Why releasing anger is better than controlling it

The myth about anger

A while ago the BBC carried an item about the effects of anger on health.

The argument runs that people who control their anger rather than expressing it are healthier.

This is a common myth and I want to explain why it is wrong. And why expressing your anger is actually better for you in the long run, provided you do it in the right way.

Bodymind creates anger for a purpose

The human body is designed to produce anger and it uses a very sophisticated circuitry to do that – running from the thalamus, through the amygdala and then on through the adrenal glands and the sympathetic nervous system. So we know anger must have an important purpose. Dismissing an emotion like that as harmful or ‘bad for your health’ is just disrespectful.

The purpose of anger is to ensure that you are treated with respect, protected against exploitation, have your wishes taken seriously, or to cue you towards self-defence.

Your righteous anger

Without anger we would be defenceless against attacks on ourselves or the people we love, against exploitation, cruelty and injustice. What keeps Aung San Suu Kyi fighting against the military in Burma? Her desire to keep her father’s dreams for Burma alive are important, to be sure. But I suspect that her passion is what keeps her going when others would just give up.

Even Christ was furious when he noticed the wide boys outside the Temple degrading the holy places. All prophets, all heroes, all crusaders against injustice (think Martin Luther King) have possessed that righteous anger. But they also knew how to channel it in the right direction.

Misusing anger

In Reverse Therapy I notice that people who don’t do anger well make three common mistakes:

  1. They bottle up anger and later on, once the pot is filled to boiling point, they explode in uncontrollable rage (which creates stress and damages your health)
  2. They express anger but don’t follow up and ensure that they get what they need (for example, you yell at your daughter for not keeping her room tidy but you don’t enforce the rule – so it happens all over again).
  3. When they express anger they shout, swear, call names, blame, scream and try to make the other person feel as bad as possible.

The reason for these mistakes is simply lack of education in emotional intelligence. We are told as children that anger is ‘bad’, ‘destructive’, ‘self-indulgent’, etc. So we aren’t given permission to explore the emotion in more depth. At the same time we watch the adults around us having tantrums and so we conclude that anger must, indeed, be an evil thing.

Anger is a hot emotion

Anger is a ‘hot’ emotion. Meaning that most people feel it very powerfully in Bodymind, rising up and demanding fast expression. But that doesn’t mean your body wants you to go into a rage. What it means instead is that your body is warning you that something deeply important to you or the people you love is at stake and you need to speak up quickly.

Releasing anger

You can use the Reverse Assertiveness process to channel your anger into words that get people listening to you and ensure that you actually get what you want. Instead of just blowing off.

Just as important as using a formula like this is to practice expressing your disatisfaction every day. No matter how trivial your complaint is, make your likes and dislikes known. If you get them out at an early stage then they you can stay calm and you won’t get angry. Nor will you explode in rage. Or get stressed. Or unwell.

One more point. Anger can be divine. Especially when you speak up for the defenceless, the innocent, for those who live in hunger, terror, torture and exile.

If you agree with me that Aung San Suu Kyi’s cause is just then please sign the petition calling for her release here.

“It is wise to direct your anger towards problems – not people. To focus your energies on answers – not excuses.”

W. A. Ward.

Emotional intelligence

I want to talk about the right way to think about emotions. To do that we need to understand:

1. What emotions are and what they are for

2. The difference between emotions and mind-states

3. Why awareness is vital

4. When we can expect to experience emotions

5. When it is ok not to have emotions

6. The best way to speak up about emotions

1. What emotions are for

Briefly, an emotion is a Bodymind comment on the situation we are in. It tells us what sort of situation it is (e.g. threatening, confusing, rewarding, etc). Emotions also predict what will happen if we don’t take action and guide us towards the correct actions to take (e.g. connecting to other people, asserting one’s rights, fixing problems, having fun, etc.).

2. The difference between emotions and mind-states

States like anxiety, depression and resentment – and relaxed, calm or serene moods – are not emotions. They are states of mind. For example, anxiety builds up as Headmind indulges in worry, depressing emotions and blocking action.  The sensations of agitation and panic arise because the body is reacting to negative thinking by pressing ‘the alarm button’ on the sympathetic nervous system. Bodymind urgently needs us to spring into action on the problem (which includes talking to people) but poor thinking skills mean we go over the problem again and again, rather than switching attention to the likely solutions.

The core problem is that in negative states like these, Headmind is not exercising awareness. It is not grounded in the now, in the present moment, or focusing what emotions are telling us about the right thing to do.

3. Why Awareness is important

Positive states such as Mindfulness occur when we bring our attention back to the present moment, reconnecting to the body, owning our emotions, and exercising spontaneity. We do this just by exercising awareness. We can achieve that through meditation, yoga, breathing techniques, Tai Chi, Qi Gung and in numerous other ways. In Reverse Therapy we most often use sensate focusing and breathing techniques as tools.

Practicing these techniques filters out the Headmind yada-yada-yada that pollutes awareness. And doing that enables us to move with the flow of experience as circumstances change, and our feelings dictate. There is some excellent, practical, advice on how to improve mind-states and develop Awareness on the Simple Dollar blog.

4. When we can expect to have emotions

With two exceptions, an emotional release is triggered whenever an unexpected change takes place. For example, your child is late home, your partner betrays you, or you lose someone close to you. Your body triggers fear, anger and sadness respectively. The two exceptions are boredom and frustration. Those two emotions tell you have been stuck in the same monotonous situation for too long and its time to go and do something more rewarding.

Now life is so arranged that we will frequently get sad. We lose friends, parents, grandparents and, sometimes, our children. We leave our jobs, our homes, and our partners. And when we get very sad we cry. Now some studies have shown that tears are essential for health. They wash away toxins produced by stress and they also release the hormone, prolactin, which has a calming effect.

So there is something wrong with people who never cry. My observations of clients who tell me this is that they have been conditioned into believing that tears are ‘unmanly’, ‘self-indulgent’, or ‘childish’. They just don’t have permission to be sad and they are unable to use effective thinking skills to resolve it.

5. It’s ok not to have emotions when we don’t actually have any

Bodymind creates emotions like fear, anger and sadness when it wants to alert you to an unexpected change, help you understand the situation you are in, motivate you to do something, and guide you towards the appropriate action.  When your body doesn’t have any concerns about you then you won’t have  any emotions.

Now, the most common myth about grief in that it is a process we have to go through. And that it takes a long time and that we have to do it in stages. This is just not true.

Sadness is not the same as grief. The first one is an emotion, the second one is a state of mind. When we go through a bereavement Bodymind will trigger sadness so that we know we need to take time out for ourselves and adjust to our loss, talk about what we are going through, honor the memory of the person who had passed on, and (most importantly) bond closer to our friends, partners and families, so that they can give us the support we need. The reason we have funeral ceremonies is so that all of these goals can be achieved.

Grief comes up when we have unfinished business with the dead person. That could be resentment, remorse, lost opportunities, guilt, injustice, regrets or a whole lot of other things. Or we were dependent on that person in some way and think we cannot cope on our own. If that is so then Headmind is unable to let go of the dead person and ceaselessly analyses the relationship that we once had. The unresolved wishes, the incomplete emotions, or the refusal to regain our independence, create the experience of grief.

Now, if we don’t have any unfinished business we will feel sad but we won’t need to grieve. This was illustrated for me by a story a client told me in Reverse Therapy last week.

She told me that when her Father some time before, it took her years to get over it. He had been a cold, bullying man who constantly belittled her. The state of mind she carried around with her was filled with things like rage, guilt, love, confusion, resentment and self-blame. She only emerged from her grief when she learned to forgive and move on.

But when her Mother died last year she experienced no grief at all. She cried – copiously – for a few days and then let it go. She and her Mother had been very close, very loving, and very honest with each other. She had already forgiven her Mother for the mistakes she had made as a parent. Besides, her Mother had been 93 and had been ill, and lonely, for a long time in an old people’s home.

Her sister (who was badly effected by grief) and her aunt (also in the same position) told her that she must be ‘heartless’, ‘sick’, and ‘abnormal’ and should see a therapist! Fortunately, I was able to reassure her Headmind and she is now busy working on her new life.

That is all I have time for today. Tomorrow, I will add to this blog and write about how to be braver in speaking up about your emotions.

What emotions are for

On the right are some photos taken by Duchenne du Boulogne in the 1850s. Both the man and the woman
have facial nerve damage which rendered them insensitive to the electrical probes attached to their heads. What the photos show is that it is possible to produce artificial smiles by stimulating certain facial muscles. Charles Darwin, in his book on Emotions, used this as evidence that human being are programmed by evolution to produce emotional signals automatically, through the nervous system.

Yet neither the man nor the woman are actually laughing, as is shown by the fact (if you look closely) that, in the man’s case his eyes are not smiling, while in the woman’s case only one side of the face is smiling.

You can’t fake emotions. Nor can you will them. Emotions surprise us because we can’t control them. And they are outside your conscious control for a very good reason.

The reason is that Bodymind (your emotional intelligence) uses emotions to signal that something unexpected has occurred and that there is something you need to do about it.

Joy, for example, tells you that things are going better than you hoped. Your body is telling you to carry on doing exactly the same as you were before (or even more of it) to get the same result. That’s especially important feedback when you are having sex with someone!

Emotions are also predictions. They tell you what is likely to happen next if you do not take further action. For example, if your Body creates an anger signal it is telling you that you (and/or the people you care about) are going to be exploited some more if you don’t assert your rights.

Here is a rough guide to what the other emotions are telling us, what they predict will happen next, and what Bodymind wants us to do about it.

  • Fear. You are under threat. You may fail/get hurt/or be rejected by other people. You now need to take evasive action and take steps to regain control and confidence.
  • Awe. You are in the presence of the divine. You are about to learn something important. You need to open up to new connections and powerful inspirations.
  • Sadness. You have lost something or someone you loved. You will remain lonely unless you do something. You are now required to reconnect to other human beings.
  • Disgust. You are being confronted with something repellent to your sense of what is proper. You could be harmed by dangerous people, animals or foodstuff. You need to distance yourself from the offender.
  • Shame. You have let yourself or other people down. You are at risk of damaging some relationships that are important to to you. You now need to make amends to other people.

Note: all emotions are positive in the same way that happiness/pleasure/joy are. They are all there to push us towards either protecting ourselves, becoming more profound, more honest, more balanced, or more fulfilled. There is no such thing as a ‘negative’ emotion.

Notice, also, that worry, resentment, guilt and anxiety are not emotions but mental states. I will write up more about these other states of mind in a later post. I will also be writing more soon about what intuitions, gut feels and hunches tell us about the world we live in.

Morality is disgusting

Neuroeconomics is a new science which studies what goes on in the brain during decision-making. What is becoming clear is that people don’t make good decisions unless emotion is involved – as it is those that guide us towards the wisest actions to take.

A unexpected example of this shows up in what is called the Ultimatum Game.

Two volunteers are given the chance to split 10 dollars between them
provided the second volunteer agrees with the first one’s offer. Otherwise both get nothing. Now, if pure reason were involved, everybody would accept every deal offered, for even $1 is better than nothing.

But the actual results show this isn’t so. Nearly all offers that were less than $3 were rejected.

More importantly, brain scans taken from the second players showed that, when an unfair deal was offered, the amygdala (emotion) lights up, as does the dorsolateral
prefrontal cortex
(decision-making), and the insula (associated with a reaction to bad smells – i.e. disgust).

There is a clear link between what we see as criminal activity and repulsion. Disgust drives us to distance ourselves from immoral or unfair people even if it costs us personally.

Now, emotion-based decisions like this are traditionally seen as
‘irrational’ by old-style scientists. But neuroeconomics shows us that
Bodymind may have larger purposes in view. And that is to try and teach
some people that – in the long run – exploitation doesn’t pay.

How to make guilt work for you

Guilt, as most of us usually experience it, is not a good place to be. It tortures us, leaves us thinking we might be worthless, traps us in self-doubt, and paralyses our ability to act.

It seems to me that there is still a lot of wrong thinking about guilt and that confusion gets in the way of our being able to do something about it.

The most important error people make is to label Guilt as an emotion. It is in fact a distortion of emotion. The ego distorts emotion by getting obsessive about it instead of taking action and letting it go. When it produces guilt it mixes up emotion with unhelpful ideas like sin, self-blame and self-punishment.

The three major emotions that get distorted in guilt are fear, remorse and disgust. You could be experiencing, one, two, or all three of them at the same time.

Fear is there when there is a possibility that you may be found out. That your career, your relationships, your reputation or your friendships may be in jeopardy. Bodymind may be signalling you either to protect yourself or come clean.

Remorse is really a variation on the emotion of sadness (all the emotions work like this – consider them as having different keys, with sadness modulating into pity, love, empathy, compassion, grief, and remorse). Remorse is your body’s way of telling you that it is time to make amends for your bad behavior. To be more attentive, loving, forgiving, generous or honest with the other party.

Disgust comes up when the action you took is repulsive in some way – potentially harmful to you or to other people. Your body needs you to make a decision and sever yourself from that situation for good.

Headmind distorts these emotions through worry, self-blame and by mixing up our identity with our behaviour. This also gets complicated by religion gone wrong – the myth of sin, divine judgment, and hellfire. This feeds the illusion of free-will: that we have complete control over our actions and can choose what to do. The reality is that we will always do what seems most desirable at the time given our current state of knowledge.

Here is a little process you can do to reverse out of guilt:

1. Identify the moment in time just before you did what you did. Relive that moment again in your visual and auditory imagination. Notice that you are just about to engage in the behavior you associate with guilt.

2. Now go into your body at that moment in time before you ‘decided’ to go ahead with the behavior.

3. Staying in your body in that moment notice that – given the situation, the knowledge you had at that time, and the state you were in, you could not in fact have done anything else. (If you had known any different, remember, you would not have done it).

4. Tell yourself: ‘I make mistakes sometimes but I am not a bad person’

5. Fully realising your limitations in that moment, notice that you didn’t actually have any guilt at that time.

6. Finally, decide what you want to do about your emotions – fear, remorse, or disgust. And take appropriate action.

Can an emotion ever be wrong?

Last week, while I was doing some Reverse Therapy with a client, he asked: ‘Are emotions ever wrong?’ Meaning, is it possible to be angry, scared, sad, etc. over nothing all?

To answer this question we have to understand what an emotion is. Bodymind produces an emotion through cellular communication. Cells in the brain (mostly in the limbic system) pick up information from the environment and trigger other cells to send signals through to the nervous system. The resulting changes in the gut, skin, muscles, lungs and circulation are experienced as a feeling.

An emotion is not a thought (which can be wrong). But neither are emotions irrational – they are what Antonio Damasio calls ‘somatic markers’. That means they mark something out for your attention. In that way they serve the same function as the pain in your foot that tells you your shoes are too tight or the rumbling in your stomach that tells you it is time to eat.

So emotions are cues to action. Now this is where some people can misunderstand emotion – they mistake the inappropriate expression of the emotion (which comes out of wrong work of Headmind) for the emotion itself.

Contrary to common belief your Bodymind does not want you to shout or scream at someone when you notice anger. A quiet assertion of your rights is quite sufficient. Nor does your Body want you to run away (another Headmind cop-out) when you notice fear. Getting your facts straight about the situation you are in, talking to others about your options, and taking one small step to raise confidence is all that is required.

Too often – as with my client – we are conditioned into seeing emotions as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ because we have watched other people do destructive things when they get emotional. But emotions don’t encourage us to be destructive – just honest.