Coping With Anger: Substitute Forgiveness With Understanding

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The Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals at your enemy, but you’ll burn your hands.” The same idea applies to anger. Rarely do we think about how our anger hurts ourselves. We hold on to anger as if it was life-sustaining rather than destructive, believing we can throw hot coals without getting burnt.

Ask yourself the following two questions: What past interaction still angers me and has the anger benefited or hurt me?

It’s highly unlikely that you will find anything positive about your anger, yet it persists.

Emotions are interesting animals. We want to control them, but either don’t know how or fail at bridling the most destructive ones, such as anger. They pop up at the worst time causing us embarrassment and resulting in those terrible scenes our mind creates involving what if or only if scenarios in which we re-write exchanges so we either walk away whole or exit with a Disney-like ending.

Unfortunately, changing what happened in the past isn’t a once and done occurrence. While today’s memory is modified to make things “better,” the same miserable episode reoccurs next week, and the following week, and so on, and so on. And what’s so galling is that no matter how much we tweak our memory, the anger remains.

Most people can identify at least one incident that made them angry in the past and still raises their blood pressure whenever it’s remembered.

While the event may have lasted less than thirty seconds, you spent countless hours reliving it months, years, or decades after it occurred. Why does an old interaction generate an emotion that still affects you years after the event occurred? Most likely it either involves one of two reasons: your sense of righteous indignation or being the brunt of injustice.

Righteous Indignation and Anger

Righteous indignation lives in the world of “if I were her” scenarios. We look back at an event and become angry with what a person said or did. They acted in a way that you believe was inappropriate, hurtful, and just plain stupid.

If you were only observing the event, the effects on you might not have been too negative. You watched something ugly happen, formed a judgment about the person, shook your head about his cruelty, and then walked away as if you just finished watching a video or movie. Yes, what you witnessed was unpleasant, but it didn’t have anything directly to do with you—it was fiction or something occurring in a distant part of the world. But what if you were the recipient of the unskillful behavior? What if you couldn’t walk away and what happened directly affected you?

For example, a client of mine with a chronic illness became furious when she recalled the inability of her ex-boyfriend to understand that her canceling social events was related to her unpredictable and sudden bouts with colitis and not the result of being inconsiderate.

 Other than the times when her illness made it too painful to even talk, she was considered by her friends as someone who exuded compassion and responsibility—attributes that were conveniently forgotten by her ex-boyfriend when she canceled events. Just mentioning his reaction brought her to tears—not from missing him but rather experiencing righteous indignation over his inability to be compassionate. The anger she experienced just talking about him became pervasive for days and just thinking about his behavior had the same effects.

Most of us believe the world should be viewed as we see it. And when there is a discrepancy between the right way—ours—and the wrong way, we are shocked. Our shock over the differences is genuine, and shock often morphs into anger.

I once counseled a woman who was distraught when her caregiving suggestions were dismissed by her sister. “I just don’t understand it,” the woman said. “I tried to be helpful. You know, her husband is in critical condition and she just about bit my head off when I offered helpful suggestions. You’d think she’d be more appreciative.”

What was interpreted as ingratitude was the culmination of being overloaded by six days of suggestions made by well-meaning friends and family. She wasn’t ungrateful, despite having her reaction interpreted that way, but rather could no longer respond appreciatively to comments from people who didn’t understand her circumstances.

Our personal history may be at the root of our righteous indignation when we make it the sole reference point for understanding the words and behaviors of other people. The older I get, the more I realize there probably is no such thing as an independent reality—despite my acting as if there is one. I know some people would argue for the universality of certain beliefs, both religious and secular.

If only the world were so simple that we could easily determine what was right, wrong, just, or unjust. This type of black and white distinctions in a gray world become the moral certitudes that cause us to be shocked, angry, disappointed, and hurt when someone doesn’t interpret an event as we do.

How many times have you said, “If it were me, that’s not how I would have acted.” But unless you lived the same life and have identical values, your belief that you would have reacted differently is just a theory. More important is to assess the effects of righteous indignation. For my client, it didn’t produce anything positive. To the contrary, it generated the anger she experienced throughout her caregiving. It’s our personal history, values, and belief in absolutes that create righteous indignation and anger.

Injustice and Anger

Nobody wants to feel helpless or taken advantage of, yet we experience injustice throughout our lives. Unfortunately, the worst experiences can stay with us for a lifetime. A patient in hospice repeatedly related to me how her fellow colleagues wouldn’t include her in social gatherings back when she was a teacher. 

They weren’t obvious in how they ostracized her; it was more subtle. Parties were never mentioned in her presence, stories involving gatherings where she wasn’t invited were told in hushed voices, and nobody ever sat next to her in the lunch room. As she told me about the injustice, the scenes she described were so vivid they could have occurred yesterday rather than 40 years ago. The anger over her unjust treatment remained an unresolved issue we discussed at every weekly visit for three months. It was a lingering emotion that made her death more difficult.

Everyone wants to be treated humanely, fairly, and justly–that’s our nature. Our mind tries to rectify the past when one of these principles are violated. One way it does this is by creating scenarios of what should have been done so a different outcome would have occurred. Unfortunately, these are not one-time events. We keep reliving them until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. And if that ended it, we could rejoice, but it doesn’t.

No matter how we changed the outcome, the pain remains, and when it surfaces we start the process over again, changing what can’t be changed into a more acceptable ending. How many times must you relive a painful event and revise it before its impact is reduced? With my patient, there wasn’t enough time. We believe we live in a black and white world where “justice” stands against “injustice” and “right” can always be distinguished from “wrong”—it’s a life more apropos for a movie than reality.

The Solution for Minimizing Anger

Some people maintain that anger can be stopped through forgiveness. I’m sure in many cases it can or if a person possesses the traits of Mother Teresa or the Dali Lama forgiveness becomes second nature. We may strive to exhibit their qualities, but what about those affronts or injustices that, in your mind, can’t be forgiven? How do you deal with them?

My mother lost 33 relatives in concentration camps. It was a loss so great she couldn’t forgive the Germans for what they did; not even those who were children during the Holocaust. Her anger towards anything German lasted until her death. She refused to ride in my Volkswagen and would become upset in the presence of anyone with a German accent. In conversations having nothing to do with Germany, her anger would surface, immediately changing a warm, caring person into someone unable to contain the hurt caused to her.

Would forgiveness have changed her life? Most likely, yes. While forgiveness wasn’t a possibility, understanding could have been helpful. Understanding is not the same as forgiveness. Rather, it’s the acknowledgment that actions can never be understood by themselves—the context in which they occurred is important.

That was the case with a hospice patient for whom I had difficulty displaying compassion. He was 80, born in Alabama, and hated Blacks, Jews, Catholics, and “them damn agitators.” As someone who was involved in the civil rights movement, whose parents were Jewish, and who’s been a lifelong activist, I stood for everything he hated, yet he was dying and looked to me for compassion. My convictions said, “give it.” But I couldn’t. In many ways, my inability to forgive his bigotry was no different than my mother’s feelings towards Germans.

There will be times, despite your best efforts, that you can’t forgive. I was unable to forgive my patient for the venomous words he used to describe people and values I honored. I wanted to serve him but thought I couldn’t, given my negative feelings towards him. I realized that even though I couldn’t forgive his outbursts, I might be able to understand them.

How different would I be if I had been born in Alabama to segregationist parents whose great, great grandparents owned slaves and whose fundamentalist religion espoused the superiority of Whites, Protestants, and the Confederate cause? It is the circumstances of our lives that make us different. When you think you can’t forgive, stop trying. Instead, focus on understanding the circumstances of a person’s life. It will mute your anger.

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