Letting Go of Anger


Letting-GoThe fine art of “letting go”—Buddhists call it detachment—has been one of my guiding principles since my early 40’s, when I spent a year crossing the Pacific Ocean on a small sailboat.

That was the year that I learned, in a visceral rather than intellectual way, that letting go is what you have to do if you hope to live in the moment.  A quest to find familiar foods—McDonalds and whole wheat bread—in Pacific Island communities could only hamper your discovery of such local delights as pamplemousse, guava, conch fritters, and ceviche.  Setting expectations—e.g. planning to arrive in Tahiti on a specific date and time—when you couldn’t control the weather or the currents was a sure-fire way to miss the sensual beauty of a day at sea … the dawn light creeping across the fluid surface of the sea, the porpoises who cavorted in our bow wake.

But letting go of these sorts of things has been easy for me compared to letting go of anger. Anger at a mother who neglected you. Anger at a spouse or friend who betrayed or demeaned you. Anger at the boss who passed you over for a promotion you deserved. Anger at anyone who violates your trust, who diminishes your self-esteem, who makes you question your self-worth.

I was reminded of this as I read a recent blog entitled, aptly enough, “Letting Go,” in which the author, Danielle, offered some practical tips for getting rid of anger.  Herewith, some tips of hers and some of mine.

  • Recognize that we all live in our own reality.

My mother was a case in point. She never intended to hurt her children, but she was so crippled by her own fear of being hurt that she had no emotional reserves to draw upon for the care of children. As she did with adults, she rejected me before I could even imagine rejecting her; she punished me for my inability to anticipate what she wanted. Somehow, my efforts to please her always failed.  I could never be the child she wanted.

Depression—anger turned inwards—plagued me until I was in my 40s, when I finally recognized that I had been an unfortunate bystander in her own personal tragedy … that it wasn’t “my fault” and I wasn’t a failure.  Only then could I begin to let go of my anger at her. Only then could I begin to live my own life instead of the life I thought she wanted me to live.

  • Recognize that anger is often a response to “old tapes.”

Letting go of my anger at my mother did not, unfortunately, erase 40 years of painful emotions or the automatic behaviors I had used to cope with her rejection. Over the ensuing decades, I have managed to break most of those old habits, but there are still times when something sets an old tape to running. A paralyzing anger is the default response.

As complementary personalities, my partner Kent and I occasionally set off old tapes.  Fortunately, we understand each other’s foibles and can usually recognize the pattern in time to head off an angry response. Even when we fall prey to the old tapes, though, we can usually figure it out within a few minutes and let the anger go.

It is not always so with friends, even some I know very well. I recognize the hurt … I feel the anger … but it can take days or weeks or months for me to understand how much of my anger is rooted in something that happened 50 or 60 years ago.

  • Recognize that we often impose a higher standard of behavior on others than we do on ourselves.

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes our intentions are good, but we just plain get it wrong.  Sometimes, we’re too busy and self-absorbed to see what’s needed. And then, of course, there are times that we do the wrong thing because we’re still playing out those old tapes of our own.

One of the benefits of maturity is the ability, when we make a mistake, to forgive ourselves, to move on even as we vow to do better the next time.  Too often, however, we do not offer the same generosity of spirit to those around us, responding in anger when someone we trust does something that is hurtful.

For example, I expect Kent to understand and be forgiving when I make a mistake that wounds him, but when he slips up in a way that is hurtful, my instinctive response is often anger alongside a quick march to the moral high ground. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is terribly—and wonderfully—human.

  • Recognize that the need to claim the high ground is another name for being a victim.

I have long believed that most things in life—including what other people say or do to us or about us—are fundamentally outside our control.

From this perspective, holding on to anger gives up the one form of control we do have—the ability to choose our response to what happens around us. Holding on to anger allows someone else to control your identity, to define you in terms of their actions rather than yours, to further diminish your sense of self-worth.

In a recent blog on The Confidence Gap, I observed that whenever something diminishes your confidence level, inaction erodes your confidence further, while positive action serves to rebuild it.  Holding on to anger is a form of passivity and inaction.

Letting go of anger represents an active decision to take control over your own life.

How does residual anger left from old tapes affect your life and relationships?


  1. Mary, you have condensed an entire self-help book into a blog post. Bravo! This much I have time to read and this much I can actually digest. Maybe because I’ve already learned most of it, but refreshers are always good. One other thing you barely hint at that I see coming into play is the wisdom and insight that come with age. Eventually I Now gain enough distance to explore the story of Me Then with more objectivity and move the pieces around enough to gain insight such as that you developed in your forties. Until we gain that, we may not have the tools to set aside the anger. In fact, we may not realize it’s there. Great post! As usual …

  2. Mary Gottschalk says

    Sharon … thanks for your comment … hope it didn’t sound too preachy (I hate self-help book). You’ve set me to thinking about “wisdom”… is being “wiser” (I think I am) the same as having “wisdom” (I don’t feel that I have much)? I I’d love it if you wanted to do a piece on that ….

    • Mary, it doesn’t sound preachy at all. Far from it. Perhaps self-help is not the most accurate term, but I can’t think of a better on. Sharing personal experience is the best way to give people information and insight they need to come to grips with their own dilemmas. Your forthright sharing is like a play book for solving similar puzzles. I think what I wrote above may be as clear as mud to many people. Using the distance of time and experience, in your post “Mary Now” puts the pain and grief of “Mary Then” in perspective and gives a rough sketch of the mental and emotional transformation involved in releasing the deep anger and hurt your mother’s behavior caused.

      I’ve heard it said that the wisest people are those who feel they have the most to learn. IMO, wisdom is not something we can ever claim or glory in. I take satisfaction in realizing I’ve learned enough to duck a few bullets that used to go straight to my heart or let certain types of comments roll right off. Maybe that’s wisdom. Maybe. When I hear someone else say “I know this because I’ve lived it,” I recognize wisdom, but she probably wouldn’t call it that.

      Anyway, thanks for a great post!

  3. Much good advice here, Mary–and much to think about! I will have to come back to this one when I have a bit more time.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Merril … It’s just occurred to me that June & July got away from me, and we never hooked up for a phone chat …. would still love to do it!

  4. A great reminder, Mary. Letting go and forgiveness are like twins in our healing process.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … I agree …. but as I was reading a number of articles before I wrote the blog, it struck me that “forgiveness” assumes that I’m right and the offender is wrong. What seems important to me, in my own struggles with anger, is that it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong … just let it go.

      Easier said than done, of course,

  5. Mary, what a thoughtful and succinct post on all the negative aspects of anger. I agree with Sharon, it’s a full SelfHelp book in one sitting. And one I will save for future reference. I’d like to add one thing, however. I’d like to speak in favor of anger, in support of those moments when our anger is what energizes us to action. That can be, if channeled appropriately, a powerful, empowering feeling. For me, it’s been my ability to own and honor my anger that has enabled me to let go of it. Back in my early 40s, when I was devouring self help books as part of a broader journey back to sanity (in hindsight, a sailing trip around the world sounds more romantic), I read that feelings are neither good nor bad; they just are. And if we turn off the “Bad” ones, (i..e, we don’t own our anger, feel our fear, etc), then we also don’t fully feel the “Good ” ones, the joy, the delight, the serenity. It’s as though they all come from one faucet, and the faucet is either on or off (that does sound a bit black and white). Anyway, it was a philosophy I adopted and has served me over these last 25 years. So yes, let’s Let Go of anger. But first, let’s give it the attention it demands. Does that make sense to you?

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Janet … You’ve added an important dimension to my comments. I don’t think you can let go of anger if you haven’t already “owned” it as your own feeling (rather than a consequence of someone else’s action.) But even with “righteous” anger, you need to let go of the anger if you want to convert the energy into a useful outcome. I hope you’ll keep adding your perspectives to the discussion!

  6. Yes, indeed Mary. I’d love to. I didn’t learn to recognize anger in myself until I was 42. I still remember the moment… then, felt guilty for a few days about feeling angry. We all have our methods of getting that anger out in a non-abusive way. Someone I once heard speak at an open AA meeting talked of keeping a box of old dishes in her basement, so her sponsees could throw them against the wall down there when they needed. The sound of the breaking china was critical in letting them tap into what they needed to feel. I’ve found some people are afraid of anger, thinking if they feel it, even a little, they’ll lose control and it will take over. But, I really believe if we don’t do this work, the anger just festers. When my practice was active (before my Peace Corps years), I often found myself setting up opportunities for clients to experience feeling angry in an environment that was supportive and structured. Knowing we can be angry and set it aside while we fix dinner, comfort our sick child, etc. and get back to it at a more appropriate time is helpful. Identify, Own, and Honor: that is my mantra when it comes to feelings of any sort. what is it that you need, in order to “honor” your anger? Hit something? (try a tennis racket on a sofa) Yell? (go ahead) Break something (those dishes were put to good use many times). It’s that choice, again, that is so important. Yes, we can choose to Let It Go. But not until we’ve given it its due. This is such an importnt topic. I can’t wait to read your novel.

  7. Mary Gottschalk says

    Janet … only just your comment … I love the idea of “honoring” your anger, whether it’s an anger to you use to take positive action or an anger you need to let go of and move on. It’s a lesson I wish I’d learned a lot earlier, as I denied my anger at my mother, and turned it on myself for nearly three decades

  8. This mirrors my journey, as well, Mary. Once I was able to let go of the anger and understand it wasn’t about me it was like shedding armor. Sadly I’m seeing this play out in my own two sons relationship. One is carrying a grudge from when he was a child, and now he’s decided to cut all ties to his brother. It is very sad to watch, and painful, too. They are in their 40’s now! I hope he wakes up before long and realizes there’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with that pain.

  9. Mary Gottschalk says

    Barbara … I’m sure it is hard to watch anger burden the lives of people you care about. But until he’s ready and able to let go, there’s not much anyone else can do. Sometimes time alone with do it, sometimes a change of situation will help … but there’s no easy answer.

  10. Kent Zimmerman says

    Well said and well written Mary. The world would be a better place and our relationships stronger and more fulfilling if we accepted, understood, and were willing to face the fact that we only hurt ourselves when we let anger rule. Blessings and Peace. Kent