Conquering anger is the secret ingredient in any Love Maintenance Program. Anger is contagious, and if one person starts on an angry tirade, it can spread to the other partner. The trick to conquering anger is to break the cycle of allowing anger to run the show. How do you do that? The first key step is to be WILLING to let go. This may sound impossible if you are in the middle of something and very attached to the issue you are angry about. Sometimes you literally have to step away from the focus of what you are angry about in order to get perspective. This is because the anger magnifies the issue, and worse, magnifies it through the lens of an angry perception. You literally can get stuck in an angry point of view.
Step away from the issue – from the emotions – for just an hour. Literally forget about it for a little while. This will help release you from the clutch of the emotions and give you the possibility of conquering anger by seeing the issue in a new light. There is a lot of power in the perspective shift that allows you to see the bigger picture, such as loving the person you are currently angry with! Once you are out of the clutch of the anger, you can give each other what you both truly need. This is why anger is so destructive, because it keeps you from being willing to give love to your partner.
“Are you saying I should just forget about what he did?!” Jessica stared at me as if I had just sprouted a third eye. “I can’t forget what Peter did to me! I’m so mad – I can’t think of anything else!”
And so I explained to her what I’m going to explain here. Remember when you were young and you had a big fight with someone, and all you needed to do to make it better was kiss and make up? There’s an important principle here. I believe it is the wisdom behind “turn the other cheek.” The idea is not to allow yourself to be hit again, but to switch your awareness away from what you don’t like, and to refocus back on something that you value, something that allows you to move forward. Jessica didn’t believe me at first when I started talking about this as a way of conquering anger.
“Personally, I don’t see much power in the ‘power of forgiveness,’ she said. "Even if I believed it, I couldn’t get my emotions behind it.”
I suspected her definition of forgiveness meant something like being a doormat. She had certainly seen her mother do that, and wasn’t about to start following in those footsteps. I asked her to define forgiveness.
“I know what it’s supposed to mean, but to me, it means I am supposed to just give up what I want! So, am I supposed to say to Peter: "Oh, forget about it, I have another birthday next year! It’s no problem. Everyone does that to me. I'll get over it."
None of those statements sounded very healthy or appealing to either of us. They weren’t helping Jessica conquer her anger. If anything, they fanned the fires. But more importantly, they backed Peter into an emotional corner. These types of conversations always led them into fights, with each of them working hard to defend themselves, and recite their reasons for their actions. I had to explain to Jessica that my point about moving on was not to have her endure injustice, rudeness, cruelty or stupidity.
The point I was making is that it just isn’t useful to replay over and over in your mind the thing that is bothering you. If anything, it’s about switching your focus away from what has upset you, and replacing your focus on something you value, such as the positive aspects of the relationship, or the value of peace of mind. Conquering anger is about letting go of your attachment to feeling upset, so that you can hear/feel/see other options. In fact, the value of forgiving has nothing to do with the other person. You forgive so that you can feel better. You need to be in favor of doing that. You need to be in favor of giving yourself the chance to feel better by being willing to loosen the tight hold on angry feelings.
Learning how to conquer anger has less to do with what the other person does or doesn’t do, because they will always be doing something that could potentially make you mad. Conquering anger comes from a deep decision to not be run by it anymore. Conquering anger comes from being willing to re-focus your attention, at least long enough to have the presence of mind to have a calm conversation about the issue that is bothering you. Forgiving is not about becoming a wimp. On the contrary, there is true power in forgiveness. Only the strong can choose to let go.
It is a form of mental laziness to carry the injustices done to you around like luggage -- or medals – instead of applying your mind to create a better reality. Letting perceived injustices roll around in your mind is like recreating them and giving them more power. The more you mull over the details, the bigger the event gets, not smaller, in your mind. Conquering anger comes from the willingness to feel good instead of letting the anger always make you feel bad. Get behind the idea that there is something more valuable than sticking to your anger. Be for-giving!
Here's a definition of forgiveness that I offered to Jessica. Forgiveness means to be “for giving.”
"For" -- as in, in favor of -- "Giving." Giving – as in, to bestow, voluntarily.
Jessica had to think about that for a week. I reminded her that she has the power to choose to be for giving, and she has the power not to be. This mind set brings you back to the awareness that you have control over your own experience, because you can always re-choose your reactions to events. This is how you begin to unravel the stranglehold angry positions have over your thinking. This is how you can begin to conquer the anger that ruins the fabric of love.
It is a very different experience to say to yourself: “Peter forgets birthdays. He doesn’t remember dates. He needs some method of reminder.” These fairly factual statements feel very different from saying: “Peter doesn’t love me. He doesn’t value or respect me. If he did, he wouldn’t forget my birthday!” These are mental leaps that may or may not be true representations of the reality of how Peter feels. When Jessica dropped her assumptions about what his actions (inactions!) meant, she was able to ask him simply.
“Did you forget my birthday was January 12th?”
Peter was horrified. He showed her his date book, where he had written her birthday down as January 21st. He told her about the plans he had made for that date at a cozy vacation Bed and Breakfast. For the first time, he told her about his numeric dyslexia!
Because Jessica was able to step back from the emotional place her conclusions about his actions had taken her, she was able to open a new communication door. She was able to learn and understand something about him that he had been too embarrassed to tell her before. She was able to walk into his world, without her emotional luggage, and to see how much this problem of dates and memories also upset Peter. This was a great personal victory for her because she never thought she would ever conquer anger.
Jessica learned that sometimes she has to be willing to not look at her own version of reality so intensely, in order to see, hear and receive someone else’s. This is what Turn the Other Cheek means. It means turn your head and see the situation from the opposite side.
This is a technique I highly recommend. It works wonders in relationships. I am in favor of giving someone else a chance to show you what is happening inside his or her brain, rather than assuming you know.
Are there people in your life that you need to forgive? You may have a mentally stored list of events that have happened (or did not happen) the way you wanted them to. Pick one at a time and try this with “the old stuff.” Work simply by asking yourself the questions listed later in this article. The next time you would like to forgive someone you care about (or even someone you don't care about) ask yourself:
"Am I in favor of giving understanding to... (name)?” You can use any word you prefer in place of understanding, such as compassion, tenderness, or if that is too much, simply neutrality. The reason for giving compassion is not because of what it will do for the other person, but because of what it will do for you. This is the secret to conquering anger. It will free you up from the burden of carrying old emotions and resentments.
Imagine going forward in your life with a clean slate, without a long list of regrets and resentments.
What about yourself? Are you in favor of giving yourself freedom? Sometimes the hardest thing to do is forgive yourself. Maybe there are some things that you've done that you wish you hadn't, or things you wish you had done. If you have a list like this, it's time to take out some mental garbage of left over personal “unforgivens.”
When you let go of some of the mental burdens of past regrets you will find yourself feeling free. Conquering anger is easy once you start unloading resentments. This new freedom gives you a whole lot more space, for new joy to come into your life. A heart that is full of regrets/resentments is like a cup that is full. It can't take any more. If your mind, like that full cup, is filled with a long list of past "needs to forgive," you can't receive new "good stuff." That is, until you give away some old mental and emotional clutter. Then you can make room in your mind and heart for new joys. This is a great reason to be in favor of giving to those in your life who need "forgiveness." Especially if it is yourself!
In any relationship with some time under its wing, there are issues that have built up that can cause resentment. If both of you have some pretty full cups, it’s hard to feel the love-juices flowing anymore, because the flow is jammed up. It’s as if you forget to take out the garbage for some time, things get pretty smelly. If you forget to "be for giving" emotionally, the relationship gets filled with emotional junk and has little room left for love.
Fortunately, we're not stuck with the way things are. We can change them. Conquering anger is truly possible if you follow this "Three steps to for-give-ness exercise" that can help you be in "favor of giving" which brings back good feelings into your life and to your partnerships. You can do this exercise with your partner or by yourself.
If you are doing this exercise with someone, set aside a mutually agreeable time frame. Each of you will need your own pad of paper, and you will be making your own list of issues or events that need to be forgiven. Have your partner read just one item from their list. Then switch and the other person reads. Switching back and forth keeps it balanced and fair. Talk as long as you need to about each item. It’s fine to only get through one or two items in a sitting.
To begin, set yourself in a positive, loving, solution-oriented frame of mind, even though you have things you are upset about. This is your first step to creating new results, being willing to see things from a new perspective. This will allow you to succeed at the first task, which is to be in favor of giving each other a safe, friendly, loving space in which to heal. Conquering anger doesn’t happen in one day, but it does happen with consistent discipline and commitment to the process of forgiving.
1) Make a list: "Resentments and Angers -- that I'm harboring against my partner/situations." These are things that you need to forgive him/her for.
2) Make a second list: "Things that I've done -- that I need to be forgiven for."
3) Discuss one item on your first and second list. Read your partner the first item on your first list and the first item on your second list. Then take as long as you need to discuss these issues. Don’t try to do more than one or two at a time. Helpful Hint: Focus on the feelings you feel, not what is wrong with the other person. Use “I” statements like “I felt (what) when this happened…” rather than saying “You made me so mad when you (did/didn’t) do this thing.”
Remember, conquering anger means we need to forgive ourselves and be forgiven, and we also need to do the same for our partner. If both partners do this process it will really help clear the air. When your "loving cups" have room for some new love, new love will flow. Like all living things, this process requires attention, determination and love to make it work. Some people find it easier to put more effort on their car maintenance, but the relationship needs the same continuous nurturing.
Conquering anger is possible by doing a little bit at a time. That is the secret of the Love Maintenance Program.
For information about retreats that heal deep-seated or stuck anger go to How To Deal With Anger.
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