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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Anger…constructive, destructive, or both?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 2nd 2008

I have been thinking of the benefits of anger for quite some time. Many therapists in the field of Psychology encourage getting in touch with anger, being able to experience it without being destructive. However, it gets confusing when we read many eastern traditions judging anger as a negative thing. . "..... It is anger - 'anger' ...all consuming and most evil. Know this to be the enemy here on earth." --Bhagavad Gita (chapter 3, verse 37).

Let's make a distinction here between Anger and Aggression or hostility. One is simply an emotion that comes and goes, the other seems more like a behavioral or emotional attack.

So can we experience anger without having to react to it with hostility? Psychologist Paul Ekman discusses the term "constructive anger", which speaks to the importance of anger as a barometer to tell us something isn't right and something needs to change. Anger can be held mindfully, and used to help us be aware when something or someone is being wronged and action needs to be taken to stand up for its survival.

Ekman also coins the term "compassionate empathy" which is the feeling one gets when they can understand another's pain and also feels moved to act if needed. Many might say this was the main ingredient missing from our government during Hurricane Katrina. There is a way to express assertiveness when feeling anger. But, first we need to be aware of the anger so we can choose to be less reactive and more responsive in the most skillful and compassionate way.

Some are very comfortable with expressing anger and others have been traumatized by it in the past. Some of us never had role models who expressed it constructively, and, in turn, disconnect from it entirely. The problem with this is that when we feel angry and bottle it up, it will almost always come out as irritability, depression, or distress in some way or another. In relationships, pent up anger and resentment over time can be a killer.

So maybe we can work on acknowledging to ourselves when we feel wronged, notice what anger feels like in the actual body. We can be aware that it may be uncomfortable to be angry and therefore we may need to take constructive action or we may need to take a moment and be kind to ourselves as we are in pain. We want to take whatever action is going to be skillful for us toward mental and physical well-being.

Tip: Thich Nhat Hanh does a beautiful job in his book Anger describing how to cultivate compassionate empathy in the face of anger.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

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