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Anger: The Inner Teacher

May 9, 2009 | by Zelig Pliskin

Anger can show us who we really are and how we cope with frustration. Here are 14 tools for mastering this powerful and potentially destructive trait.

Anger is one of the most destructive traits. It can harm us and others
spiritually, physically, emotionally, and socially.

The Talmud says that anger, powerful and negative though it is, can also
serve as our teacher. Anger can show us who we really are, what's important to us, and how we cope with adversity and frustration. We can learn from anger and, in the process, master not only it, but also ourselves.

We are not doomed to repeat our tantrums and indignation, constantly and endlessly. We can change. As long as we are alive we can choose to correct the way we live.

Anger is a natural human emotion. Refining and transcending it provides us
with the opportunity to become the type of human being we wish to be.

There are many tools and techniques that will either prevent anger in the
first place or will enable you to calm down after you have become angry.

Here are some practical tools to help purge anger from ourselves.
Familiarize yourself with them and experiment to see what works best for
you. Be creative and create your own variations.


First of all, think of what has worked for you in the past. When you have
been able to overcome anger quickly, how did you do it? Even if it took you
a long time to overcome your anger, when you finally let it go, how did you
do it? Some people eventually tell themselves, "This anger is just harming
me and wasting my time. It isn't worth it." Then they are able to mentally
move on. If you can do this, then practice giving yourself this message
earlier on. Some people tell this to themselves after just a few moments of
anger, and you can too.

Keep a journal of self-mastery. Every time you successfully handle a
difficult situation write down how you handled it. Writing down successes
will remind you of what you can do.


A wise person learns from everyone (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). Learn from
people who are able to remain calm in situations that get you angry; learn
from people who are able to let go of their anger easily. Ask them how they
do it. Ask them questions such as:

- "What made you able to stay so calm? How did you view the situation?"

- "How did you handle this so well?"

- "What approaches or techniques have you found helpful?"

Most people will be glad to share any strategies they have found helpful.


The classic way to give anger a chance to subside before speaking is to
count from one to ten. Some people count from one to 20 and some need to get
all the way up to 50. This can be even more beneficial when the words "more
and more relaxed" are repeated after each number. Or you might find that
repeating the words "centered and balanced," or "patience and humility," or
"serenity and compassion," between each number will have a calming effect.
By practicing when you are not angry, this technique will have a more
relaxing effect when you need it.

It is almost guaranteed that any anger will have cooled somewhat by the end
of the counting. This makes it easier to rationally decide on the right
move. At times remaining silent and letting the issue pass is the wisest
choice; at other times it is preferable to speak. The clearer your mind, the
better chance you have of making a wise choice.


Breathe slowly and deeply to access calming states and release stress and
anger. As soon as you notice that you are feeling angry, breathe slowly and
deeply. Exhale slowly. As you exhale, feel all the anger, frustration, and
stress being blown out.

When you breathe in slowly and deeply, feel the fresh oxygen energizing you
and giving you greater feelings of serenity. Feel grateful for being alive
and for each breath of air. If your mind wanders, calmly bring it back to
watching your breathing. One try is all it takes to prove how highly
effective this technique is. Be patient. Some people take only four or five
breaths and claim it doesn't work. Be willing to keep this up for 10 to 20
minutes in instances of strong anger. As you practice this form of
breathing, it works faster.


Seek healthy ways to let off steam when you become angry. Physical exercise
releases anger. Take a brisk walk, run, dance, or engage in other exercises
such as jumping with a rope or on a mini-trampoline. This will dissolve
stress, frustration, and anger.

One Torah scholar even said that dancing to release anger can be termed
"rikud shel mitzvah," a form of dance that is a mitzvah!

For some people, gardening releases stress and anger. Attacking weeds is
much better than attacking people.


If you are in a situation that could easily get you angry, mentally go to
the balcony. That is, imagine that you are watching the scene from a distant
balcony. This will enable you to emotionally dissociate yourself from what
is happening. You are able to observe the entire scene as an outside
observer and will therefore find it much easier to remain calm.

Some people even imagine that they are in a balcony watching themselves in
the audience watching themselves on stage. This is a double dissociation and
if you try it you will see that it allows you to observe an otherwise anger-provoking scene as if you were watching the entire scene in a play. From
this perspective you will be able to think much more clearly and rationally.

When you are not involved emotionally, you can coolly observe the other
person's words and pattern of thought as if he were talking to someone else.
This is a skill that many professional negotiators use to remain objective
in difficult negotiations. When you master the ability to become an
objective observer, you will even be able to enjoy watching yourself in a
scene that used to get you angry.

A good example of when to use this is during discussions with someone who is
very mistrustful and tends to be suspicious that the other person is trying
to cheat or deceive him. When we are accused of ulterior motives, most
people feel hurt and often angry. But by going up to the balcony and
watching the other person as if he were an actor on stage it becomes easy to
ask, "What is this person's pattern?"

When we are aware that someone's brain constantly warns him, "Danger,
someone might be cheating you," we won't take his accusations personally.
Even though we won't necessarily like what he is saying, we will have the
freedom to take a more objective look at the situation and choose our


A highly successful sales consultant with a sense of humor gives the
following advice to anyone wanting to be more effective when trying to
influence others: "Stay in your car. Don't go out 'yourself' to meet someone
who might be hostile or intimidating. While 'you' are sitting calmly in the
car, send in 'an actor playing psychiatrist.'

A psychiatrist doesn't get offended or thrown off balance by what anyone
says. Since you are only an actor playing a psychiatrist, you are even more
emotionally safe. Your feelings of safety are increased by the consciousness
that the 'real you' is sitting peacefully in the car."

Look forward to the next time you will need to interact with someone who
might possibly provoke your anger, and experiment with this approach. It's
amazingly effective for anyone who has a basic knowledge of how to interact
well with others, but whose fear or anger prevents that knowledge from being
accessed. Seeing yourself as an "actor playing psychiatrist" lets you access
more of your knowledge.


A meditative approach is to repeat either of the following two verses over
and over again as you breathe slowly and deeply.

A. "Ein od milvado - There is nothing else besides God" (Deut. 4:35). Rabbi
Chaim of Volozhin wrote that there is tremendous power in repeating this
verse as a meditation. Reflecting on the profound concept of this verse
causes anger to disappear.

B. "Yehi ohr - Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). As you repeat this verse
think about how the entire planet was in total darkness until these two
words were said by the Creator. Feel the Creator's light entering you and
calming your muscles and cells from head to toe. Visualizing this light will
have a wonderful effect on your nervous system, and will melt anger.


One cure for anger is to see and hear yourself as others see and hear you
when you are angry. Decide that the next time you get angry you will go to
look at yourself in a mirror. There is an ugliness to anger, and especially
if you contrast it with the way you look when you smile, it will strongly
motivate you to do whatever you can to conquer anger.

You might want to ask someone in your family or office to record you the
next time you lose your temper. Give them permission in advance to tape you
surreptitiously so that you can later hear exactly how you sound to others.
When you are calm, listen to the tape.


Write an angry letter without sending it. Write down all your angry thoughts
in a letter addressed to the person you are angry at. Since you are not
going to send the letter, you can express yourself more spontaneously and
less tactfully.

Then make certain to tear the letter up into little pieces. Make absolutely
certain that no one else will see the letter you have written. Expressing
yourself in writing will release some of your pent-up anger in a harmless

Important note: Even if you haven't finished writing all that you wanted to
say, tear up the letter if you have to leave the room. You can always repeat
yourself in the next imaginary letter. The harm caused by someone else
mistakenly seeing words written to alleviate your own pain can be grievous.
So is the harm of expressing angry thoughts and words that are not filtered
with tact and a focus on your goal.


If someone has done something to you that you feel angry about, focus on
some good quality of that person. That person might have done you favors in
the past, he might have done much good for other people, or he might have
certain virtues that you respect. Even though you don't appreciate the way
he interacts with you, you can still respect him for the positive things he
has done in his life (Tomer Devorah, ch. 1).

When you are angry at someone, your focus is limited to what he said or did
that got you angry. Try focusing on what is positive about this person, you
will have a more balanced perspective and will find it easier to say things
to resolve the issue at hand.


When you become angry, ask yourself, "What would advise another person in a
similar situation?" It is much easier to tell other people reasons why they
needn't be angry. Viewing the situation as if you were talking to another
person might help you find a better way of looking at it.

A similar idea is to ask yourself, "What would a wise person tell me right
now?" You might think of a particular wise person you know or have read
about. Imagine what he or she would tell you. This will help you access
knowledge that you already have stored in the wondrous database in your
brain but might not have thought of without this approach.


If you are angry at someone, imagine a tremendously large crowd cheering you
for your self-mastery as you courageously remain silent until you feel
calmer. Since you are creating this crowd in your mind, you have the ability
to create a crowd of millions cheering for you with intense enthusiasm. Some
people increase the effects of this imagery by playing a tape with a crowd
cheering and mentally imagining that they are shouting words of
encouragement. Imagine what it would be like to win a trophy for


Develop a sense of proportion. When something is about to get you angry, ask
yourself, "How important is this in my life?"

Other questions that will help you get a more accurate sense of proportion

- "What is my actual loss?"

- "Why is what happened not really so awful?"

- "How will I look at this in a week from now? In a year from now? In ten
years from now?"

- "How could this be worse?"

And the final question:
- "In the scheme of the entire universe, how important is this?"

Excerpted with permission from "Anger: The Inner Teacher" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, NY.

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