How I Defuse My Anger

Everyone has a different rage profile, but we’ve all been there: There’s that subtle push, that incessant poking that gets under our skin until we burst in what, at the time, felt like righteous anger. The people closest to us get under our skin the fastest and with the littlest of things, but our real blood pressure spiking incidents happen on the outside. Read on after the jump for the method I use to defuse my anger and some relevant lessons to learn before hand.

As it turns out, there is a reason we lose our temper more readily later in the day. Human beings have a limited amount of will power and self-control. We spend the entire day exercising them. Whether it’s obeying the speed limit when we want to go faster, or denying ourselves that donut in the office, or biting back some smart remark we wanted to throw at our boss. Then after a day of biting your tongue and holding back, you’re stuck in traffic, someone cuts you off, news radio is poisoning your calm with whatever new inanity is coming out of congress. You get home and the significant other who has had a similar day is stressing you out over some petty insignificance like taking out the trash when you just want to put your feet up and decompress. So you explode. Things are said, doors are slammed, blood pressure rises, skin breaks out, stress levels spike, and the cycle continues all week.

Even for people who don’t go through anything that extreme, we’ve all been in a situation where we know we should bite back our temper but we just can’t. Conventional anger management tells us we should count to ten, but that rarely works. Counting, as an idea, does actually work. Counting to ten is rarely enough though. The idea is that a pause will give your body a chance to dissipate that spike of adrenaline. It doesn’t diminish the anger; it just removes the primary chemical agent that triggers actual action.

With a modest amount of prep work and the guidance of the ancient Greek stoics, you can develop a powerful tool for defusing your anger without tapping into your reserves of will power and self-control much.


It would take too long to teach you the intricacies of stoicism, and I feel a little uncomfortable giving it the $5 treatment and taking some small part of it for self-help purposes. However, long before I started fully embracing the stoic lifestyle (I make it sound like I’ve been at this a while, but I only started recently), this and a few other techniques adopted from the stoics helped me get my stress and temper under control. Granted, I’ve always been very reserved so this may have been easier for someone of my temperament to adopt, but it doesn’t hurt to try. What you need to know is that a foundational concept in stoicism is the concept of “indifferents” (not indifference. I’m aware this is not a real word). Socrates posited that there are two types of good: material and intrinsic. In other words, having wealth, health, shelter and food is good (material) and having temperance, wisdom, etc. are good too (intrinsic). He then, in a lesson to Clinias, showed how the material goods are not actually good but pointless unless they are used properly. Food is only good if it can be eaten, otherwise, what’s the point? He points out also that they can be used for bad, like using your wealth to make someone miserable.

So according to Socrates, a material good if used with ignorance, is evil, and if not used, is pointless. The implication is that in order to utilize the material ‘good’ you need to have acquired the intrinsic good like temperance and wisdom. Zeno and his stoics would later take this to the logical end and say that all these things are indifferent until adequately utilized. They are neither good nor bad. This is the central premise. Nothing is really good or bad until we make it so. I’m sorry, I’ve just butchered and shortened a deeply complex and brilliant philosophy to try and get you to this point. First, you need to understand that everything outside the intrinsic goods is an indifferent. It is a thing, a place, a time that has no specific intention. When someone does something negative to you, the person is negative, you react negatively, but the thing they did was just a thing with no intention in and of itself. You need to keep that in mind for the next bit to make sense.

The stoics believe that there are three types of control: absolute, partial, and no control. Absolute control is something which you are able to completely affect. It happens because you are making it happen and will cease the moment you stop it. Barring any disaster, reading this is something you have absolute control over. You can stop at any time you please. Partial control, as the name implies, is something which you can only partly affect, but not completely. If you’re a boss, you can hire someone. You can’t control what they do or whether they follow your rules, but you can set rules and you can fire them. This power allows you to exert a certain measure of control, but there are huge swathes of it that you have no control over. No control is simple; this is completely outside your reach. For example, I have no control over the Japanese quake, or Hurricane Katrina, or women.


So how can this knowledge help you defuse your anger? Let’s take a cue from the Dalai Lama (folks, I promise, I’m not some Zen hippie, I came to this stuff when I started thinking about why I’m always so calm. Why invent new words to describe what others have already so eloquently described?). The Dalai Lama once apparently said that worry is a pointless waste of time. Basically if you worry and you turn out to be wrong, you wasted all your energy and time, but if you worry and you turn out to be right, worry didn’t help you avert the crisis so what function did it serve? This is the same sort of dismissal you will need to tap into.

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