Thriving Together Series

Thriving Together Series: How to Be Patient When You’re Angry

By: Wilson C. Hurley, LCSW

Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.
” – Shantideva

This edition was written by Wilson Hurley, LCSW, an adjunct professor in Mason’s Social Work Department who is also author of the book Compassion’s COMPASS: Strategies for Developing Kindness and Insight and a clinical social worker in private practice.

We are living in challenging times. Murder rates are increasing, as are incidents of domestic violence and hate crimes. It appears that frustration and hate have become a second pandemic. In these polarized times, as stress, uncertainty, and disagreements abound, anger is everywhere. It is more important than ever to practice patience, which can defuse anger and strengthen well-being. Here’s how to be patient when you’re angry.

Anger is like a fire that spreads easily, consuming everything in its path. Returning anger with anger quickly escalates conflicts into lose/lose battles, in which there are no winners. Anger is also not good for our health. It has been linked with heart disease and an increased mortality rate.

As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In my new book, Compassion’s COMPASS: Strategies for Developing Insight, Kindness, and Empathy, I describe several methods for reducing anger and for cultivating our highest potentials for love and compassionate insight, along with supporting research. I derived those strategies from a Tibetan tradition for training the mind, secularized for diverse audiences. The book aids helping professionals in identifying, preventing, and recovering from burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. It provides easy-to-use methods for cultivating kindness, empathy, and insight – all of which can help us be patient – in response to life’s inevitable challenges.

A Mindfulness Practice to Manage Anger and Develop Patience

The first strategy I present is a mindfulness practice. This is because the first step for managing your anger is to realize when you have been triggered.  Anger first arises underneath the threshold of consciousness, so we only become aware of it once it has already taken hold. Mindfulness helps us become aware of it, decipher its message, and regain equilibrium and well-being. One easy method for doing this combines mindful breathing with self-compassion:

  • Sitting comfortably, bring your awareness to your breath and to whatever you are feeling in this moment.
  • Locate the feeling in your body, allowing yourself to be fully aware of it.
  • Soothe the feeling as you breathe into it, releasing tension as you breathe out.
  • Find a name for the feeling, looking into what factors may be giving rise to it.
  • Rather than becoming fused with the thoughts and feelings passing through your mind, return your focus to your breath and the present moment.

It is important to try to discern what factors are giving rise to your anger. Anger can be triggered by different external and internal causes, so the antidotes may vary depending on what causes are provoking it. Below are a few common causes for anger, together with remedies to help you regain patience and well-being:

  1. When stress is high, anger is nearby. Be aware of your stress levels, making daily efforts to drain off your stress and regain equilibrium. Whether you prefer yoga, exercise, taking a walk, chatting with friends, or mediation, find ways that bring you back into well-being each day.
  2. HALT when hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When we are emotionally and/or physically depleted, we are more vulnerable to illness, depression, and anger. So, take care of your basic needs for sleep, nutritious food, good company, and positive states of mind.
  3. Deescalate when fear and hate steal your thoughts away. Our nervous systems have a negativity bias, which makes it easy for us to become preoccupied with situations and people that make us feel hurt or threatened. However, the more we ruminate on anger, the more it grows, taking up emotional territory. Therefore, it is important to remember the problems anger causes and find ways to shift your focus back to positive mental states like kindness, patience, compassion, and insight. Empathy can help us understand what is motivating the behavior of others, which can help us find solutions rather than escalate conflicts. We can pray the serenity prayer, “May I have the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  4. Forgiveness heals. An easy three-step method for contemplating forgiveness is:
    1. Recall others you may have hurt in the past due to confusion, neediness, anger, or fear, and mentally ask for their forgiveness.
    2. Recall ways you may have hurt yourself in the past due to confusion, neediness, fear, or anger, and offer yourself forgiveness.
    3. Recall others who have harmed you out of confusion, anger, neediness, or fear and try to forgive them as best you can. Forgiveness is done for oneself. It can help you heal your past wounds, but is not the same thing as trust. Trust must be earned. So forgiving people who have harmed you in the past does not mean that you are inviting them back into your life.
  5. Bolster positive states of mind like equanimity, kindness, gratitude, and compassion that can prevent and heal anger. Compassion’s COMPASS presents step-by-step exercises for cultivating these positive mental states. Society and humanity depend on mutual cooperation, so by cultivating your patience and compassion, you are benefiting both yourself and the world around you.

Additional Resources

Discover 9 steps to healing chronic anger in this article.

This blog by Matthieu Ricard explores the meaning of true patience.

Learn more about patience in this Science of Happiness podcast from the Greater Good Science Center.

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