Right now lots of folks are feeling lots of anger at the ways politics are going in our country. On both sides of the aisle.
Anger has purpose. It gives us energy to protect ourselves and those we care about. But like any form of anger, if political anger doesn’t lead you to constructive, satisfying action, it can turn in anger addiction, make you ill, miserable, and ineffective.
Not handling your anger consciously is like handing your remote control to the people that make you angry so that they can push your buttons…and take you out of commission by burning out your batteries.
In this post we’ll look beneath the surface of political anger to see how it might get infected by anger addiction and what to do about it.
To simplify, let’s say that there are two different kinds of anger: One is the immediate anger we have when we, or the people we care about, are treated badly. This anger can lead us to make effective change.
The second form of anger seethes unproductively; we hold onto it and nurse it, prolonging it to feel justified, powerful, and safe. This backfires badly in terms of our health and sense of well-being. It’s also addictive.
We need to listen to the immediate message of anger, know when we’re being mistreated, and find the strength to wisely and appropriately defend ourselves. But even if the struggle for justice needs to be ongoing, dragging the anger along after we’ve gotten the message only makes the struggle heavier.
If the anger persists despite action, it may indicate that there is a deeper issue involved. Prolonged, unremitting anger may be caused less by a particular person or situation than it is by an internal issue that hasn’t been addressed. Even justified moral outrage may get confused with old emotional issues and make it harder to take suitable, constructive action.
If anger is frequent and drawn out, the outer circumstance may be triggering something that’s been going on inside for much longer, such as painful issues with authority. Consequently, directing anger at the outer circumstance won’t help. Both despite and because it’s unsatisfying, you feel the need to keep doing it and it becomes a habit.
While this is completely human and totally understandable, it still causes suffering.
How can you tell if you have anger addiction?
1. You often get angry, let’s say at least three times a day, even at things that don’t directly affect you.
2. Your anger doesn’t go away quickly. Even after taking appropriate action you find it hard to let go and you prolong it.
3. If you look deeply you may see that you actually search for reasons to be angry. Just in the back of your mind you may feel some secret pleasure in finding things to be angry at, proving that you’re right. This may lead you to focus on things that you feel justify your anger, rather than on things that help you to be effective and fulfilled. This gratification in being right might lead you to consume far more media than you need to be well informed.
Why do we cultivate anger?
Behind the curtain of prolonged anger hide fear and powerlessness. There’s good reason that we enlist anger to help us deal with these feelings.
Psychologists in Spain have done research indicating that when we become angry we produce more testosterone and less cortisol, temporarily making us feel stronger and less anxious. Without realizing it you may be using anger as a strategy to cope with feelings of helplessness or insecurity. As a result you create more and more neural connections between anger and these hormonal wellsprings. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t dealing with the real issues inside or outside of you, or that it doesn’t really help in the long run. It feels good at the moment so your brain cultivates it.
What do you DO about it?
- Set an intention to break the addiction.
- Do physical exercise to lower your baseline of arousal.
- Meditate to develop skill in not reacting.
- Set your priorities clearly: Do you want to prove that you’re right, or to feel better and be effective for your cause?
- Understand your motivations for prolonged anger. What pushes your buttons and why?
- Take the attention off of the person that you’re angry at.
- Notice what sensations you are having in your body: Strong? Shaky? Powerful?
- Then check in to see what else you’re feeling: Righteous? Vindicated? Punishing?
Pick a direction
- Consciously choose to either take constructive action (join with others on an activist project) or release the anger by focusing on other issues that make you happier and more effective (write in your journal, take a walk). Do NOT get stuck in the middle.
Each time you do any of these you break the psychological and biological cycles that keep reinforcing your anger. Addictions don’t go away immediately, but with time you can build new neural circuits that override the old ones.
To feel better you’ll need to have your emotions without your emotions having you. See what can you learn from your anger and choose whether to use it or let it go.