Torah Musings: Overcoming Anger


Overcoming Anger

Sarah Pachter

We’ve all been there, and we all experience it differently. Some people feel it in their throat, others, their ears, while many feel it swelling in their chest.

Am I talking about the common cold? Nope! I’m talking about anger! When anger wells up, it’s hard to control. It has been known to ruin friendships, marriages, and work relationships.

Yet, anger is something every human experiences.

In Pirkei Avot (5:10), it states:

There are four types of temperaments. One who is easily angered and easily appeased – his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is difficult to anger and difficult to appease – his flaw cancels his virtue. One whom it is difficult to anger and is easily appeased, is a chassid. One who is easily angered and is difficult to appease, is wicked.

Essentially, there are three components to anger: frequency, duration, and intensity. Notice that Pirkei Avot doesn’t mention a type of person who doesn’t ever succumb to anger. Our rabbis are teaching us that everyone experiences anger on some level.

If everyone struggles in this middah, character trait, could there actually be something to gain from anger? Before explaining techniques to conquering our anger, let us first understand some positive points that could be gleaned from anger.

Yes, you read that right: anger is a tool that can be used to our advantage. Anger has been dubbed our “inner teacher,” for it informs us of what we feel is most important, illuminating what we are passionate about. Anger even teaches us how not to succumb to its grips. In the book, Anger: The Inner Teacher, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes, “What we become angry about and what we don’t, as well as what we say and do when we feel angry, is an expression of our real priorities.”

In order to allow anger to do its job as teacher – rather than destroyer – we have to learn how to assuage the anger and hear its inner message.

Imagine you are playing basketball in a swimming pool. Someone tosses you the ball and challenges you to try to keep it under water. You determine the most effective strategy is to sit on the ball for the duration of the game in order to prevent it from popping out from under you. Now, to mix things up a bit, you are passed a second ball to try to keep under the surface at all times. Suddenly, the game is kicked up a notch. Perhaps you sit on one ball and use your hands to keep the second ball from popping up. Next, a third ball is brought into the pool for you to try to keep below surface level.

Suddenly, the game is not so easy. You are using all your might and every part of your body to keep all three balls below water. Before you have a chance to blink, the balls start erupting, popping out of the water and into the air – game over! There is only so long a person can keep everything below the surface.

This “everything” includes anger. We mistakenly think that the way to assuage anger is to hold it in. But if we don’t learn how to express our anger in a healthy fashion, it will eventually explode, much like the basketballs in the pool. If we swallow our feelings each time they occur, it becomes more and more challenging to keep them all below surface level. It is important to learn to express our feelings in a healthy way to prevent such build up. Techniques we often tell our children include sharing about their feelings with Mom or Dad, drawing, painting, writing, and exercise to help dispense the negative feelings.

These tools can be helpful to adults as well, but sometimes we need new strategies. In this way, we can allow anger to to become the inner teacher it is meant to be. Here is one technique that really works, particularly with decreasing the intensity, duration, and frequency of our anger.

The Nostril Flare

The other day, my daughter was making faces in the mirror and discovered how to flare her nostrils. I stood there with my three children and laughed while we each tried it out.

While enjoying my children’s excitement over a nostril flare, I smiled as I reminisced on my own childhood nostril flare. My parents and siblings alike can certainly recall “the Sarah face.” Whenever angered, I made a signature pout by pursing my lips and lifting up one eyebrow. What made it “the Sarah face” was that I also managed to lift one side of my lip to match the eyebrow. Of course, I completed the angry scowl with an exaggerated nostril flare.

Perhaps there is more depth to the nostril flare than we realize. Flaring one’s nostrils is an involuntary position the human face assumes when angered. This facial reaction is one that humans make across cultures, and typically consists of one’s nostrils flared, lips pursed, and chin out. It is made even by children who are congenitally blind, leading scientists to believe it is innate, rather than learned. In fact, the nostril flare goes as far back as the Torah itself.

Many times throughout the Torah it speaks of G-d, “flaring His nostrils” in anger. One example is found in Parshat Balak, verse 22:22: “Vayichar af Hashem.” Certainly, G-d does not have a physical body, nor does He experience human anger, but it serves as a metaphor to help the reader understand the passage in a deeper way.

It is possible that in these “nostril flare” statements, Hashem is sharing with us a technique as to how to control our anger.

Like techniques of deep breathing when angry, flaring one’s nostrils causes more oxygen to flow to the brain. This is exactly what our body needs in order to calm the nervous system and prevent the fight or flight reflex from kicking in.

This technique requires that we merely feel our bodies in order to learn a lesson. Next time you start to feel angry, notice your nostrils opening up, allowing more oxygen into the body. This will help decrease the intensity of the anger we experience.

Ten deep breaths can really calm the mind and allow one to engage in a constructive conversation. Taking it a step further, anything which aids in relaxation will help assuage the anger. Lying down for a moment, taking a shower or bath, or a brisk walk outdoors can also help. Once we are calm, we can speak about the problem in a more rational fashion.

There is a story of a famous rabbi who had an “anger hat.” Anytime he felt himself succumbing to the the grips of anger, he would not allow himself to act upon it until he put on a specific hat. Usually, by the time he reached his hat and placed it on his head, the anger had passed. Taking a moment to breath, relaxing, or giving yourself mental space can do wonders to prevent an exchange we might later regret.

And given how often we communicate via email, text, and on social media, I highly recommend waiting before pressing send in a heated exchange and allowing yourself some time to cool off. Once the message is sent, you cannot reverse it. Taking a little extra time to edit the text, email, or message in a way that is more palatable to the reader can make all the difference.

But even still, remembering to just breathe can be challenging for some. If breathing doesn’t work, what other tools might there be for us to use in the heat of the moment?

Stay tuned for next week’s installment to learn more…