"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" ~Buddha
The subject of anger has come up a lot recently, not just in my practice. You can't read the news for very long without running into someone somewhere who is very pissed off, or if you read long enough, getting angry yourself.
Anger can be a healthy response. I haven't hesitated to tell my depressed and anxious patients that getting angry is an evolutionary step up from passively absorbing someone else's abuse. But how to judge when anger is justified or express anger in a regulated manner is tricky and how not to let it consume us once the angry monster is unleashed is trickier still.
A little insight has helped me see anger from another angle.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, famous for identifying the five emotional stages of accepting death, wrote that she believed anger was not a primary emotion. A primary emotion is one, like pleasure or fear, that comes directly from the limbic system in our brain, the design of which is to keep the individual safe and therefore the species alive. Dr. Kubler-Ross said that anger is secondary to something else, usually fear.
That got me thinking of all the times I was really, really angry. Like the time I was furious over a seemingly heartless decision made by a ruthless bureaucrat. The anger was so great it nearly blinded me. For days it ate at me because there was no where to put it. It burned my heart like Buddha's hot coal. With the passage of time (and a lot of prayer) it cooled off. Now on reflection I can see how scared to death I was, how terrified that because of a person I never met, my family's well-being had been seriously threatened.
Knowing that fear can mascaquerade as anger has helped me be more compassionate when others become angry. When an elderly relative went off on me over an imagined insult I remembered what Dr. Kubler-Ross said. This person was afraid, afraid of becoming feeble, dependent, afraid of financial insecurity, afraid of death. I was just a handy target. No need for me to get angry back.
When I see spouses expressing anger at each other I now ask them to refelct on what are they afraid of. It doesn't take long for them to get to their fear of abandonment, of loss of love. With understanding the hope of compassion is allowed to follow and we can take action. We can let go of the burning coal.