02 Jan Anger Management from Both Buddhist and Western Psychological Perspectives: “Don’t Bite the Hook”

Posted at 4:17 pm in Couples Therapy, Individual Therapy by jlbworks

Recently a new couple came to see me because a conflict between them escalated to the point of physical violence, a 911 call, police involvement, jail, a restraining order, and $6,000 in legal and court costs. While not all individuals and couples come to therapy with this presentation, certainly many come because anger and rage have been emotionally costly in their relationships.

Who has not felt guilt or remorse about an angry outburst at someone we cared about? Surely this is a universal problem. So how do we learn to manage our anger more skillfully? We can look to both Buddhist and Western psychological perspectives for answers. First of all, we begin with the proposition that all anger is not “bad.” Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, in her wonderful book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, states, “If we look at the force of anger, we can, in fact, discover many positive aspects to it. Anger is not a passive, complacent state. It has incredible energy. Anger can impel us to let go of ways we may be inappropriately defined by the needs of others; it can teach us to say no. In this way it also serves our integrity…It is a way to set boundaries and to challenge injustice at every level.” (p. 68)

Linda Hazel, Ph.D., writes from a Western psychological perspective in her article “Working with Clients Who Have Anger Management Issues,” in the newsletter of the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute. She similarly states: “Sometimes anger can actually help clients set limits or boundaries for themselves. It helps them identify when their boundaries have been violated. They can then learn the difference between being assertive and being aggressive/hostile…The clients need to understand that they cannot let people walk all over them but they cannot blame other people for causing their problems either.”

Having established that anger can sometimes serve a positive function, let us turn now to the steps involved in managing destructive anger and aggression. I will outline below some of the key concepts and strategies for reining in the urge to respond with the kind of anger that damages relationships and destroys trust.

Learning to renounce and refrain from the “shenpa”: Pema Chodron is one of the world’s most renowned and beloved Buddhist teachers. She resides at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia— the first Tibetan monastery for Westerners. She is an extraordinary teacher about thorny interpersonal problems like anger. She was written many books and her recorded talks are available in such CD sets as Don’t Bite the Hook and Getting Unstuck. She writes, “Someone criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your child. At moments like that, what is it you feel?…The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck…At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down…That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy, and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”

Pema Chodron continues, “Yet we don’t stop—we can’t stop—because we’re in the habit of associating whatever we’re doing with relief from our own discomfort. This is the shenpa syndrome…Shenpa is usually involuntary and it gets right to the root of why we suffer…The momentum behind the urge is so strong that we never pull out of the habitual pattern of turning to poison for comfort…Something triggers an old pattern we’d rather not feel, and we tighten up and hook into criticizing or complaining…working with habitual patterns begins with the willingness to fully acknowledge our urge, and then the willingness not to act on it. This business of not acting is called refraining. Traditionally it’s called renunciation. We renounce and refrain from the shenpa…(Meditation) teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully, and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows…We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of shenpa…This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives.”

Recognizing the destructive and long lasting impact of our anger and rage: In her recorded 3 CD set on anger entitled Don’t Bite the Hook, Pema Chodron gives a Dharma talk from the sixth chapter of Shanti Deva, who was teaching in the eighth century in India, at Yolana University, to an audience of celibate monks. Pema Chodron says, to a room which responds with laughter, “You might wonder what the relevance of such a teaching would be today, and all I can say is at the level of human neurosis, nothing has changed much.” Shanti Deva states, “Good works gathered in a thousand ages, such as deeds of generosity or offerings to the blissful ones—a single flash of anger shatters them.” In her commentary, Pema Chodron says, “It causes so much damage to us. Your temper erupts violently and you are either verbally or physically abusive. It shocks our system so deeply—it shatters a lot of good will—it can take a long time to get back to where you were. A single blast of anger shatters the good you have done.” It’s not going too far to say that a single episode of toxic anger may destroy a lifetime of good will and permanently damage a relationship.

Learning to practice “Tonglen”: Tonglen is perhaps Pema Chodron’s foremost spiritual practice. She writes, “Tonglen practice reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen we visualize taking in the pain of others with the in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit with the out-breath…Tonglen awakens our compassion.” In tonglen practice I visualize breathing in another’s suffering while breathing out compassion towards them. This can be a powerful way to move past feeling angry at my partner, as I realize that while I am suffering, so is the partner I am angry at. Practicing tongen, usually it doesn’t take very long before I feel my anger begin to dissipate.

Learning to “drop the story lines”: One of Pema Chodron’s most helpful concepts when it comes to working with anger is her idea of “the story line.” The story line is the story I am going over and over in my head about how my partner has just said or done something that is so unkind, unfair, or unjust. As I keep going over these thoughts, it keeps me stirred up and angry.

In her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron summarizes her approach: “Acknowledging that we are all churned up is the first and most difficult step. Without recognition that we’re stuck, it’s impossible to liberate ourselves from confusion. ‘Doing something different’ is anything that interrupts our strong tendency to spin out. We can let the story line go and connect with the underlying energy, do on-the-spot tonglen, remember a slogan, or burst into song—anything that doesn’t reinforce our crippling habits…Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart is the work of a lifetime. In essence the practice is always the same: instead of falling prey to a chain reaction of revenge or self-hatred, we gradually learn to catch the emotional reaction and drop the story lines.” (p. 153)

Utilizing an Internal Boundary in order to not take things personally: In his book How Can I Get Through to You?, Terrence Real explains an extremely effective strategy for not taking what my partner says or does personally. This strategy involves developing an “internal boundary,” which Real describes as a kind of “internal technology.” (See my article on “The Internal Boundary.”). The internal boundary is an invisible shield that I psychically construct that protects me from anything that my partner says or does that may invoke my anger or defensive reactions. With an internal boundary in place, Real proposes, “the nastiest comment, the most raw feeling—an emotional atom bomb could go off and you would remain unfazed. Inside your circle you can afford to be open, spacious, curious, relaxed.”

Real elaborates: “The important thing to remember about practicing an internal boundary is precisely that it is a practice, similar to getting physically fit…Although it takes months, even years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent, most people experience an exhilarating glimpse of its effects within a few weeks…The lack of an internal boundary inevitably leads to control or withdrawal. If there is no membrane between you and whatever external stimulus gets thrown at you, then you attempt to regulate your own level of comfort or discomfort by managing the stimulus. (“I could be happy, if only you were less angry.”). When control fails, the only other option is withdrawal.” (pp. 237-241)

Utilizing Time-Outs to stem the escalation of anger: I work with many couples who have repeatly allowed their conflicts to escalate to a destructive degree, with massive hurt feelings and often long periods of icy coldness and distrust as a result. I teach all the couples with whom I work about the importance of taking time-outs. In his most recent book, The New Rules of Marriage, Terrence Real states: “The best defense against verbal abuse in a formal time-out.” He continues as follows:

“While you have probably heard of this technique and possibly even used it with your children, time-outs work equally well with ‘unruly’ adults. When either partner calls a time-out—by saying the word ‘time-out,’ by using the ‘T’ hand signal, or by using any agreed-upon sign—the interaction comes to an immediate stop. The spoken or gestured signal is understood by both partners to be an abbreviation of the following words:

‘Dear partner, for whatever reason, right or wrong, I am about to lose It. If I stay here and keep this up with you I am liable to do or say something stupid that I know I’m going to regret. Therefore I am taking a break to get a grip on myself and calm down. I will check back in with you responsibly.’

“Notice that the time-out is always taken from an ‘I’ position, never from a ‘you’ position. It’s a singularly bad idea to tell your partner that he is being a brat and that he needs to take a time- out. You take it…Telling your partner that he needs a break…virtually guarantees an argument…Once the contract has been agreed to in advance, either partner has the right to leave the interaction whenever he or she chooses, and should not be stopped…When reconnecting after a time-out, you must take a 24-hour moratorium on the subject that triggered the initial fight. After the time-out is over, whether it’s 20 minutes or an entire day, when you move back into contact with each other do not discuss the topic that started you off. If you do, you run a great risk of just getting wound up again.”

Resisting the urge to “offend from the victim position”: It is extremely common in an argument for either partner to feel that what the other partner has just said is unfair, unkind, and untrue. Often the experience is one of feeling victimized by one’s partner. Terrence Real suggests that often the result is an outburst of “offending from the victim position.” By this he means that when I feel victimized by what my partner has said or done, I then feel entitled to “go on the offensive,” attacking my partner back with more hurtful and angry words.

Acknowledging anger as an addictive urge: Terrence Real, in his seminal book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, writes about the addictive power of anger and rage. He states, “Research shows that rage simultaneously releases adrenaline, which speeds up the autonomic nervous system, and endorphins, which act as the body’s own opioids. This is a powerful internal cocktail, which tragically, like any other form of intoxication, can offer short-loved relief from the pain of depression.” (p. 68).

Pema Chodron, in her book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, also addresses anger as an addictive urge. She writes, “Many of our escapes are involuntary: addiction and dissociating from painful feelings are two examples. Anyone who has worked with a strong addiction—compulsive eating, compulsive sex, abuse of substances, explosive anger, or any other behavior that’s out of control—knows that when the urge comes on it’s irresistible. The seduction is too strong. So we train again and again in less highly charged situations in which the urge is present but not so overwhelming. By training with everyday irritations, we develop the knack of refraining when the going gets tough. It takes patience and an understanding of how we’re hurting ourselves (and others) not to continue taking the same old escape route of speaking or acting out.” (p. 31)

Fundamental to Buddhist psychology is the belief that once our basic material and relational needs have been met, what we really long for are positive mind states. Meditation helps us develop more skillful mind states and skillful actions. In her book Lovingkindness, Sharon Salzberg writes about the fruits of meditation practice as it relates to anger: “Anger seems like a solid thing. But, in fact, we discover, if we observe carefully, that anger has no solidity. In reality it is merely a conditioned response that arises and passes away. It is crucial for us to see that when we identify with these passing states as being solid and who we truly are, we let them rule us, and we are compelled to act in ways that cause harm to ourselves and others. Our opening needs to rest on the basis of nonidentification. Recognizing aversion and anger as transitory is very different from identifying with them as being who we really are, and then acting on them.” (p. 67)

In summary, we can all benefit from continuing to work on more positive mind states, and on equanimity, the Buddhist idea of a balanced, calm mind. Anger is a turbulent state that disturbs our equanimity and so often our relationships. As I recently said to a new couple in my office, “The two of you have proved that you know how to get angry with each other. I think it is time now to learn how to treat each other with more care and kindness.”