Mindfulness is a term that has gained increasing awareness in the minds of people in recent years. It’s to do with dropping into yourself, becoming aware, finding a healthy balance between doing and being, becoming fully attentive to the present moment. Engaging fully in what ‘is’ (right now) rather than what ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be. In the context of anger, allowing yourself to feel angry without reacting in any way, remaining open-hearted and empathetic – even though you want to strangle someone!
Balance Through Mindfulness
By the time people embark on an anger management programme, their lives are so out of balance that anger is simply a manifestation of their state. In order to find balance we need to become mindful and through becoming mindful we create balance. We cannot have one without the other.
I have been holding anger management classes at the British Association of Anger Management (baam) for 15 years, and when I attended a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (mbsr) course in 2006, I discovered I was aligned to the practice and advocating its use to anger sufferers without even realizing it. In my workshops, I was already teaching skills in awareness – the key element of mindful anger management.
Finding the Middle Ground
The basic premise of mindfulness that I teach is to help people who suffer from anger to learn how to delay gratification and tolerate sitting in the discomfort of their feelings – especially anger! When eventually they’re able to do that, they experience a new freedom – the freedom of finding the middle ground. Instead of exploding, they can contain their impulses and express themselves cleanly; or they can find a way to be assertive rather than bottling up and imploding. It is by understanding how our mind works that we can control our anger, and mindfulness is the key.
My Path to Anger Management
I came to this work through my own struggle with one of my biggest issues in life – I could not tolerate conflict and arguments. Today this would be termed ‘conflict avoidant’. Despite my training as a counsellor I had no idea how to deal with conflict, anger or any other form of resolving disputes.
I began to realize that being angry and yet conflict avoidant was an effective way to avoid dealing with the depression I was suffering from. For years I didn’t even realize I was depressed. I had no benchmark or yardstick for determining whether I was depressed or not – I just seemed to be in a perpetual state of confusion, felt isolated, misunderstood, alone and often overwhelmed. Finally, Fritz Perls’ definition of depression being ‘anger turned inwards’ hit home – it struck a chord deep inside me, and I remember thinking that I couldn’t be the only one who felt as furious as I did. There had to be others who felt like me at some point or another. How come people never talked about their feelings of anger? Why were we so disconnected from our anger, considering the challenges we are faced with on a daily basis?
From Avoidance to Expression
It took me years to fully grasp the complexity of how my anger ruled my life. From being the archetypal conflict avoidant and expressing myself passive-aggressively by using provocative comments, or sarcasm, or winding people up, I went to being the full-on, explosive, in-your-face angry man. I won’t deny that I actually loved this new feeling of omnipotence. I had finally found my voice and boy, was I going to make sure everyone heard it. Of course it didn’t work. If anything, it polarized me even more. My inability to self-regulate became my demise. Those who had loved and respected me became afraid of me and started to avoid me. Others just ended up not taking me seriously, which angered me more.
In the end, it was the wise words of my mentor that shifted my perception. He quietly suggested that maybe I needed to experience the two extremes of anger in order to discover where I could stand, and I realized that I did indeed need to live in the centre of these two polarities. I needed to find the balance. I had become so out of control that in order to find this balance I had to experience the full range of expression. To me, that was an incredible revelation and the next big step towards becoming mindful. The fundamental discovery I made was that when I found myself imploding, I needed to navigate towards finding the courage to stand up for myself. When I found myself exploding, I needed to use my mindfulness strategies to contain a potential outburst by reminding myself of the negative consequences. These two polarities became my beacon towards being mindfully vigilant, just in time to pull me back from the brink of emotional and verbal violence.
Opening to Stillness & Solitude
Stillness is anathema to our Western civilization. We live in a world whereby the more activity we’re involved in, the more hip and cool we look and feel. However, the truth is more likely to be that no matter how much we do or are involved in, it will not change the way we perceive ourselves. We simply pay a massive price for our busyness, which is evident in how stressed we are, how exhausted, fatigued and – in more extreme cases – ill. Opening to stillness and solitude is a step towards overcoming this undesirable state.
The Challenge of Relaxing
I remember doing an assessment with a very angry young woman, and I asked her if she ever relaxed. She felt she did, and her partner nodded in agreement; but when I asked if that included switching off her brain, she seemed confused and perplexed as to why she would want to do that. I believe this reflects most people’s understanding of relaxing – it’s about being physically inactive. However, they overlook that while the body is inactive the brain is still racing at a million miles per hour, so they are never truly ‘switched off’.
Almost all the exploders I have ever worked with have absolutely no relationship with relaxation. They are usually highly strung, hot-wired and short-tempered. They get annoyed when you suggest they could chill out, and have zero tolerance for what they see as doing nothing. Obviously there is a correlation between this and their anger.
I completely identify with this position and constantly have to monitor my own urges to steam ahead. This has been one of my biggest hurdles to overcome. A constantly over-active central nervous system meant that slowing down and becoming still was more like an existential death to me than an opportunity to relax. Every time I tried, I judged myself as being too lazy, which then kick-started me straight back into ‘doing’ mode.
Mindfulness can allow us to be with the things we fear without being overwhelmed by them. By giving our fears and anxieties our attention, we can shift our relationship with them, rather than compulsively running away.
Meditation as Medicine for the Soul
The most reliable and immediately accessible way for you to recognize how you are feeling – and therefore in turn make a judgement call on how well equipped you are to manage the day – is to tune in to your body. Being mindful of your energy levels, stresses and strains and general well-being gives you an indication of what you are, or perhaps will not be, capable of facing. All it takes is some time to train your brain and get into the practice of using your body sensations to guide you. Meditation is the ideal tool.
Situations will be ever more mismanaged if you cannot approach them from a place of being resourced and maintaining a certain neutrality. In an ideal world we would all love to be able to maintain that sense of calm and objectivity – but we are not in control of our external environment. We can, however, have a certain measure of control over our internal environment. So, when we find ourselves about to fly off the handle we have to bring our awareness to the situation and recognize that we have choices. I’m the first to acknowledge how difficult it is to step back and slow things down when your heart and body are surging with stress hormones and adrenaline.
By learning to manage your neurotic impulses through applying what you learn through mindfulness training and letting the noise settle, you will eventually become increasingly open to stillness and silence. I find it amazing that my whole being now yearns for this, and without it I would find it impossible to remain relaxed and happy. Stillness and silence have become nourishing friends, and solitude a welcome retreat.
Mike Fisher is a trained counsellor, facilitator and anger management consultant, and the founder of the British Association of Anger Management (BAAM). He is the author of Mindfulness & the Art of Managing Anger, published by Leaping Hare Press, £8.99.
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