We’ve been asked this question a number of times. It usually takes the form of “but isn’t anger a healthy part of the healing process?” or something like it. We get the question a lot in part because of our stance that love and anger, hope and fear, forgiveness and bitterness, they are all things that you choose. Admittedly, it doesn’t feel like we are choosing these emotions when we experience them, but that’s just because so much of our experience is unconscious instead of deliberate (I include myself in that grouping).
I believe all of us could be more deliberate. I am always working on being consistently deliberate, instead of just letting emotions (and the state of being that comes with them) just happen to me. I want to cultivate the good stuff, and get better and better and handling the negative stuff. Some days are certainly better than others.
A Parable From Vipassana
Each night during Vipassana you listen to a lecture. I LOVED those lectures! One lecture on the 4th night had a simple illustration on why we should be deliberate regarding the kinds of energy we accept and encourage in our thoughts and words and actions.
There are two seeds, one bitter, one sweet. Planted in the same ground, given the same water, the same sun, the same care…when they sprout and grow and bear fruit will you be surprised at all that the fruit from one is bitter and the fruit from the other is sweet?
This thought stuck with me for much of the 10-day course, and though my mind was supposed to be as silent as possible, I found myself writing a blog post in my mind about anger.
Thoughts on Anger
I think many of us are conditioned to believe that some things just make you angry. As in, if this circumstance didn’t happen, or that person hadn’t said or done or written this thing, or if I hadn’t accidentally deleted that file…well then I wouldn’t be angry. We blame a great deal of our negative emotions on some outside influence. Things external to us appear to have complete control.
But the reality is, circumstances do not make you angry, people’s behavior/actions do not make you angry, your own mistakes do not make you angry……but they do give you an opportunity to plant a seed. If the seed you plant in response to these normal life events is anger, whether you know it or not, you are also choosing the future fruit of bitterness and unhappiness.
You may say to me “but anger is natural”, and I say “yes it is!” You say “it is normal,” and I say “yes it is!” But if by natural and normal, you mean that it is healthy or that you have no choice, well then I disagree.
My Own Analogy For Anger
Saying anger is healthy is like saying infections are healthy. The fact is, dealing with infections is healthy, treating infections is healthy, preventing infection is healthy, eliminating infectious material is healthy. There are some infections that are simple enough that you only get them once and your body knows exactly what to do with it if it comes again. The same is true with different causes of anger that you already know how to manage and address quickly.
You might be thinking of some “infections” that you’ve had more than once – it gets you every time no matter how many times you’ve dealt with it. In this sense, your anger in response to this particular challenge is more like a chronic disease, and it would be worth asking if you ever got rid of it in the first place? Did you ever actually heal? Or did the anger just subside long enough for you to think you were done, and it was just waiting for the right trigger to afflict you with all its familiar symptoms.
Some life experiences are like vaccines – getting a weakened dose of anger at some point in your life can prepare you against much more serious forms of it later.
Some experiences with anger are like a common cold. A little bit of time and not much effort on your part and it’s all better.Some are like cancer. They may start small and begin invading your body almost unnoticed at first, but left untreated they will eventually ravage every part of who you are. The sad thing about this kind of anger/infection, is that when your body is in an already weakened state, it can be a common cold that pushes you over. The infections/anger build on each other. An existing condition of anger makes it that much easier to give into something that, when isolated, is small and insignificant.
So you see, anger is not healthy, but learning how to treat and prevent it is. When the seeds of anger blow, you are the one who decides whether or not you will give them fertile soil, water, and nourishment so they can grow and bear the fruit of future misery. Although anger is often justified, it is never sanctifying.
In response to a path Mara and I suggest which emphasizes choice, we often hear people defending the path and role of anger as a normal part of a healthy healing process. My response to that is you’re right! If you haven’t reached a place in your life where anger itself is distasteful to you, and you haven’t yet developed the personal tools that would allow you to follow a different and more deliberate path, then YES….anger will be a normal and natural part of your healing process.
But it doesn’t have to be.
For those interested in challenging their assumptions on anger and whether the familiar advice that “venting is healthy and helps you process”, PLEASE GO READ this article from You’re Not So Smart. It shares some of the reasons this common advice has worked its way so thoroughly into our culture and our psychology (for millennia), and the research that has been proving it wrong (which was only conducted in the 1990s and hasn’t quite infiltrated our lives or cultural norms yet).
Also, Mara and I recently responded in the comment section to someone asking a variation of this question….I think the responses we both wrote are a valuable contribution to discussion on this topic, if that’s what you are looking for.