I’m working with a young man related to success and performance. However, as part of our conversations, his relationship came up. He was feeling bad about his behavior. He had a lot of insight into why he behaves reactively at times. He recognized that when he gets insecure he loses his temper and becomes controlling as a way to try and stabilize himself. When angry, he feels compelled to behave that way and feels justified. However, afterward, he is filled with shame and remorse for his actions. He was feeling discouraged because he hadn’t been able to change his behavior.
I felt so much compassion for his suffering and recognize that he is not alone in this experience. We all have times or have had times when we felt compelled and acted in ways we then regretted. And many of us get into habitual patterns with compulsive behavior that feel hard to break even though we feel remorse afterward and even during. It can feel scary to not be able to stop compulsive behavior whether it be angry reactivity, eating or not eating, using substances, shopping, gambling, skin picking, counting, sex etc… And it can lead to tremendous self-judgment whatever the behavior.
What are we to do when we want to change, but don’t seem able to?
Anger is a powerful human emotion. When we get swept up in it and act from that place we often do and say things we regret afterward. Angus recently coined the term “drunk on anger.” The shame we feel afterward can be destabilizing, and it doesn’t help us to change. When we identify with shame we feel worthless and that puts more pressure on ourselves. It leaves us more likely to engage in the very behavior we feel ashamed of.
Other people will also gladly reinforce our experience of shame with their understandable criticism and judgment regarding the angry behavior. It is easy to feel like a second class citizen when struggling in this way, and because of the shame and self-loathing, it is easy to focus on the behavior and to try to find ways to control it.
What this misses, however, is that angry behavior is simply a by-product of feeling lost and scared. It is the best way that a person can think of at that moment to take care of themselves when they are feeling frightened. It looks true that the other person is the cause of their suffering, and if they hadn’t done what they did they wouldn’t be hurting. The anger feels justified from this perspective.
I want to be clear I am not condoning the angry behavior. I am pointing to what is behind it for greater understanding.
Focusing on trying to control the anger is like trying to contain a waterfall with a faulty dam. At some point, the pressure from that dam is going to break and the outpouring of anger will probably be greater than if it had been left alone.
Understanding anger, however, is different. Anger is a healthy emotion. There is nothing wrong with it or you for feeling it. It is healthy because it is an indicator. It lets you know when you are feeling scared and insecure. Often we are blind to these feelings because they feel too vulnerable. Anger can be more comfortable for some than vulnerability. It can feel empowering. I have spoken with many clients who say they have no problem with feeling angry but they can’t stand feelings of vulnerability.
Recognizing that anger is an indicator of distress is helpful. The earlier this is seen and recognized the easier it is to take care of ourselves while we are feeling distressed in healthy ways rather than through reactivity. But this needs to be authentic. We can’t manipulate ourselves into not reacting by putting ourselves under heavy surveillance and monitoring our emotions with hypervigilance to try and control our anger. That is just another way of focusing on trying to change behavior. It is not about understanding.
When understanding is genuine, we have room for our emotional experience. We are not trying to control it or our behavior. We are simply present to what is and understand what our emotional indicators mean. This may take several or more cycles of being present with the experience of anger and watching our reactivity being acted out before we see clearly enough how to take care of ourselves when it is present. Compassion for ourselves is key when we are on this very human learning curve. Self-judgment is not helpful and often leads to more reactivity because of the increased pressure we experience as a result of the judgments. Self-judgment and self-flagellation are not helpful motivators for change.
So how do you take care of yourself when you are angry?
I will give you the answer, but it won’t help you. It needs to be experienced and understood experientially.
The answer to any experience of distress including anger is always to look within to your true nature. The feeling of wellbeing and peace is inside of you. When you are scared that is exactly what you need because you have lost connection with it. You have become caught up in your feelings of separation and are identifying with your ego in a way that makes you feel alone and scared. You have forgotten that your true nature is love and peace. You have forgotten that we all come from the same source. You have bought into the illusion of aloneness and separation from the intelligence behind life. The answer to this is always to look in the direction of coming back home to the peace within.
However, we forget that when we are angry. We forget that what we are looking for is right there. We get compelled to try and change things outside of ourselves and can act in horrible ways to go about that. And this is the best we can do.
Can you see the psychological innocence in yourself and in others for doing that?
If you can, that is understanding.
Understanding does not mean change in behavior will be immediate, but knowing your true nature of love and compassion more fully can’t help but result in behavioral change for good. However, the change is unpredictable and not on your timing. This is not on you, but you will be able to navigate the human experience more gracefully no matter what behavior it contains with a deeper experience of who you are.
If you are struggling with compulsive reactivity, rather than focusing on trying to change the behavior directly, instead look toward experiencing who you are beyond your thoughts and feelings. Look toward a knowing of your essence that is impersonal and beyond your ego.
Understanding allows you to see that you are doing the best you can in each moment. Understanding does not add shame to the experience. It provides compassion as a balm for suffering. Understanding comes from within and opens the heart so there can be a greater ability to hear the wisdom that lies inside of you. Understanding is compassion in action. Start there first. The rest will take care of itself.
And if you think you can’t. If you think you are unable to provide love and understanding to yourself, find someone who can share their love and understanding with you. Whether it is your friend, your grandma, your parent, your mentor, your pastor, your lover, your sponsor, your guru, your coach, find someone who is able to see who you really are and be in their presence. Let them help you to see yourself through the eyes of love and compassion.
As Ram Das said, we are all just walking each other home. And not one of us is exempt, no matter what we have done. Whatever you are ashamed of, I encourage you to stop looking in the direction of your behavior and instead look to who you really are. That is all that is needed. And, you know you are looking in that direction when you feel love, compassion, and understanding for yourself no matter what your behavior and your reactivity will not be able to be sustained.
Rohini Ross is passionate about helping people wake up to their full potential. She is a transformative coach, leadership consultant, a regular blogger for Thrive Global, and author of the short-read Marriage (The Soul-Centered Series Book 1) available on Amazon. You can get her free eBook Relationships here. Rohini has an international coaching and consulting practice based in Los Angeles helping individuals, couples, and professionals embrace all of who they are so they can experience greater levels of well-being, resiliency, and success. She is also the founder of The Soul-Centered Series: Psychology, Spirituality, and the Teachings of Sydney Banks. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and watch her Vlogs with her husband. To learn more about her work go to her website, rohiniross.com.