Every moment is a choice. We chose to go left or right. We chose to eat the donut or the apple. We chose to help someone or pass them by. We chose to pull the trigger or not. Some of our choices are driven by necessity; some by habit. All are influenced by emotion.
When we are experiencing joy or peace, our decisions tend towards helping someone cross the street or going to the yoga class or choosing to wait while the other driver runs through the very yellow light.
When we are experiencing anger, our decisions tend toward reactivity. We feel we don’t have the time or patience to wait for the elderly driver in front of us or calmly explain something, yet again, to our kids or watch for a moment before reacting to someone else’s actions.
But here’s the thing with anger. It is a secondary emotion. We blame so much of what we see and do on anger. We are angry at our neighbor for keeping their yard differently than we do. We are angry at the systems that seem to fail us. We are angry at our government for not doing more or less. But anger always stems from some other emotion or a whole mess of confused emotions. It never comes first.
When kids come to us for therapy, a very common technique for helping them to understand their anger is to help them identify the feelings underneath the anger. This can be sadness, loneliness, desperation, hunger, confusion, inadequacy. The list can go on and on. When we approach situations from a place of any of these underlying negative emotions, we have beliefs about ourselves and the world that are automatic and that fuel anger. If we are sad and lonely, we cross paths with the driver that doesn’t obey the stop sign well and we take it personally. We believe the world is walking all over us and we take it all very personally. When we are in a place of fulfillment or joy or love, we recognize that this person is having a bad day. Maybe they are late picking their kids up from daycare. Maybe their girlfriend just broke up with them. Maybe their boss just dumped more work on their desk on a Friday afternoon.
Recognizing the primary feelings under the anger, and the beliefs that go along with them, help us to change our behaviors. We are constantly telling people, even adults, “You cannot control your feelings. They are just feelings. But you can control your beliefs.” And our beliefs are driven by our feelings. So recognizing what they really are, digging under the anger, is so important. It is important on both sides of the issues that are coming to light and causing us all to feel angry. But it isn’t really the anger we need to pay attention to. It is the desire to control, which is a belief. When we feel we need to control someone else or control a system, we get angry. We get angry because it feels hopeless to control someone else or to change a system.
Here’s the thing. We can’t control anyone else. When we hold the belief that we can, it makes us angry. We can, however, change systems. But we cannot change them when our beliefs are coming from a place of anger, because then we are reactive. When we are passionate about something and we believe we are right, then we apply that belief to everyone else and it makes us feel desperate, which makes us react.
If we take our beliefs and remember that they are just opinions, our own opinions, and that those opinions might not be right for everyone else, then we start recognizing that we can have influence solely by controlling the one thing we can control; ourselves. Think of the big issues today and think of your belief about it. Now recognize that this is your opinion, coming from your beliefs and stemming from your emotions. Now recognize what those emotions are. Then have the awareness that everyone else, on all sides of the issue, are also having beliefs stemming from emotions that are their own. And know that they are all opinions. Then recognize that you don’t have control over anyone else’s opinion; but you have as much right as they do to have your opinion.
When we are aware that our emotions are driving our opinions, and that our opinions are no more or less important or powerful than anyone else’s, it creates more tolerance, more patience, more love. And after all, when we are coming from a place of feeling tolerance and patience and love, we won’t want to put up our fists, yell at our neighbor, or pull the trigger on our fellow human beings.