By Christopher Cudworth
There are two main types of anger in this world. There is situational anger, in which we grow frustrated or upset over immediate circumstances. And there is the deeper anger of personal angst.
Both types of anger can be difficult to manage. They can cause us to act irrationally, to lash out, attack or say harmful things to others, or ourselves.
In fact the most difficult anger to manage is the feeling of anger toward ourselves. That type of anger has roots that are not always easy to identify. We can harbor deep feelings of resentment toward our parents, our siblings, our lost loves or our present ones. Controlled by the anger in our lives, it becomes difficult to make good decisions. We are constantly perambulating our necessary choices with bad choices or some form of emotional pain from the past.
It’s so easy for people to give advice such as, “You’ve got to let it go!” Yet our anger unfortunately makes us feel whole in some way. Some of us even feel lost without it.
Because as long as we have that anger, we feel motivated to act. Strong inside. But we quite often make the mistake of associating such feelings for healthy emotions, which are easily crowded out by habitual feelings of anger.
We also engage in all kinds of redirected aggression to compensate for emotional imbalance. Some of us overeat, or have too much sex. We pick fights or rage against this political party or another. We choose our idols carelessly, depending on other angry people to define our worldview for us.
It’s a sad fact that entire media organizations are based on feeding this anger/energy cycle. It makes them money. Gets you to vote for people who manipulate you. On and on it goes.
Evolution of anger
To some degree, these responses are evolutionary. The stress we feel in life has got to go somewhere. If you approach a bird that does not want to leave its territory, it will engage in actions that seem like normal behavior, wiping its bill on a branch, turning from side to side. Anything to release the stress of fight or flight response. We see such anger in the wolf in a zoo cage. Without being able to run free, it paces back and forth all day. We see aggression in our pets, and don’t know how to handle that either. We’re like the birds and the wolves, and every other living creature on earth. Yet humans are unique in their anger. We turn anger into awful things.
The Third Reich
One of the most angry people in human history was Adolf Hitler. His deep emotional pain became focused on a huge compensatory scheme to change the world to resolve the sleights and the incontinence of his soul. He became a genocidal murderer by creating a wave of raw anger as predicted in Mein Kampf. You can feel the anger in quotes such as these:
“If you win, you need not have to explain…If you lose, you should not be there to explain!”
“Do not compare yourself to others. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.”
“Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.”
Lots of anger there. And it turned out the only way to stop Hitler was to engage in World War II. Millions of people died as a result of Hitler’s rage, and Stalin’s equally anger determination. It was an angry moment in history, for sure. And what a lesson for all of us.
Sources of anger
Of course most of us don’t have anger of that scope or intensity. But learning the source of our own anger and setting out to resolve it can be a major factor in finding a life that is loving and fulfilling.
Think about it: What more constructive way is there to combat anger than to throw yourself into the hard effort of a ride or a run? Competition is a large part of those sports, and can be an extremely healthy venue to push angry feelings through a funnel of self-analysis where they get squeezed a bit.
Sometimes you find the true source of anger by the time you’re done with your run or ride. If you do not discover the baseline right away, you keep working at it over a series of runs or rides. It’s your way of throwing away irrational feelings as you tire yourself out enough to calm down. Then you tend to feel less pressured about the momentary challenges and can become more focused on the bigger picture. That’s where you find solutions to things that make you angry.
There are chemical and biological factors that go to work when you run, ride or swim. The most famous are endorphins, those “positive” feelings wrought when you work hard enough to release what amounts to a controlled form of adrenaline. It’s about getting rid of “bad blood” and replacing it with “good blood.” Without that tool for chemical management, it’s as if anger makes us bleed inside all the time.
Getting good feelings going can be critical to managing emotions that are not so good. Having an activity––even daily walking–– in which you can battle yourself to a draw is critical to having that inner conversation about angry feelings. It’s a little like picking which hat you choose to wear. It’s about putting what you want up top of your head.
Sources of anger
So let’s get to it. Where does anger come from?
As a kid my brothers all called me The Mink. That meant I was quick to anger and fight back. Minks are a creature full of spit and vigor, and that was me. If you’ve got a stomach for it, witness this video of a mink fighting a muskrat. This is nature in its gritty reality, so be advised. The point is that we humans are supposed to know better than this.
In my case anger drew on resistance to a domineering father who was critical and forceful. Probably that was the product of his own loss early in life. His mother died when he was just 7 years old. That might make you kind of angry toward life. Then he was shunted off to live with some emotionally stifled aunts and an uncle who would not let him participate in sports. That would have driven me crazy, I know.
Then along came marriage after serving in the Navy in the Pacific, and four headstrong boys arrived. The formula for anger was now set and an early barrage against my brothers in our kitchen marked me deeply. Then my brothers and I passed our collective anger back and forth like a bottle of grain alcohol on a Mississippi barge. Our feuds were abusive and at times physical. Sure, that’s how so many brothers resolve their differences. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy thing.
Echoes of anger
Between the ages of 12 and 27 there were many years fueled by a combination of competitive furor and low self esteem. You can imagine that’s a wicked combination at times. You desire so much to be accepted and seek approval, yet your inner being always feels failure if you do not measure up to standards in athletics. At that point everything in life reads like criticism, and the cycle repeats itself, over and again. If you’re lucky, a coach or other mentor steps in to help you resolve such cycles. Yet many of us find the call to resolve these issues on our own.
Fortunately in my case, there were enough moments of normalcy and success that a stronger, more self-assured person began to emerge. But here’s my proviso: without running to fuel emotional health, I’m not sure what I might have done. There were a few wicked drinking incidents in late high school and college that could easily have killed me. It always starts out innocent enough, pounding drinks in a fit of fun or submersion. Then you black out or some other snarky thing happens and wake up wondering what the hell that was all about. There are always, always deep emotional issues going on when it comes to why we drink, do drugs or engage in other risky behavior.
In fact trying to get along in college when you’re grinding through emotional hurt can be a vexing, taxing test. For me, cranking through 80-100 miles weeks of distance training quelled the competitive urges but did not necessarily cure the anger behind it all. That takes something more, and we’ll get to that.
Yet one wonders how much of today’s drinking culture at the teen and college level is driven by a form of cultural anger. With a culture so imbalanced by major economic forces and college loans waiting to pour down the gullets of today’s kids, there is good cause to be pissed off about the raw deal society seems to be dealing this generation.
And parents too. Billions of dollars are dumped into defense programs that are 17X larger than all the militaries of the world’s armies combined. Our military sucks up our money in a million ways, yet we can’t afford to invest in education for our children. And the same people who won’t touch defense spending want to stop allowing women to have access to birth control. Those are angry facts.
Work in progress
See, it’s a frustrating world sometimes, and anger management is not a one-time shot at resolving our most painful inner feelings. It’s more like doing a bike tuneup. No matter how many times you tune your bike, the jarring facts of life are going to loosen a few screws. It’s a guarantee.
And speaking of screws loose, I recall the moment when the President of a company where I formerly worked cornered me in a board room after a meeting and felt the need somehow to challenge me with this statement: “I can beat you in any sport that involves a racket or a ball.”
Now, I had a little positive history with basketball, baseball and all sorts of other sports. I no longer felt the need to prove myself in those categories. My competitive running career had been successful on many fronts. So I’d done all that and moved on. But this was another type of challenge. It was about defending my honor. And that gets people into all sorts of trouble.
Prior to his challenge we’d been playing basketball at his “request” against our clients the previous few weeks. Somehow he must have felt threatened by my ability, but the man had a few issues of his own to resolve. He was making tons of money but had never finished his degree at a junior college. He went by the name of Mr. Big. It was pathetic really. His entire operandi was to challenge people at a visceral level.
So the challenge he issued that day set in deeply with me. I could not help it. All sorts of age-old competitive anger surged from within me and it wasn’t until I got home that night and went out for a run that I could start to dig through that challenge and let it go. But just as that was happening, I encountered a couple teenaged kids walking toward me on the sidewalk. I moved onto the grass to pass them and joked, “I actually like the grass better.”
One of the kids blurted an obscenity at me and I stopped in my tracks. Suddenly the Inner Mink had re-emerged, eager for a fight. Yet at that same moment I glanced at the other kid, who wore thick glasses, making his eyes look huge. It was as if those eyes were about to bear witness to something really stupid I might have done. So I relented, realizing that it was actually anger over the comments of the boss that day that was driving my inner madness.
It’s not inconsequential that this incident occurred doing the middle of my run. In fact I almost view it as a God moment, as if that kid with the Big Eyes were a temporal angel of some sort, staring me down at a Moment of Truth.
“It’s You That is the Angry One, Not Him.”
Putting Anger on the Run
How can we be so insecure as to be roped by anger to the point where it runs our lives? How can we put anger on the run instead?
Well, in order to overcome anger you must learn to forgive others, and then learn to forgive yourself. It’s that simple, and possibly the hardest thing you will ever do in your life.
Giving yourself time to sort through angry thoughts is crucial. That’s where “Road Time” can be critical. Getting out on the path a few miles on the run or riding until you calm down is the ideal way to give yourself time to think. If you happen to have a companion to converse about important matters such as anger, and who is not judgmental and genuinely cares about your well-being, then that is a great thing to have.
But be apprised: Much of the work in anger management will need to come from you. Certainly it can be constructive to visit a qualified counselor who deals with anger issues. They can give you safe emotional tools to frame your inner discussions while being a sounding board for what you’ve discovered. But they can’t “fix” you like a clock. That ticking sound you hear when you feel an anger time bomb about to go off has to be recognized by you––not some diagnostic emotional technician. They can’t be there for you all the time.
One of the tarsnakes of dealing with anger is that you can externalize the process of getting over anger, but the end goal is to internalize the change.
Forgiveness really is key. People of faith will assure you that knowing forgiveness through grace is an enlightening feeling. It places our temporal relationships in context. However, if you’re not the believing type, or religion doesn’t cut it for you, then the next best thing is finding the right kind resolution on the road by running and riding.
Be advised that many people seem incapable of forgiveness. If you’re seeking it from a person unwilling or unable to extend that type of earthly grace, then be sure to forgive yourself for trying. It is not your failure that others cannot seem to bring themselves to forgive. Always remember that.
Our brains can start to swim from so much emotional depth-diving.
But the goal is to not only stay afloat, but to move through the waters of life with joy and fulfillment.
It’s our brain swim. Which makes it literally true that even 1500 meters in the pool can be the right kind of tool to help you work through emotional issues. It’s all about changing your brain chemistry, your mindset and finding a way to give yourself the time and strength to resolve to change.
Walking it off
That’s what it’s all about in the end. Anger is real, but in the end it is a choice. You can choose to let it run (and ruin) your life, or you can, as they say, “Walk it off.”
Remember that anger is often the product of an emotional bruise or other life pain. Even a single incident can have lifelong consequences. So it is important that you take it seriously, as if you were injured and need time to heal.
We can’t necessarily hurry that process, but we can help it along. Anger management is more like a massage than a surgery. It takes a while for the benefits to take effect. But in the end, you loosen up. Run more freely. Ride like the wind. And discover a whole new life and possibilities.
We can take the example of Nelson Mandela, the South African leader imprisoned for his resistance to apartheid. Yet when he emerged from prison he did so not with anger, but with reconciliation as a goal. As a result, he changed the world for the better. You can change your world for the better too, if you do not let anger run your life. Be fast on the road and slow to anger. That’s the secret of life.