Have you ever been really mad at someone?
Well of course you have. There are very few of us who have not experienced the wild nature of our own aggression.
Gratitude, and specifically a gratitude journal, can be a successful anger management technique.
Gratitude Is a Form of Mindfulness Practice
Like many other habits, the key to making the gratitude journal practice most effective is consistency. We want to establish a reliable routine we can count on ourselves to engage.
A gratitude practice is in essence a form of mindfulness practice. The habits of both gratitude and mindfulness serve the purpose of expanding our awareness beyond the frame of our usual preoccupations and perceptions.
Anger, in and of itself, is not a problem.
The problem arises when our attention becomes tightly identified with the circumstances or individuals that seem to be the source of our frustration. When we fixate on the frame of our frustration, it’s no surprise that our anger becomes magnified and prolonged.
Anger is natural. Prolonged dwelling on the one person who didn’t respond when we said, “Good morning!” is just an unhelpful habit.
Why Consistency Matters
Say, for example, we engage in formal meditation; sitting quietly for a period of time each day.
With such a disciplined routine in place we are bound to have good days and bad days. Good moments and bad moments. We’ll find ourselves over time facing a variety of states and conditions if we practice this way.
That’s very instructive because we learn how to remain present and aware of our lives as they truly are. Not just to the parts of our lives we like. Or the parts that are easy to attend to.
An irregular or “spontaneous” mindfulness practice that we engage just when we feel like it might only get us to the meditation cushion when we’re feeling good. The problem with this approach is that we miss out on the benefits of the practice when we might need it most.
Meditating at a regular time and place provides us with a habit that gives us a chance to remember to be present even in the midst of difficulties and challenges.
Making new habits part of a consistent routine gets us past our subjective opinion about whether or not we need to be practicing it.
Because the truth is, we always need practice. Practice prepares us of course to respond skillfully in our real moments of need. But we live in the land of fast-food fixes, where we want an immediate solution to a pressing problem. Like, “I’m angry!” That may be what brought you to this article in fact.
Keeping a gratitude journal is brilliant because it can help right away; yet also—beyond it’s immediate benefit—it can produce a huge return when we treat it as a committed practice.
Anger Management Is a Natural Result of Gratitude Practice
The recommended regular schedule for using the gratitude journal practice is once or twice a week. Unlike mindfulness practice, there is a reason not to overdo it. That reason was shared in a conversation with Robert Emmons, an expert in the science of gratitude.
We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” says Emmons. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”
That advice, however, shouldn’t cause us to shy away from putting gratitude in our attention.
Current science tells us that just the act of asking ourselves the question, “What am I grateful for?” is itself beneficial. The first time you try it, you might even quickly conclude that you have nothing to be grateful for. That’s okay. The question itself, on its own, triggers powerful brain processes that can increase serotonin production, especially in the anterior cingulate cortex.
More generally speaking, there is a gratitude circuit, a set of pathways and neural routines that can be strengthened through repetition. The gratitude journal gives us a focus for the practice of asking the question, “What am I grateful for?”
So if you’re really angry at someone or something right now, give it a try.
Just think of or write down a few things you’re grateful for in your life. Or even aspects of the same person or situation making you angry that you’re grateful for. Research shows that remembering a person to whom you are grateful produces the greatest benefit.
It’s a very powerful habit. And it’s most powerful when we stick to a schedule with it. Because our busy, reflection-starved lives support the tendency to hold on to resentments and stories about what’s not working.
This is the beauty of a regular practice.
If we get into a habit that is embedded into a weekly routine, writing down a few things that we’re grateful for in our gratitude journal, the habit will help us to access a more balanced perspective on a regular basis. That will reduce the momentum of any habitual anger.
That’s anger management.
Meditation or mindfulness practice, like the practice of keeping a gratitude journal, is designed to interrupt our usual identification with our mind and our emotions.
Both of those practices are freedom habits. They allow us to disrupt the pattern of our attachments so that we become more aware of our behavior and more free to make useful choices.
As Buddha has said, “The root of suffering is attachment.”
It’s the lazy belief that we are the thoughts and feelings we’re having that gets us into trouble, because our unquestioned identification with them causes us to make decisions that keep us stuck.
A disciplined approach to practice that includes consistency in time and place removes the subjective nature of our choice to practice. That exposes us to its real possibility, which is the power to open doorways to new insights and perspectives that we didn’t even know were there.
Anger Management Is Not the Elimination of Anger
Anger is a particularly sticky attachment. When we get stuck on what is not going right in our world it can be quite difficult to let go. The anger itself compels us to focus on the issue.
Anger wants resolve. Justice, retaliation, and sometimes even revenge. It goads us into taking action based on a very narrow perspective.
Let’s say you establish a practice of sitting down at three o’clock every Tuesday to write down three things that you’re grateful for.
Since you’re not the general manager of the universe each three-pm-moment of every Tuesday is going to occur differently; outside of your ability to control the exact state of your life. (If you’re reading this and you are the general manager of the universe by the way, call me right away. I could use your help.)
The practice or habit of using your gratitude journal will be a conscious act that will interrupt the unconscious momentum of unmanaged thought and emotion. Including anger.
So we’re not trying to get rid of anger, which can be an important and healthy feeling when expressed appropriately. We’re practicing, rather, to become responsible for it.
We become responsible for our anger when we hold it in perspective, putting it in context with the rest of our lives.
Take for example an incidence of getting very angry with a decision made by a coworker, or with the behavior of our spouse or one of our children.
Our anger is fueled not just by the focus of attention we are giving to the circumstance, but also by the past similar circumstances, perhaps even from our own childhoods, that leave us with unexpressed and unresolved feelings.
We might say our present fixation on the unwanted circumstance is like a lit match. We have burning anger.
In addition, what often accompanies our present perception of the offending behavior is the recall of unwanted outcomes from the past. In that case we’re bringing the frame of our negative history to the current circumstance.
Now, instead of just having a match, we have a bonfire inside a small room in an old house. Protected from external elements (or reality) the fire is going to burn unimpeded, gain quick momentum, and then begin to access the room itself as high-quality fuel for its rampage.
You’ve likely experienced this yourself. Either you’ve had such anger or you’ve been on the receiving end of it. A level of rage that seems all out of proportion to the actual circumstance at hand.
The gratitude journal practice is like taking this same potentially dangerous bonfire, putting it on a wooden plank, and pushing that plank out into the ocean beneath a beautiful sunset. We don’t have to do anything with the fire itself, because we’ve responsibly established a context in which it can do limited damage and has limited access to fuel.
If we use the gratitude journal practice with full feeling and sincerity, once or twice a week, we’re going to find over time that it starts coming to us as a spontaneous tool when we really need it. We may find the habit of putting passing attention on the positive aspects of our lives is something that we can practice on a daily or as-needed basis.
So if we’re practicing it we might think, “I do hate it when my husband forgets to communicate with me about his plans, but I’m sure grateful for those surprise dates he often arranges for us to spend time together.” A single thought like this can save us a big argument.
Or “My kids sure get me frustrated when they don’t do what I say, but I’m so grateful that they get so passionately engaged in their creative projects and especially for all those times they give me gifts of things they’ve made.”
The ability to access such balanced perspectives in the midst of our code-red flare-ups is a priceless competency that will make us and those we live and work with happier.
Anger management is not about trying to do anything with the fire.
It’s about stepping away from its source and placing the fire in a context that is safe and connected to the truth of our lives. We can accomplish that by establishing a gratitude journal habit that we practice on a regular basis.
The best remedy for a short temper is a long walk.” Joseph Joubert
Go Ahead – Practice Freedom.