How Compassion Helps with Anger

There seems to be more anger around these days, particularly online. Every time I log into Facebook I see someone ranting in my feed, and Twitter is so awash with people insulting each other that I rarely go there.

A few decades ago, psychologists believed venting anger was healthy, and would have possibly encouraged all this ranting. Because Freud and his contemporaries recognised that repressing anger could lead to health problems, including heart disease, it seemed logical that expressing anger was the solution. It’s not quite that simple.

While expressing may be better for our health than repressing, study after study now shows that venting is harmful. According to Aron Wolfe Siegman in Cardiovascular Consequences of Expressing and Repressing Anger, “It was believed that periodic release of pent-up anger has cathartic effects and helps reduce the occurrence of aggressive behavior. However, a systematic research program by Leonard Berkowitz (1970) demonstrated that far from raising the threshold for subsequent aggressive behavior, the verbal and physical expression of anger has the very opposite effect.”

All the punching pillows and yelling that therapists encouraged a few decades ago just teaches people’s brains to vent. Our brains literally get wired for anger. Furthermore, while people sometimes feel better immediately after venting, they are often remorse-filled later. Many studies even show that immediately afterwards people who vented felt worse than those who simply sat quietly and allowed their anger to ease.

Many of us fear that if we let go of anger, we won’t take action. We’ll let other people get away with bad behaviour, whether those other people are our family, friends or the government. Right now, for instance, many people think they need to stay angry to present an effective opposition to Trump’s erratic government. We think that it’s anger that motivates us into action, and while this is sometimes the case, action fuelled by anger is rarely well thought through, and unlikely to create long term solutions. As most parents know, using force or threats to get co-operation might work in the short term, but long term it doesn’t build strong relationships. And it’s through relationships that we get most co-operation.

What we need therefore is to move beyond anger to feelings of centeredness or courage – to get the best not just for ourselves (which is what anger tells us to do) but for everyone.

The best won’t necessarily be obvious in advance, but just one calm person is often enough for others to calm too. In her essay The Age of Rudeness, Rachel Cusk describes a confrontation she witnessed between a friend and an airport security officer. Cusk writes of the officer: She abuses, without exception, every person who passes along her queue. Cusk’s friend has tubes of paint in a plastic bag that can’t close. She says he can’t take them all through, because the bag must close. He explains he needs them for work, but this makes no difference. Cusk writes: He looks at her in silence. He is looking directly into her eyes. He stands completely quiet and still.… He is giving her his full attention, and I watch the strange transformation occur. Finally he speaks.

What do you suggest I do, he says, very calmly.

Well, sir, she says, if you’re traveling with this lady, she might have room in her bag.

I’ve had this kind of experience too. Once when someone was furious with me, I simply stood looking and listening as she ranted (to be honest my calmness was partly surprise.) After a while, she just calmed completely and went away.

Sometimes it’s easy for me to see that anger is just a feeling and to allow it to pass through. Other times, it’s more complicated. Yesterday, I felt stuck with something and spent time journaling, allowing the emotions and noticing conflicting thoughts I had about the situation. A recurring theme was that I was totally stuck – if I explained to the person who provided the service why I wasn’t happy, I might be being unreasonable, they would get defensive and it would all turn horrible.

I could see that this was a “story” – in other words it wasn’t happening now. It was my fear it might happen that stopped me taking action, and that ironically kept my feelings of anger returning. My anger wasn’t because of what had happened, so much as because I felt powerless to take action that might lead to a better outcome.

I realised I didn’t even know what that outcome would be, so I asked myself, “What would I like to have happen?”

It turned out I wanted was for the person to agree that they hadn’t done a good job and felt sorry. I wanted them to agree with my version of reality.

I asked myself, “What would that give me?’

The answer: validation. I’d feel I could trust my intuition. And that would give me peace. I could relax.

Seeing this helped a bit – probably because I now understood what I wanted from the other person, and that maybe I could give that to myself, or at least find it in some other way. Also it helped because I took time to listen to myself – which was what I wanted from the other person.

One route to validation was to chat to a friend. She didn’t validate my story but my feelings, which was what I needed. Like me, my friend uses the Sedona Method to release emotions, so though she felt tempted to attack the other person on my behalf, she knew wouldn’t help. That is how so many of us try to validate another person, but it ends up fuelling anger and keeping us stuck in a sense of right and wrong and “us versus them.”

Instead, my friend helped me to welcome the feelings that were already there, and to let them go. Part of this process involves noticing how much you want to do something about the feelings – to hold onto them or push them away – and to recognise that this is largely what keeps us feeling stuck.

The emotion of anger in itself isn’t a problem. It’s a normal response to a perceived threat or to feeling mistreated. My cats react with anger to another cat coming into their garden. They hiss, and make loud meowing noises, cat language for, “Go away.”

The intruder cat moves on, and they settle down and go to sleep. I’ve never yet seen them pace around the house for hours complaining: “Did you see what Kitty did to me? Of all the cheek! He thinks he’s better than me, he thinks he can do whatever he likes!”

But that’s what we humans do. We tell ourselves stories that keep our anger going. That’s effectively what ranting is. It’s not natural, but learned behaviour. And it’s not good for us. Study after study shows holding onto anger puts our health at risk. As Buddhaghosa, a 5th century Buddhist scholar wrote: “By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” (Visuddhimagga IX, 23.)

Looking back today, I can see that until I released the anger, I felt stuck, but yesterday it seemed that I felt stuck because there was no way out. So my belief reflected the emotion I was feeling. When I let go, my thoughts also changed. I haven’t as yet resolved the situation, but I no longer feel convinced it will go wrong. In fact I can see that this situation has much to offer me. I have already seen several beliefs and behaviour patterns that I feel willing to let go. For instance, in the past when I felt anger, I often treated myself harshly, and tried to force myself to let go. It’s more effective to use self-compassion to befriend myself and then to allow the anger to naturally ease.

Oddly enough, this morning I woke with an idea for a novel I’m working on but had felt stuck with. This idea not only resolved the chapter I’m working on, but also solves a major issue with the main storyline of the novel. I’d been feeling irritated at my lack of progress with this novel, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that letting go of anger at someone else meant these ideas came. That, I think is what happens when we choose compassion over anger. It frees the mind.

The takeaways for you

  1. If you feel very angry, don’t fall for the myth that venting is healthy. Science shows this isn’t true.
  2. In daily life, practice self-compassion strategies to befriend yourself. This reduces your likelihood of feeling overcome by anger.
  3. If you do feel anger, ask yourself what you would like to have happen. Ask yourself what this would give you. Can you give yourself some of that?
  4. Focus on the sensations in your body rather than on your thoughts. Your thoughts will feed your anger and leave you feeling out of control, focusing on the body sensations will help you see it can pass through and puts you in control.
  5. Ask yourself, “Could I allow this feeling to be here? Would I be willing to let it go?” (Remember you aren’t letting go of getting an outcome that is mutually beneficial, but of this horrible feeling you are experiencing.)
  6. Take time out if you need to, especially if there are others who are also feeling angry.
  7. Try some of the strategies in this article
  8. If you express anger, instead of venting, try to do by calmly describing why you feel angry. For instance, you could say, “I feel irritated when I think about the mess on the kitchen counters, because it matters to me that we  co-operate in keeping the house clean.” That way, you are expressing what matters to you, not blaming someone else. Or, “I feel angry when I hear you say that, because it’s reminding me of something from my past. I need to take a few moments to calm. ” (This is most often why we get furious – because a current situation triggers something in our memories.) Again, there’s no blaming, but also no repression.
  9. If you can’t calm by yourself, or if your anger keeps recurring, get support.

Disclaimer: If you are experiencing serious emotional or mental health issues, please see a professional qualified to help you.


This post was written for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion’s theme of Compassion.

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  1. Love this post! (And I apologize for my absence…I hadn’t been getting notifications of updates, but I think I’ve fixed that.)
    In any case, anger. Since starting to meditate 30 – 60 minutes a day (sometimes more), anger is something I see much less of in myself.
    But, confrontation, I think, is my challenge, and will be until I learn how to “confront” it. 😛
    I love that story about the writer in the airport…and really, just standing there with lack of emotion – that makes TOTAL sense. Anger begets more anger. It feeds on itself. If you have the presence of mind to stay calm, it passes through, as you’ve said, and dissipates. It couldn’t build energy and amplify (like waves can do).
    Love the suggestions and what you say here. Hope you have a good week! 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks Sageleaf. I have also been fairly absent from this and most blogs lately (including yours), because I’ve been tied up with family stuff.

      I’m not surprised you see less anger in yourself since you began meditating for 30 – 60 minutes a day. Once we see inside ourselves, notice our habitual patterns and start to let go and to let go of blaming others for our lives, anger can’t win like it once could. Meditation, the way you do it, also brings that awareness and self-acceptance.

      And yes, it felt serendipitous that someone shared the article with the airport story just as I was writing this. It’s such a great illustration that there is another way!
      Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Hey there – Long time! I’m glad I read this; it is my ongoing issue with which to grapple. Still a work in progress. Hope you’re well.

    1. Author

      HI Deb, lovely to see you here!
      I hope this was of some use for you. I think most of us are works-in-progress! When I reread this post just now, I couldn’t remember at first what it even was I’d felt angry about. Eventually it came to me. I never got the admission of guilt and apology I’d initially hoped for, but clearly since I’d forgotten about it, it no longer matters! So thank you for popping up here and letting me see that!

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