I wanted to control that. So I tried blocking anger and found that in most situations I didn't have to get angry at all. But later I realized part of my not getting angry was simply not allowing myself to care. One of my children employed this tactic extremely well. Neither threatening to remove privileges, nor actually removing them, had any affect at all over his behavior. The very idea that anyone could have any control over him was simply infuriating and totally unacceptable to him. It was literally better to die than to allow anyone to have any control over what he could or couldn't do.

Is not caring the answer? When I told my wife-to-be that I didn't get angry and that it was possible not to feel pain, she took it as a personal challenge to disprove my theories. It wasn't long before I rediscovered anger - she really knew how to make me mad!... sometimes by biting me - ouch! I felt pain! I'm angry! She took it as a personal challenge to rid me of my "strange" ideas.

When you care about something or someone, you are much more easily angered. So my wife instinctively began deconditioning my anger response. When I ran into a fast food place in the pouring rain to get us a hamburger, she would move the car and lock me out. When I found her, somewhat disgruntled (note: understatement) standing there in the pouring rain, she made me promise not only to not do her bodily harm, but to get happy and smile before she would let me in the car. (I've never met anyone quite like her, so I married her so I could study her.) Gestalt Therapy actually works - when it really gets down to it, you don't have to get angry. You just don't do it.

Understand It, Control It, Use It

Sometimes "not caring" should be the answer. Anger is a normal physiological response that can be controlled. Like fear, anger creates a physical response in our bodies that makes it possible for us to respond to outside aggression. Like a dog whose meal is threatened by another dog, we respond to things that threaten our interests. Anger elicits about the same physical response within us as fear does (the flight or fright syndrome). This response activates body chemicals to increase heart rate and give us extra energy. But that can be a problem.

Similar to how prolonged fear or stress can cause physiological problems, so can prolonged anger. These physiological responses deplete white blood cells because the body believes it is under attack. This makes us more susceptible to disease. Also when regularly practiced, anger can become a way of life - like Pavlov's dog learning to salivate at the sound of a bell associated with food, we learn to be angry and destructive at the very hint of something displeasing. We need to "unlearn" this response - to be deconditioned. Want help? I'll send my wife.

Anger isn't all bad, it can be used appropriately. Anger helps drive us when we need to respond with more power than normal to outside aggression. When we see someone being unjustly accused or something taken from them, or when someone is "bullying" us and taking our possessions, or threatening someone we love, there is a definite need for a response that isn't subtle. Some people only respond to the power of others, or to a more powerful "system," like the police. An angry response from us can "threaten the other dog away from our meal."

Even "loving them" (Having enough concern for them to do what is best for them) sometimes includes teaching them respect. So, there is nothing inherently wrong with anger. In fact, even a "righteous wrath" can be appropriate where commonly held values are threatened, such as a response to the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. Where anger becomes a problem is when anger starts destroying us, and ruining our relationships with others, or when we become outwardly destructive.

I think anger has its roots in pain and frustration. We grow angry when we are harmed or when we feel useless, powerless, or unloved. In short, unable to control our situation or environment, we become frustrated by these feelings to the point of anger.

There are countless causes and few solutions. Some people seem to experience a general state of anger, directed at no one in particular but toward everyone. This free-floating anger or "unbridled hostility" can be caused by the body's inability to absorb zinc. This has been shown to be a common problem in those who are incarcerated for crime. (There is an effective mineral regimen for those displaying unbridled hostility for no apparent reason.)

Anger can also develop because our needs and the world do not mesh. It's as if we say, "OK, I'm not important enough in the scheme of things to get what I want, so I'm angry at God and everyone who doesn't help me." Or, if we're into the power game, we may have met our match, finding that our power is actually very limited in getting us things that are really important to us. Or if we measure ourselves on some constructed self-esteem scale of value, we may find our appraisal of ourselves to be trapped in the basement, causing us even more frustration and anger. This kind of anger, when the cause is difficult to identify, is very hard to escape even with help or even with a great deal of maturity. Sometimes anger can only be controlled.

Nothing will stop situations from developing which frustrate us and make us angry. Things just naturally don't always go our way. For example, your car breaks down at exactly the wrong time and you kick the tires. I remember one fellow in the Navy who was a little hot-headed. He was repairing a radio transmitter, got frustrated and angry, and kicked it just as the base commander walked into view. The commander just smiled and walked away. We made the hot-head a "Transmitter Kick Plate." Another time I watched someone get frustrated with his lemon of a car and throw a sledgehammer through the windshield. One of my daughters, when she was 3, would bite herself when she got angry. Yes, I'm guilty, too - remember, I care, I'm married, and I've had kids who defy control. I was angry yesterday with an uncooperative folder and as a result of my impatience ended up with the contents on the floor. It's a wonder I'm still sane. I am... sane...? )

Why is anger the preferred mode of operation? Similar to the display of anger in a story, it dramatizes what is at stake. But do we love anger? Those early choices stick with us. The choices we give ourselves are the only ones we know: we have only learned to bite ourselves or we throw a sledgehammer at a frustrating relationship. Sometimes we just burn, biting ourselves. Nothing will stop frustration from happening, but it is better if we can give ourselves a choice of how we react to frustration. Our reaction doesn't have to be anger and an expression of anger. Frustration is controlled through patience.

I can't wait to get patience, I want it now! Patience can allow us to channel our energy into finding ways to get what we want. Every person deserves to have a life, and not having one denies your humanity and defies your purpose in life. God didn't create machines, he created people. Denying yourself is like turning yourself into a machine, except we build resentment and frustration and anger and hopelessness which lead to serious depression and prevents us from being an effective human being at all. Anger rarely does anything but destroy, and we give ourselves few choices.

Each individual must find the power to change his life. No person should lay his life down as a floor mat for others, but neither should he be forced to live with the destructive outcome of anger. Everyone has to decide what they want and spend time regularly going after that. If pursuing life has to be a battle, then it should be a battle for the right things, not for damage and destruction.

As I wish my father had said to me, "Choose your battles wisely. Make sure it is something you can win, and make sure that winning the battle doesn't cost you the war."

Conflict Resolution - Characterization Exercise

What to do, what to do? This series about peace is basically about conflict resolution. When anger is expressed in inappropriate or counterproductive ways, it destroys us from within or escalates conflict. The burning question is, "How do you control anger?"

Anger is often the way conflict is dramatized in stories, and we know the way it is most commonly portrayed. The character flys into a rage, kicks the dog, yells and screams at everyone he loves, and then slowly simmers down. Anger has hurt at least two people and a dog before getting to the ultimate "cool off." Nothing has been accomplished except the destructive impact of the sledghammer. For days the dog hides when he sees him coming. His significant other gives him the cold shoulder and doesn't warm up for days. Or this may have been the final scene in a long string of damaging incidents that has placed an unbridgeable distance between them. The fact that it is his right and his nature to be angry does nothing to prevent or rectify the damage.

Understanding why anger actually appeals to people is a first step in controlling it. I thought that a characterization exercise would be the most practical way for writers to explore the many things that anger means to people, because a lot of good characters and scenes can come out of it. The exercise introduces the thought that we not only get angry, we actually use anger. There are two exercises to chose from.

Characterization Exercise 1

This exercise is an opportunity to write a short sketch and do a little characterization as an exercise to explore some reactions to anger. This should involve three characters. The questions below should be answered by all three characters in the sketch. Chances are good that this sketch will dance with both drama and humor.

The Questions:

  1. Is the damage I'm about to create really worth it, or am I going to regret it later?
  2. It helps a little to ask yourself a dozen questions as you are getting raging mad?!!!
  3. Am I letting someone else have control and satisfaction through my anger?
  4. Do I even want to control my anger?
  5. Do I need to keep thinking about this? Thinking about things often makes them seem worse - blows them out of proportion. But it is difficult to stop thinking about things that bother you. Sometimes it is better to try to think of constructive ways (think legal, moral, ethical, productive) to rectify the situation or limit damage.
  6. Is this something that I should even care about? When I consider the impact that this will have, should I give it a one or a ten?
  7. Does my loss really mean that I am less valuable, or is this situation just "the way it is" right now?
  8. Is that other person really out to get me, or are his motives innocent and I'm just upset and blaming him?
  9. Can I put my anger into something more productive to solve the problem?
  10. If I get what I want later, is it all just the same?
  11. Is this is the way that I handle pressure, and if so, what will I destroy when life makes the pressure ten times worse?
  12. Is life really even about fairness? (This is equivalent to counting to 10,000.)
  13. Is not getting angry a better way to get back at those who try to control me?
  14. Did asking these questions make me even more furious? We may be in trouble here. Don't have your significant other ask them - you might hurt him or her. I had better go outside. Take a walk. Even better, take a run. Get help if this is my normal mode of operation.
  15. Do I really want to control my anger? Or is it a way to:
    • Get power over others?
    • Get sympathy?
    • Get my way?
    • Confirm my unworthiness?
    • Make me feel powerful?
    • Refuse the role of someone in my life because I am too proud to accept it?
    • Indulge myself in my feelings - an absurd and irrational tribute to the absurd way that life treats me? A pity frenzy - also known as letting off steam?
    • Or simply the only way that I know how to commiserate (or communicate feelings) because I never learned any other way?
  16. Is this anger something that I can live without - what is the worst that is going to happen if I don't let myself get raging mad? Will the toilet explode?

If you are stuck, try these aids:

The three characters shout these questions at each other as accusations as they work through their anger. What are they angry about? A woman comes home and tells her husband that the small company owner that she works for is making a pass at her. Her husband is out of work, so there is no way they can afford for her to lose her job. She doesn't feel like she can do anything about it because she is sure she really would lose her job. She also feels like if she doesn't do what her boss wants, she will lose her job. Her husband threatens to or does: A. give him a blanket party. B. take him on a snipe hunt from which he won't return. C. talk to the press. D. visit the guy and give him a piece of his mind, complete with threats. E. Go down and talk to the guy and try to work things out. F. Be supportive of his wife. G. All of the above.

Her husband wants to know why she isn't blowing her top about this. How does she react? Is she quiet, passive, depressed? Is she seething and too angry to speak? Is she intrigued by this opportunity - her boss is attractive and powerful, her husband is an unemployed slob with an anger problem. Is she using this as a tool to "get to" her abrasive husband?

Who is the third party person who arrives? A mother? A friend who is into women's causes. A pizza delivery guy who gets dragged in to the fray and is angry because they are preventing him from making more deliveries because they don't get him the money because they can't stop arguing? A drunk who is passed out on their doorstep and is angry because he can't sleep for the noise? An appliance repair person who is fixing the kitchen faucet and is angry because he can't get anything done for their arguing and interruptions? An attorney neighbor who angrily comes downstairs to stop the noise threatening a law suit because they are preventing him from studying case files (he is actually watching TV with his girl friend)?

Characterization Exercise 2

This exercise is an opportunity to write a short sketch with characters who are already created.

The Characters and Situation:

Erica Pear wants to add tight-rope walking to her Olympic gymnastic floor routine. Her coach won't even consider it - it isn't an Olympic exercise. She has seen a boy her own age walk the tight-rope as she walked home from school. She both admires him and is attracted to him. She has never met him, but he has become a symbol to her of both skill to be admired for, and someone to have something in common with - maybe even to love. Erica is a good student, hard working, and an Olympic hopeful who probably won't make it to the Olympics. Her spirit just won't rise to excellence. She is often mildly depressed (lonely and sad), and she has no real friends. Only her exercise routines pull her out of her depression. Today she arrives home very angry because her coach won't add the tight-rope routine. No one can understand why she won't just do the same routines as everyone else - there is enough variety and it is standard. But it is Erica's one chance to feel special - that is, admired and maybe even a friend to someone she admires.

Brian Pear is MVP of his football team and his coach's favorite. He feels that Erica's sport is useless - eye-candy for football players is the sport's only redeeming quality. He has been successful and a favorite for most of his young life. Everyone has always looked up to Brian and he is very popular. Sports are easy for him and he began young, so he neither knows defeat nor what it is to "feel" much of anything emotionally. He can get away with just about anything, and he can identify with his shoe cleats better than he can with people. He feels only contempt for Erica and her "cry-baby" defeatist attitude. He arrives home unexplainably angry and he won't talk about it. He is hiding that he just got kicked off the team for cheating on his papers and for gambling on the games and for bringing alcohol to school and hiding it in his locker. Once the first clue surfaced it exposed an entire trail of Brian's errors and now his entire world is caving in. He has no experience with emotions to help him deal with this problem - except anger.

Darla Stuart is the next door neighbor. Her image of herself is a nightmare, full of fear and distortions. Her husband left her a year ago. When they married she was trim and pretty, but she lost "her edge" as she calls it, and she thinks that this is why her husband left her. She thinks that she is fat (she is overweight), ugly, mean-tempered, and totally incapable of living with anyone. She barely passed high school, and she flunked PE. She has no talent and loses jobs frequently. But there is one modicum of hope in her life: she doesn't think of herself as a loser because she is "there for people." Relationships are the important thing to her. But today is her marriage anniversary, and she is angry with herself for losing her husband. She is ready to take her anger out on anyone or anything. Today she learns from Brian that his mother says that Darla's husband cheated on her from the day before they married and everyone seems to know it except Darla.

The three connect when Brian, shouting threats of bodily harm, chases Erica, who is shrieking bloody murder, into Darla's home.

Some of you may enjoy reading a psychologist's perspective on anger. I have known David Markham through an Internet list for years, and have deep respect for his personal experience and his attitude. David has a very enjoyable way of writing about subjects - he uses satire. The following article is on forgiveness: He also has various other articles at

U B Peace - Scott

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