How To Let Go Of Anger Through Mindfulness

Mindfulness expert Tara Brach explains the principles of how to let go of anger. She uncovers the responsibility of our own experience and how we can alter our anger patterning.
Tara Brach
Tara Brach, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, an internationally known teacher of mindfulness meditation, and bestselling author.
How to let go of anger
Tara Brach
Tara Brach, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, an internationally known teacher of mindfulness meditation, and bestselling author.

In this essay – a shortened transcription of an Insight Timer published lecture – the internationally known mindfulness teacher Tara Brach takes a look at how mindfulness approaches teach how to let go of anger. She literally takes a U-turn to increase the capacity of mindfully working with anger, rage, and resentment by bringing the attention inwards, unveiling unmet needs and non defensively communicating them.

How To Let Go Of Anger: First We Must Understand

Anger is part of all of our wiring. It is absolutely essential for our survival and our flourishing. It is an intelligent emotion. And it can be incredibly destructive — when we get hijacked by it, when anger takes over.

How do we shift from reacting out of anger to responding wisely to whatever the message is? This is the trajectory of evolving consciousness — that we make that shifts from reactivity, when only a part of our brain is in control — the limbic system —, to a response that includes all of our brain, and wisdom, and heart.

It is inevitable that we have clashes and needs and even in the best closest relationships anger gets evoked. There is just this misunderstanding. We have these histories that play out with each other. And, of course, the rawer or more wounding the more sensitive we are of getting upset.

To understand how to let go of anger and to get to know the rage itself, in her talk Tara Brach started off with a parable of the tricky porcupine:

  1. Parable of the Tricky Porcupine Tara Brach 1:13

What We Are Capable Of

The great success of the human species is that we have the capacity to collaborate, to cooperate with each other, to make it work out with each other and to sustain a connection.

It is due to the recently evolved frontal cortex. It has this capacity for empathy, for really sensing what it is like for others, for mindfulness, for noticing when we’re getting really reactive and the suffering it causes, and for a quality of compassion that wants to act on that suffering.

So we have that and yet… it’s completely not easy. And we are so taken over, possessed all the time.

What is happening to us?

I don’t know anyone that hasn’t struggled with anger. I just don’t know anyone that hasn’t been angry about what is going on in our society.

What is the inquiry here for us?

When you get poked or stabbed — either in a personal relationship or by reading the newspaper — what happens inside you? And how do you work with that?

If somebody criticizes you or breaks a promise in some way or talks about you behind your back in a disparaging way, insults you, maybe hurts a loved one — what happens? Do we instantly lock-in to blame, defensiveness and aggression?

If not outwardly, but mentally we go into a loop of resentment. It is hard to get out of our system when something goes off, especially criticism. And some of us act out and then regret it, some of us apologize. As we begin to practice mindfulness, we start noticing our patterns and being able to pause and have some more choices.

Read more: Explore the causes and effects of road rage and how to combat angry and aggressive behavior while driving.

The 3 principles for investigating your anger

There are three principles for investigating anger and to start understanding how to let go of anger:

  1. It is an absolutely necessary natural intelligent emotion. It lets us know when we have a need, where we fit an obstacle, that we need to act.
  2. When we get hijacked by anger, our whole identity starts getting organized around it. Anger becomes not just a state of mind, but more of an ongoing trait. There is a sense of blame and resentment and there is suffering. There is suffering because we cut off from the wholeness of our being, from our wisdom, from our heart. And we cut off from others.
  3. If we can learn to pause and deepen our presence, we can transform our lives in a way that gives profound freedom. It’s possible. If we can pause and go inside — and I call this the U-turn — instead of blaming and being angry, if we can pause and bring our attention within ourselves, then we are able to respond in a powerful way, an intelligent way, a compassionate way.

Looking at these three principles there is an underlying attitude, which really can free you from the habit — this twitch of getting angry and fixating outward. It is sometimes described as taking 100 % responsibility for your experience.

This isn’t new news to anyone, but it’s a powerful context — to know that you’re not responsible for how others behave. You’re not responsible for the outcome of a relationship. But you can be 100 % responsible for the experience you are having. Not being able to access that energy can cause a tremendous amount of suffering.

Meet your needs and get to know them

When we are angry, there is always an unmet need. If we stay in outward-directed anger, we miss this unmet need, we cannot even figure it out. Once we start investigating, we find it. It might be a need to feel safe, cared about, or respected.

Anger is intelligent, it has a function. And we need to acknowledge that — “Okay, something needs attention”. If we don’t pay attention or are not alert, anger can take over.

You might also enjoy reading about unhooking from drama to find inner peace.

How do we pause and deepen our attention?

We start by identifying our primary pattern in terms of getting angry.

Try it right now!

Unless you are familiar with your pattern, you won’t be able to catch it and pause, right? We need to bring our pattern into awareness!

I will just name four primary ways, in which we end up expressing our aggression:

  1. Directly lashing out in anger
  2. Being more passive aggressive and controlled by withholding our affections, indirect put-downs or our judgments, and being more manipulative by trying to control the other guilt, but without being direct
  3. Punishing
  4. Gossiping, the ways we put others down, slandering them

The challenge with all of these ways of expressing anger is that they are all fixated outward. And in that way, we are not able to meet the needs that are actually underneath the anger.

Think of the last time you lashed out angrily. Did that help the other person to become more cooperative? Did you get your needs met?

People tend to get very defensive. And we actually don’t go at all towards meeting our needs. The Buddha put it this way: “Getting angry with another person is like throwing hot coals with bare hands, both people get burned.” And Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

So we need to get familiar with our own pattern, whatever it happens to be, and start noticing the suffering that comes with it.

The big question is: “What is it like when we act out?”

You might just close your eyes and check this out for a moment:

I invite you to this pause, to bring to mind a recent situation, where you got activated, where you reacted, got angry and then regretted it. You might sense what style of aggression it was, whether you got angry and spoke behind somebody’s back, or raised your voice, or just got caught in a long spin of resentment. Take some moments to investigate the situation. And just notice for yourself: What was the outcome of getting angry? What was the effect on the other person? Did you get your needs met? And just to deepen it a little: When you’re caught in that reactivity, what is your sense of yourself? What is the sense of the kind of person you are? Do you like yourself?

The investigation is not to add judgment but to just sense really — with an awake open awareness of the suffering, the squeeze of being inside that cocoon of anger. How it makes us small when it takes over.

Read more: For most people in developed, affluent societies, negativity bias is no longer a survival mechanism – it’s a handicap. Explore how to overcome negativity bias.

What to do when anger arises

The first step of understanding how to let go of anger and altering patterns is to begin with the liberating attitude that we are 100 % responsible for our experience, which really undoes the victimhood. It is a liberation whenever you’re pricked or hurt. It means to be 100 % able to respond to YOURSELF, not to others or the situation, so that in a way you can at least take care of your own experience —with understanding and empathy.

So, here you are, getting activated. What now? How can we let go of the anger?

The first step is to pause. No matter what. Pause. If you are activated, there is no way you can create a new neural pathway, a new pattern of response — unless you pause.

You pause and you make that U-turn. Knowing no matter how much the other person seems like the trigger, the place to attend is what is going on inside us. So the U-turn is the beginning of being able to respond with more intelligence.

When we pause and come back to our own experience we can get to the vulnerability that can actually begin diffusing the situation. When we re-enter we become more of an integrated whole being.

Meditation is a way to investigate patterning and triggers. Discover our free collection of meditation for anger to get in touch with your unmet needs and learn how to let go of anger.

What lies underneath your rage?

Let me tell you about the time I was the angriest in my whole life, at my son.

Bringing him up, one of my biggest values was truth-telling and I wasn’t a super punishing mum, so it wasn’t really hard for him. He was actually quite honest. Except once… He was 9 or 10. He and a friend stole some snacks from a snack bar at a swim club. I heard about it through some other parents. When I confronted him, he said somebody was lying just to make him look bad — in other words, he denied it. I was filled with rage. I was very unfamiliar with that level of rage.

I told him right then that I needed a timeout and he needed a timeout, too. So we both took a timeout. During mine I did the u-turn, bringing mindful and kind attention to what was going on inside me. And I let the rage be there, recognizing and allowing it, like “okay, that is rage, let it be”.

When I investigated, underneath the rage I found a really deep sense of hurt. It hurt my feelings that he had broken the rules and lied to me. And underneath the hurt was grief. Because it just felt like such a severing. To this day there is nothing that can activate me more than a sense of somebody lying to me because that is somehow the ultimate severing of our consensual togetherness.

I got in touch with that sense of severed belonging, the grief of being distant from this person I adore, and just brought a tremendous amount of compassion to it. My unmet need was the need for feeling connected. Feeling integrity and belonging with him. I imagined his unmet need in this process. He would have been afraid of being punished.

So we talked. And when we talked I named exactly what I just named to you; that I felt a lot of rage and when I got underneath the rage I was feeling a lot of grief and hurt and I cried. And as soon as he got the realness all his defenses couldn’t hold up. We were able to talk so he could see the impact of his lie. I realized there was nothing that could have been more impactful to him than me being real. Any sort of punishing, any act out of anger — it would not have brought us to that place.

When there’s anger, both people have an unmet need. When there are unmet needs and we focus on what is wrong with the other person, we will never get our needs met. If we make the U-turn, we can get in touch with vulnerability and the needs within us and then respond in a way that takes care of ourselves and others. The idea is not to suppress anger or act out of it, but to let its energy guide us into discovering how to take care of needs. It is about taking the U-turn and then being able to communicate from a much wiser place.

Read more: Learn how practicing mindfulness can also help breaking bad habits.

How do we do that communicating?

Anger is not bad. It is an alert asking for attention. We can be 100 % responsible and talk and communicate in a way that doesn’t blame and actually brings more intimacy. And to have real intimacy we have to be able to speak the truth.

I recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s work on nonviolent communication as an example of a very simple formula:

When there’s conflict and both people are angry, they should begin by naming the ‘what happened’ objectively, not adding any kind of blame or layers. The key formula is ‘I felt … because I needed …’. You name the feeling and name the need.

To be able to name the feeling and need you have to pause — sometimes the pause can take 24 hours. You have to pause long enough to get in touch with your own vulnerability, if you want to be able to communicate with another person and not make them defensive.

Some people might ask “Does that mean I can never express anger? Do I always have to pause and make the u-turn?” No. Because you will express anger.

You won’t always be able to pause because you get caught in a back-and-forth and you lose. That just happens. The deal is to just forgive it and to understand. Sometimes the container of anger you and the other person hold needs to be filled. But generally, in order to heal we have to get in touch with what’s there.

Tara Brach also reflects on how to let go of anger in her 10-day course “Free Yourself From Blame & Resentment” on Insight Timer, in which you learn to free yourself from anger and blame. Listen to the intro here:

  1. Free Yourself From Blame & Resentment - Intro Tara Brach 2:14

Some common challenges on the way to let go of anger

What happens when it really seems like the other person (or myself) is really wrong?

It is the most critical discipline in the whole game: No matter how wrong somebody seems to you, it doesn’t matter. Because being into the ‘you’re wrong’ attitude we are not connecting with what our real needs are and finding an integrated place within us so we can actually communicate. It doesn’t matter whether the other person is right or wrong. What matters is that we are 100 % responsible which means you gotta get back in touch with your own integrated hard mind to be able to respond well.

Read more: Discover how practicing forgiveness is linked and impacting our ability to stay mindful.

How do I keep my heart open if someone keeps wounding me?

That is an important question. But it is a case by case. The more you have connected with your inner life and touched with your needs, the more you’ll know what you need to do to create the proper boundaries. You can leave the relationship. You can decide to not spend time with someone. But if you create your boundaries from anger and hatred, you will never take the time you need to do the healing.

When we talk about anger and not letting that hijack happen, we are not talking about letting people walk all over us. We are just talking about having the wisdom to first make the U-turn to be in touch with ourselves.

There is something called the ‘idiot-compassion’. It is when you don’t do that. Idiot- compassion is when you are trying so hard to be open-hearted that you don’t know when to say ‘no’.

Pema Chödron puts it that way:

“Compassion doesn’t only imply trying to be good. When we find ourselves in an aggressive relationship, we need to set clear boundaries. The kindest thing we can do for everyone concerned is to know when to say ‘enough’. Many people use Buddhist ideals to justify self-debasement. In the name of not shutting our heart we let people walk all over us. It is said that in order not to break our vow of compassion we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries.”

I can process anger and emotions and communicate, but my partner or friend cannot, what do I do then?

It is often uneven. That is just part of how it is. The more you are 100 % responsible (and therefore not blaming), the more you create a safe container for the other person to learn how to check-in and communicate in that way. And even if it doesn’t seem fair, like “Oh, I have to do all the work” — it is actually a blessing.

Because if you have the capacity to be the one knowing how to pause and reconnect with yourself, you are going to be operating from a much more resourced place. And it will ripple out, it will affect others.

Tara Brach ends her lecture with a guided reflection to explore situations, in which we play out the same old behavior, and discover new options. Join her meditation by listening to this anger reflecting meditation or another handpicked guided practices:

  1. Guided Meditation. Reflecting On Anger Tara Brach 8:49
  2. At Home in the Moment - Meditation For A Gentle, Wakeful Presence Tara Brach 19:49
  3. A Pause for Presence In Daily Life Tara Brach 11:43
  4. Letting Life Live Through You Tara Brach 16:58

Tara Brach’s remarks on how to let go of anger are mindfulness-based. Insight Timer offers a great collection of thousands of mindfulness meditation practices that teach you to stay in the present, check-in with yourself and let go of judgment.

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