The Stoic philosopher Seneca likened anger to temporary madness. We commonly describe enraged people by saying they aren’t themselves, which implies a loss of personal control. They aren’t behaving rationally.
Anger is something that visits all of us at times for a variety of reasons and in varying intensities, but it is almost always a destructive force, very much like a wildfire. Fire can be a useful tool, but it can also easily burn out of control, consuming everything in its path (much like anger).
The key to mastering anger is to learn to treat it the same way we treat fire.
If done correctly, fire itself can be easily handled. With proper precautions, we can decide how big to make the fire or we can easily snuff it out when it’s small. The goal, then, is to learn about it so that we can be in charge of it. Knowing how fire works provides us with the information we need to put it out. It is much easier to put out a small fire than it is to put out a conflagration.
So what’s there to know about fire that can help us here? Remember that all fires need heat, fuel, and oxygen. With this in mind, we can learn to “manage” our fires to keep them from blazing out of control.
Note: I’m using anger to illustrate this concept, but this can be done with any emotion. I choose anger because it’s very easy to relate to, and many people struggle with it.
We provide our own fuel by allowing ourselves to become incensed by external situations and people. If we are to properly master our own anger, we must learn to decrease the fuel we supply our fires, and we do this with reason. Clear thinking. Rational thought. Prudence. We must train ourselves through practice to start decreasing the number of things that provoke us.
Many of these things are trivial matters — online discussions, people on the road, pet peeves — that are easy to disengage ourselves from. With our minds, it is possible to start recognizing that these matters aren’t worth our energy. As we begin to get a grip on the petty things that bother us, we can then start working on the bigger ones. Don’t allow things to convince us to add fuel to our fires. By practicing self-reflection and awareness, we can see what gets under our skin. We can analyze why it does so, then we can decide to let it go.
Don’t toss these things into your fire.
You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all. — Marcus Aurelius
Learn to recognize what is worth putting your energy towards. Does this thing actually matter? We get annoyed by a lot of things, and most of them are petty. They are not worthy of our attention. Practice this by not engaging the little things that make you angry. Think about why they make you angry. Are you being unreasonable? Does it help the situation to be angered? Probably not. Choose not to be angry at things that don’t matter. Do not feed your fire.
Start by practicing on the little things and work your way up to the more substantial ones.
We can suffocate a fire by removing its source of oxygen, which in this case is the thing that’s making us angry. Learning to extricate ourselves from the source of our anger is like closing a window to prevent more oxygen from getting to our fire. This could be walking away from a person who is provoking us. It could be logging off the internet. It could be turning off the television or changing the channel. Remove the source so that it cannot provide more oxygen, or better yet, avoid it altogether. This is the second way to reduce the risk of being overcome by anger. Get away from the thing that causes you stress for a while. Do not allow it to fan your flames.
A fool gives vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control. — Proverbs 29:11
Just like with the fuel I mentioned, this requires cultivating self-awareness and self-control. It is often in our power to avoid the things that provoke us. Get rid of the toxic people in your life. Don’t get dragged into pointless internet arguments. It is very similar to the way a skilled martial artist will avoid a fight altogether. Learn to avoid the things that make you angry.
Once we have stopped engaging the things that make us angry (putting fuel on the fire), and learned to remove ourselves from the source (starving it of oxygen), the final piece of the equation is to let ourselves cool down. We are all familiar with this concept. If you find yourself getting riled up by a person or situation, you have to give yourself time to cool off. This is easier to do if you remove the source of your anger. Take yourself away from the situation.
A great way to cool down is by engaging in activities that calm us. Redirect your thoughts onto something else, meditate, do breathing exercises, go for a walk. Listen to soothing music or work on a hobby that brings you serenity. Turn down the heat. The key here is to replace the action that is causing you to get fired up with something else that has the opposite effect. Take a breather and distract yourself with something that brings you serenity and joy. When you’ve cooled off, you’ll be in a better position to deal with the situation rationally.
The greatest remedy for anger is delay. — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Give yourself time to think things through. When you’ve calmed down, you can begin working on a solution to the problem. It is far better to discuss things with another if you are in a calmed state. It will be easier to direct the conversation in a healthy manner, and solutions will be more readily available.
By doing these things we can learn to manage our anger as we would a fire, and we can prevent our fires from raging out of control. It takes practice, but anyone can do this. It starts with being aware, and then being able to keep your wits about you. Do not lose control!
How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it. — Marcus Aurelius