Anger management 101

Outside my yoga life, I’m a writer and editor. Recently, as managing editor of a top peer-reviewed journal on urban planning, I observed a professor’s angry reaction to negative reviews. Actually, she was lucky. The editor didn’t reject her manuscript but gave her the option to “revise and resubmit.”

But, almost immediately after receiving her decision letter, she asked us to withdraw the paper, adding exasperated remarks about the reviewers’ misguided opinions.

In academic publishing, it’s rare to pull a paper that’s still viable. She was obviously acting emotionally.

In day-to-day life, I witness miscellaneous bursts of anger: Impatient diners at restaurants. Couples arguing. Kids throwing tantrums. Road rage in traffic.

When I see an outburst, I cringe at how unbecoming, how uncool, it is. That’s because I recall the times when I myself have absolutely lost it (and it’s happened more often than I want to admit).

While it’s good to stand up for your rights, emotional anger is usually counterproductive. When I see red and express pure rage, what’s my goal anyway? I want others to feel my rage’s power. But ironically it’s me who suffers much more than my “victims.”

If that professor had stopped, taken a breath, slept on it perhaps, and calmly read the decision letter and reviews, she would have realized the value of that feedback. If she’d followed through and revised her paper, she’d have ended up with a stronger piece of work. That’s the benefit of constructive criticism.

Around the same time, I received an email from my sister. My parents had just left town after a two weeks’ visit, helping out with my five-year-old niece, adorable but volatile. “She loves to be with Tali so much and never gets mad at her, even when sheʻs acting up and defiant,” my sister wrote. “Mom NEVER gets mad; itʻs really quite amazing. The more I see it, I think about how she was when we were growing up.”

I have never seen my mom truly angry. I’m not exaggerating. She might get annoyed with others, but her “complaints” have a good-natured tone. Growing up, my mom, an elementary school teacher, was always the “nice” one among her colleagues. She was kind and generous, never one to make a scene, or compete for recognition, or get angry. While I appreciated her composure, I also considered niceness rather weak and submissive. Maybe in Hilo, Hawaii, being nice works, but what about on the mainland? I had ambitions. In the real world, didn’t I need a tougher shell? Wasn’t it better to show anger than to hide behind a smile?

Indeed, people on the mainland—in cities larger than my home state; in college, in law school, and beyond—were tougher, sharper, louder, worldlier, and often angrier than those I grew up with. Maybe anger can sometimes be channeled to push through obstacles.

But nowadays when I witness anger (especially in high achievers), I consider my mom’s lack of anger. A PhD and prestigious academic career are worthy achievements. But my mom’s natural composure and, yes, niceness, are much rarer qualities to possess.

Image: Homer Simpson, Bleacher Nation; Original Smiley Face, Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation

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13 thoughts on “Anger management 101

  1. luci! lots of food for thought here 😉

    i have been thinking about anger recently and its role in my life. at times it has been very helpful to me pulling me out of a depressed state. angry thoughts can be helpful in that regard because they are rajasic whereas depression is such a tamasic state. however, if we allow our anger to control us, to be our engine in life, i think it is unhealthy for everyone and will only create more and more negativity.

    anger is often seen as the “problem child” of our emotions especially because it is usually directed at others and it is quite unpleasant to be in the presence of an angry person. but doesn’t anger have the potential to be one of our best teachers? if we commit to self-inquiry we can discover why we feel angry and this can perhaps teach us something about ourselves.

    peace,
    siobhan 😉

    1. Thanks, Siobhan. I agree that anger can be a productive catalyst. And my anger might signify what is important to me. Since I tend to be rajasic, however, anger in me can explode into a crazed state. So my work is to keep the flame low.

  2. I always believed I concentrated better when I was angry — played better ball, better music even. Anger gives you tunnel vision, which on a short term basis can only help you. But that’s ‘utilized anger.’ You can control it most of the time. The anger you can’t control is the stuff that eats you alive.

    1. Hello Doug in SF! Your comment addressed exactly what I was contemplating today: Doesn’t anger sometimes spur great art, music, athletic feats, progressive movements, and heroism? I guess the key words are “sometimes” and your phrase, “utilized anger.”

      Next SF trip: August. Sushi?

  3. [From my niece’s nanny]

    I read this post about your mother’s reactions to Tali, and they rang so true to me.

    Your mother does not get angry with her, and I see so much growth with that action. When Tali’s behavior crosses the line, she, as a grandmother can do only so much; acceptance is one of those options. Because of this, your niece is stronger and more confident during these visits. I see a significant change in her attitude, as if she can accomplish anything, even if it seems as silly as growing wings. No matter her actions, in her grandmother’s (and other grandparents’) eyes, she can do no wrong, and it’s all for the greater good.

    I love your parents for this. Thanks for blogging about this!

    Much love
    -Samantha

  4. There are two types of anger; power anger and blaming anger. Being able to show anger when someone is disrespecting us shows that we possess self love and are willing to stand up for our boundaries. The language is what makes the difference.

    A power anger statement would be saying in a firm voice, ‘You need to stop now because I feel violated by what you are doing. OR ‘I do not feel respected when you do that and I am feeling resentment because my feelings are not being honored.’ Blaming anger would involve statements like ‘You make me so mad’ or ‘I have had it with you’ or Do you always have to be such an ASS?’ or ‘It’s YOUR fault,’ etc. And oftentimes the angry yelling is combined with throwing objects and slamming doors.

    We need to be able to express power anger and show up for our boundaries. If we stuff anger, it turns to resentment and can become depression or frozen anger. When we are able to express power anger, we are showing that we care enough about our feelings to speak the truth which is practicing self love. Blaming anger reveals an internal imbalance that needs to be brought up and looked at before relationships are in ruins all over our life.

  5. Interesting story about the paper. It’s entirely possible that the criticism was constructive, but I would say that I’ve seen a lot of gratuituous trashing in academic circles, and that being able to know when to walk away from it (rather than pretending that the trashing of your work could improve it) vs. a case where there is some (often hard to swallow) constructive criticism there is an important skill. Not all criticism is constructive, and sometimes one is better served by preserving the integrity of one’s work rather than allowing reviewers to water it down. The real skill is being able to distinguish the two cases. I’ve seen quite a few brilliant ideas turned into mental pablum by peer review, and more than a few brilliant people pulled back to mediocrity by taking any and all “constructive criticism” on board. I guess the trick is to examine this, rather than to react only with anger?

  6. Many thanks, Michaelle and Sinead, for writing. Interestingly, while your comments were unique, they also converged on similar ideas: That we must distinguish between types of anger or opposition. That we must uphold our integrity in confrontations.

    Perhaps there’s a type of calm, rational anger that can and must be developed–to avoid boiling, uncontained fury that never bodes well.

  7. I agree 100 percent that if the professor would have “slept on it,” she would have seen the reply in a different light. I’ve done an outburst or 2 in my life and I feel embarrassed about it the next day or the next minute. Have you heard of The 11 Karmic Spaces? It’s a great book that deals with awareness and Karma. Perhaps this professor just isn’t self aware quite yet. She needs yoga! Here is the link… I think it’s quite interesting. http://blog.kashiashram.org/

    1. Thanks for your comment. I, too, regret my cringe-worthy outbursts. I took a look at the website and book that you’ve recommended, and I added The 11 Karmic Spaces to my reading list. I’d never have found it otherwise, so thanks again for writing.

  8. No problem! I really did appreciate the book and when I feel my self slipping I pick it right up. Ma Jaya is an amazing spiritual leader.

  9. Great article! Made me think back to how I viewed and managed anger as a teenager and how that has evolved into the way I manage anger today.

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