Stoic Anger Management: Harnessing the Power of Emotion
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” – Mark Twain
Anger! It lets people know when you do not agree with something, and that you care about the issue so much that you are willing to whip yourself up into a frenzy, and heaven help whoever is in your way. Plus, it feels really powerful to unleash the full force of your fury.
Anger is like a machete, vital when you need one but for most of your life, your knife needs may only be to spread butter on warm brioche. Sure, it’s exhilarating, but after a while, no one wants to picnic with you.
Anger is a powerful emotion that can be both destructive and constructive. The Stoics, a school of philosophy founded in ancient Greece, believed in the power of rational thought and self-control in managing emotions, including anger.
As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “It is not things themselves that disturb people, but their judgments about these things.” In other words, it is not the events or circumstances that cause us to feel angry, but rather our perception and interpretation of those events.
The Stoics believed that by understanding and accepting that we cannot control external events, but we can control our reactions to them, we can learn to manage our anger in a productive way.
“The Stoic does not yield to emotion, but instead uses reason to control emotion, to the degree that he or she is not overcome by them.” – The Stoic Life, Tad Brennan
One technique the Stoics used is called “premeditatio malorum,” or premeditation of evils. This involves taking the time to imagine and prepare for potential negative events or situations, in order to reduce our emotional reactions when they do occur.
Another Stoic technique is called “ataraxia,” or tranquillity, which involves accepting and embracing the present moment without judgment. This can help us to let go of the past and future and focus on the present, reducing feelings of anger and frustration.
In addition, the Stoics believed in the power of “virtue ethics,” or the idea that a virtuous person is one who lives according to moral principles. By striving to live a virtuous life, we can reduce feelings of anger and frustration by understanding that our actions have consequences.
Seneca, who wrote extensively on anger, knew that it was a tool, mostly ill-used.
What is more cruel than anger? What is more affectionate to others than man? Yet what is more savage against them than anger? Mankind is born for mutual assistance, anger for mutual ruin.Seneca
From an evolutionary biological perspective, if you live in an environment where every decision could mean life or death, having a tool that you can quickly whip out to place extra emphasis on your ability to protect yourself, or give yourself a vital burst of energy, or to correct another’s behaviour before it got you killed would be useful. Show your teeth now, and maybe you get to pass on your genes or live another day.
But, for the most part, we do not live in that world with those high stakes anymore. We can sheath our machete, take a deep breath, look around a bit, and think.
Something to think about is that anger serves to escalate an issue, with the hope of rectifying it quickly. However, unless the other party agrees with you and are good-natured enough to not pick up the offence at your outburst of anger, they will probably also escalate the issue. Seems like a bit of a gamble seeing as humans are often unpredictable by nature.
Once anger has escalated an issue the response will almost have nothing to do with the original issue and almost everything with how it was handled.
Anger has caused people to pick some strange hills to die on:
- Correcting historical facts
- Ownership of a pet
- Dancing in the wrong direction
- Being called an idiot by a friend for a trivial mistake
- A game of Billiards
And those are only death by dual! (Read more here)
You can gauge how long people have been alive by how they look within a few years, but you have no idea about their emotional age. You have no idea how someone will respond to your anger.
“But it’s healthy to vent, right? You can’t keep it all pent up forever.” I hear you ask.
A paper by Iowa State University, read here, looked into whether venting anger extinguishes or feeds the flame:
The results from the present research show that venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it only feeds the flame. By fueling aggressive thoughts and feelings, venting also increases aggressive responding.Brad J. Bushman
Maybe because anger is so combustible and other people are so unpredictable it’s worth asking if what I am about to get angry about is potentially worth dying over. If it is, then that feels like an appropriate time to use every resource at your disposal. However, most things are not worth dying over. You can keep your pet, dance in any direction you want, call me an idiot and potentially cheat at billiards. All of those things I would happily trade for a more open-ended life.
Marcus Aurelius, who ruled for one of the longest periods of the age, knew this and probably encountered other people’s rage on a daily basis, and lamented:
How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!Marcus Aurelius
So, what do you do? Do you simply refuse to be roused to anger? Easier said than done, especially when some idiot has rear-ended your new car on the way from the showroom floor and you spilt your bowl of cereal milk all over the upholstery!
Keeping emotions down is not a solution either. Stifling your anger is only going to spill out onto unsuspecting friends and family.
So, what other option is there?
How much better to heal than seek revenge from injury. Vengeance wastes a lot of time and exposes you to many more injuries than the first that sparked it. Anger always outlasts hurt. Best to take the opposite course.Seneca
What?! We should just take on the hurt and try to move on?
Yes, because you have very little control over what happens to you but much more control over how you react to it, and if you have the choice not to waste time and cause damage you would not normally want to cause, why would you not choose that option?
OK, so knowing you do not want to get angry only helps so much. As much as we are willing to get annoyed that’s how much annoyance will be in our own little worlds.
Things happen that we do not expect, all the time. Change is the only constant in our world, it seems silly to get angry because of it. Rude, self-absorbed jerks exist, and you are bound to meet them. You becoming a jerk because of them only adds an extra jerk to the world.
Instead, we should try to see things as they are. Other people are more similar to us than not. They have dreams, desires, faults, and foibles just like you do. Chances are if you try and see things from their point of view, with their context, you will feel more compassion than anger, as Marcus Aurelius points out:
When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?Marcus Aurelius
It’s very difficult to argue with someone who is on your side, who treats you as an individual and not simply an obstacle to their expectations.
But, there is a slight snag. You see, Marcus Aurelius suggests empathy and understanding, two modes of thought not really available to you immediately after something anger-provoking has happened, for instance, someone throwing a crushed can in your face from a passing train as you are on your way to a high pressured interview.
Luckily, impulsive explosive anger is usually short-lived, we simply do not have the resources to go on an extended rampage.
The greatest remedy for anger is delay.Seneca
Now, you don’t really care that someone kissed your girlfriend/boyfriend when you were 15, or that someone threw you under the bus for something they did at work 10 years ago, not really, especially when you gain a more realistic context over time.
OK, does that mean we should let everything happen to us and we are not allowed to get angry?!
No, not quite. Anger is natural and has a place and a time, but know that statistically you probably only need it a handful of times in your whole life.
Think of it this way: for the most part, you are giving yourself extra work after you’ve misread the situation and been injured/slighted because of it. How many times have you gotten angry and it was the right thing to do compared to the times you “could have handled things better”?
So give yourself time. Count to 10, or even imagine yourself as a time traveller watching history unfold, whatever it takes for you to distance yourself from the initial sting. Take a few deep breaths. Go for a walk. Remember that one day they will be gone and so will you, and you get to choose how to spend your remaining time. What they say and do says much more about them than it does about you. How you react is up to you. For all you know, the injury you feel could have been inflicted by someone as a result of their own injuries, etc. If anger is infectious like a disease, then you could potentially stop the spread, at least via you, by not taking it on.
- Make space and give yourself some time.
- Try to understand why they have done this, or why it has happened.
- Know this is their reaction, and that you do not need to match or escalate things.
- Other people are just people, expect them to behave accordingly.
In conclusion, Stoicism offers a powerful set of tools for managing anger in a constructive way. By understanding that our emotions are a result of our perceptions and judgments, and by practising techniques such as premeditation of evils, ataraxia, and virtue ethics, we can harness the power of anger and channel it towards positive change.
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