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Psychotherapist Andrea Brandt's new book (2014), Mindful Anger: a pathway to emotional freedom, grabs your emotional attention--your gut--from the opening pages, as she describes the painful multigenerational legacy of anger suppression that stunted her childhood capacity for happiness and carried forward into her adult relationships. It is a common enough story, which is why it rings so true, reminding the reader of the harms that parents do their children and the enormous challenge of identifying those harms, let along confronting and overcoming them. The story also plays on our fears as parents, reminding us that none of us really knows what we are doing as we embark upon this terrifying, joyful journey called parenthood. Merely coming to an awareness of the need for change in generations of parental methodology is the primary challenge for many; an apt example exists in the fact of the dogged endurance of the parenting tradition of corporal punishment, despite the vast literature proving its harms. For those who suffer an acute awareness of the hurts that linger within them as a result of the harsh lessons of their tender years, the overwhelming tendency is to carve out parenting methods in diametric opposition to the upbringing they experienced. Knowing only that we do not want to repeat the mistakes we recognize in our own parents' parenting skills, we often over-correct and make the opposite kind of errors in the next generation of our family lives.
For many, coming to recognize the histories of anger and resentment, suppressed or expressed, that continue to configure their relationships and distance them from friends and loved ones is a slow and painful process. However, Brandt's experience of overcoming her own histories of anger suppression does not follow this "slow and steady realization" model. One day in a group therapy session with her husband, she recounts, the anger she had kept deeply hidden all her life suddenly burst out of her in a screaming, purse-swinging fit of aggression, directed at another group member. The outburst, so uncharacteristic of this quiet, repressed woman, shocked everyone, including her, and ultimately led to a divorce. However the immediate effects of this fit of anger were the most personally telling and significant for Brandt's evolution as a psychotherapist: she reports that days of sobbing, as she released the decades of hurt, were followed by a profound sense of freedom and lightness--a euphoria of post-expression liberation.
This experience led Brandt to a therapy-significant insight: anger is not merely a bad thing to be suppressed and stored out of sight where it cannot do damage. It is precisely out of sight that it does the most damage; out of sight is not out of mind or psyche or gut. Brandt began to explore her insight with a tool now quite popular in use among psychologists, pain therapists, and laypersons in the West, but whose sources, once again in this latest professional work, are not cited or acknowledged (beyond a reference to the popular Oprah!)--mindfulness or meditation. Borrowed from the ancient Eastern traditions, meditation is a deep-listening, concentrated attention to mind/body that awakens the being's natural ability for insights that make sense of paradoxes of the human condition and bring peace to the practitioner; it comprises what Thich Nhat Hahn calls "the art of suffering," which is not distinct from the "art of happiness." Happiness and suffering are deeply interconnected, two sides of the same coin, and the negative emotions or kleishas, such as anger, comprise the mud from which the lotus takes root.
Employing mindfulness of anger in her psychotherapy practice, Brandt counsels her clients to apply the ancient practice to look deeply at the roots that drive the destructive behaviors that undermine their relationships and their capacity for happiness. She guides them to follow her lived example to the bliss of freedom from anger. Placing concentrated attention upon what is arising in one's mind, but with an attitude of acceptance rather than judgment, one comes to know intimately one's sensations and feelings and ultimately gain insights regarding their inner, and often very old, truth. She counsels her clients in their journey of self-awareness to become conscious of: how anger functions (what happens when anger arises in them, what role they play in it, what alternative options they might exercise in its stead); how anger expresses itself in their lives; how to identify anger's roots in their historical experiences, thoughts and embedded beliefs; and how to release anger in more constructive ways and thus make changes that can improve their lives and relationships, essentially moving anger out of the dungeon of their unconscious feelings to the living room of their present lives, to make room for the positive emotions of gratitude and forgiveness to enter that present and heal them.
Brandt's anger "types"--anger-dumpers (often violent "reactaholics") and anger-suppressors (chronic "victims," who consume to forget or project the blame for their pain onto others)--recalls the primary message of the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche--reactive people are sick! Brandt identifies the anger myths that keep us imprisoned in our reactive postures toward the world: anger is bad; we should hide, deny or suppress it; anger brings more harm than benefit; confronting issues is painful so should be avoided; and if we allow our anger to be expressed, we will lose control and not be able to accomplish what we need to get done. The myths exposed as flawed, reactive reasoning, Brandt then offers us some ways to break free of these prejudices and use anger meaningfully to improve our lives.
Journaling one's pain out of the body and onto the page is a popular mindfulness practice that helps the sufferer to redefine the self in relations with the world and to understand anger as a valuable repository of messages to self that signal our unmet needs and fears, unspoken values, disrespected boundaries, and profound beliefs about right and wrong. When we self-examine through mindful practices, we come to understand our own emotions and why they arise, and through dedicated practice, we can have greater freedom from impulsive reactivity and develop broader options for dealing with the difficulties that confront us. Albeit, as we know, Nietzsche's often ranting and condemnatory journaling, brilliant though it was, hardly helped this quiet, gentle man to maintain mental health; in 1889 at the age of 44, he collapsed on the streets of Turin in a full psychotic breakdown, after witnessing a rather mundane cruelty of his time, the savage beating of a horse. He spent the remainder of his dark, demented days in Jena mental asylum where he died the following year.
Brandt provides other practical strategies for sitting with one's anger and learning from it to gain insight into making changes that can serve peaceful living. She gives explicit lessons on mindful breathing, mindful body scanning, mindful eating, visualization exercises, mindful connecting with the natural environment, mindful observance of thoughts and feeling--all pretty common strategies coopted from Eastern philosophies and applied (as though innovative!) by the psychological sciences these past thirty years. However, in this specific application, these mindfulness strategies target anger to catch it in the act, so to speak, and learn what it can tell us about what provokes us and how to buy time to replace our reactive responses with healthier, more mindful ("active" for Nietzsche, who considered himself the "Buddha of Europe") responses.
These practices, whatever their unacknowledged origins, are always worth hearing again, because just when we think we have overcome our old emotional reactions, they have a way of sneaking up on us and reasserting themselves in new more subtle forms. When we overcome our destructive patterns of reactive behaviors, we set ourselves free from the past. With mindfulness, we take greater command of those strong emotions that have a tendency to carry us away into our own suffering. Knowing the self more intimately, we can stop looking to others for our happiness, and become more responsible for our behaviors, rather than blaming others for "making us" angry, frustrated, and unhappy. Taking charge of our emotional world, we act from a position of self-empowerment and self-confidence, and stop viewing the world as a "zero-sum game" that we must win, rather than as an opportunity to engage skillfully in the win/win relationships that are the true source of our peace and stability.
This book will surely be found most helpful by a general educated public, but it would also provide a good text for budding specialists in the psychological professions, as yet ungrounded in Eastern practices.
© 2014 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.