“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
My anger has gotten the best of me more than I care to admit. I’ve smashed windows, broken chairs, had movie-worthy brawls on the beach, and said gut-wrenching stuff that has brought people I care about to tears.
I grew up when mental health was not taken seriously, nor was it even on my radar. I just took my wild nature to mean I was screwed up and hopeless. And sadly, the thought of seeking support only brought up more anger. It felt like I was weak, pathetic, and a loser for being unable to sort my life out.
So, without understanding why my emotions were such a rollercoaster (undiagnosed depression and type II bipolar disorder), I didn’t know where else to turn except to my dear ole friend Sailor Jerry, the purveyor of fine spiced rum. Alcohol only fueled my emotional outbursts, exacerbating the problem.
Knowing that kind of anger lived inside me brings on an emotional blubbering mess of a show. Because overcoming the guilt that came from identifying with those actions and feeling like that’s who I was as a man took years of therapy.
It feels so different than the person I am now.
I understood in therapy that it’s not my fault per se, but it is my responsibility to do something about it.
Nothing has driven that lesson home more than being a dad.
And if my daughter is anything like my wife and me, we got ourselves a wild child ready to test our limits.
Living with Canadian winters means it’s inevitable that, at some point, you’ll lose control of your car. I once did a complete 360 on the highway on the way to work as I lost control on black ice. I didn’t think; I just acted based on what I learned in driving school.
If you’re driving your car and it starts to skid, you go with the flow of your vehicle and move in the direction of the skid, not against it. That’s how you regain control, even if it seems counterintuitive.
Anger is the black ice of emotions. You’re often thrown into a spiral of anger before you even have the chance to mindfully be aware that you’re losing control. That’s why I’ve found the practice of mindfulness and daily meditation life transforming.
The anger never goes away because you never stop experiencing the emotions of life, but through the practice of mindfulness, you create space between the stimulus (my wife and I fighting, exhausted from a sleepless toddler, and businesses to run) and the response (thinking it’s time to end the marriage).
You can choose to respond and act differently because you see the trigger for what it is for you.
Think of it like a gigantic pause button that allows you to slip into Matrix mode. You see the stimulus, pause for presence, and respond with intention. My daughter is not purposely trying to throw our lives into chaos. My wife and I aren’t fighting because we no longer love each other. We’re dealing with the tornado nature of a toddler, running businesses, and being pushed to our limits.
It’s better to respectfully and constructively communicate your feelings with your partner if you plan to stay married. I get it. Easier said than done, but we need to believe that we’re not inherently flawed and beyond help.
My previous relationships all had their fair share of fights (stimulus), resulting in my doom spiralling into believing it was time to burn it all down (response). Without a pause between stimulus and response, the middle became a breeding ground for an unconscious poison cocktail of guilt, shame, and a need to escape the uncomfortable reality of what I was facing.
Let’s be honest. I wasn’t making any effort to change. Repairing a relationship without tools is damn near impossible. Through therapy, I gained a deeper understanding of my emotional struggles and the root causes of my anger. Now, I have a fully stocked toolbelt that I feel comfortable using.
And that’s where the power of mindfulness comes in. You learn to know and trust yourself well enough to tap into a greater energy around you, and you become calm in any situation. You see the black ice, grip the wheel, and control the situation by keeping yourself present with the stimulus.
When faced with a challenge, do you possess the mental flexibility and self-awareness to remain centered and connected with that space between stimulus and response, and move forward in a way you can be proud of?
Or do you struggle against challenges, only to give up because negative self-talk and conditioned thinking compel you to repeat the same destructive pattern, leaving you guilty and ashamed?
I’m not saying I never get angry anymore. But I sure as hell try my best not to throw rocket fuel on the fire. Addressing the root of the problem—undiagnosed depression and type II bipolar disorder—helped me better understand how to cope with a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings that previously felt beyond my control.
Life is a lot like being in a high-stress athletic event. The ability to react to another player’s actions without emotional triggers often makes the difference between making a wise or a poor decision and ultimately winning or losing the game.
The only difference is that the game of life truly never ends. We will only lose if we stop improving and holding ourselves to a higher standard for how we show up in the world. Taking full responsibility for our lives can be terrifying, but it also creates a sense of personal freedom. This is because it allows us to take action toward becoming the people we know we’re capable of being.
To thrive, you must mindfully choose to go with the flow of your emotions and drive toward anger, shame, and guilt, not away from them. You must sit with these feelings, pause to recognize how you’ve been triggered, and consciously choose a response you’ll feel good about. This way, you regain control of your life by releasing yourself from a pattern of actions that no longer serves you. Remember, practice makes progress.