8 Strategies Backed By Two Thousand Years of Practice”
by Ryan Holiday
“For as long as there have been people, there have been people doing stupid things because they were angry. Moses killing the Egyptian, Xerxes lashing the river, Alexander the Great brawling and killing his best friend, Caligula declaring war against the sea, Ivan the Terrible killing his own son. Me? When I think back on my own life, I can’t think of a single time I was glad I lost my temper. There have certainly been moments where I am glad I stood up for myself, but it wasn’t anger that I needed in those moments. What I needed was clarity and confidence and restraint.
Anger is easy. It can feel good. The problem is that it almost always makes things worse. The great Stoic philosophers wrote about dealing with their tempers more than just about any philosophical school. In fact, one of the most famous essays in all of Stoicism is titled “De Ira”, or “Of Anger.” For some 150 pages, Seneca speaks eloquently about “this passion, which is above all others hideous and wild.”
“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane – since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.”
In other words, for as long as there have been people, there have been people trying to get a handle on their anger problems. So what we have below are some tried and tested strategies for taming your temper. These are going to be high-level ideas – if you really want to get serious about dealing with anger in your life, we suggest checking out our course:
Taming Your Temper: The 10-Day Stoic Guide to Controlling Anger: 10 days of challenges, exercises, video lessons, and bonus tools based on Stoic philosophy. Materials to help you deal with your anger in a constructive manner. We will give you the tools that you need, not just to manage your anger, but to leave it in the past, so that you can focus on what’s important – living a virtuous and fulfilling life.
Identify the Costs of Anger: “We will ensure that we not become angry if we put before our eyes all the vices anger gives rise to and take good measure of them,” Seneca wrote. “We must accuse and condemn anger, scrutinize its crimes and expose it to the light of day, compare it with the worst evils so that we can see clearly what it is…Anger squanders things and rarely comes without cost.”
First, we encourage you to look at what anger does to people. In fact, if you’re ever in need of a good laugh, just head to YouTube, where there is no shortage of hilarious public tantrums and tirades. Some of the best meltdowns come from sports – Bobby Knight throwing chairs, Carlos Gomez baseball-batting a water cooler, Phil Wellman covering home plate with dirt and throwing third base across the field, Tom Izzo losing it on one of his players, Serena Williams whining to umpires and smashing rackets, Bill O’Reilly freaking out at a teleprompter, Tobey Maguire at paparazzi, and Chris Christie at a former Navy SEAL, to list just a few.
Embarrassing, isn’t it? Do you think you look all that different in your fits of anger?
Next, think again about the examples we listed above of just how costly anger is. But then, shift the attention internally. Seneca, referencing a thought from the philosopher Sextius, said: “It has often been useful for angry people to look in a mirror…its ugliness is so extreme, as it seeps through bones and flesh and so many things in its path; what would it look like if laid bare?”
What has anger cost you? Think on Marcus’ question, “How much more harmful are the consequences of anger than the circumstances that aroused them in us?” Think of specific incidents where you resorted to anger. When you took personal offense to something, said something out of anger, and it blew up a business deal? What’s a relationship that deteriorated because of something you did in a rage? Did you have a stressful travel experience, did you say something sharp to a family member on a stressful holiday, did you destroy something irreplaceable? When the costs are laid bare, we will be less likely to give into anger.
Identify What’s in Your Control vs Out of Your Control: There were a lot of reasons for Anne Frank to be angry. She’d had to leave her friends in Germany and her friends in Amsterdam. She’d been subjected to discrimination and persecution. Her family had lost their business. They were now all crammed in a tiny attic where they couldn’t make noise, could hardly move, and were constantly at risk of death from either exposure or disease.
Yet she wrote in her diary on May 3rd, 1944, “I have been given a lot: a happy nature, a great deal of cheerfulness and strength. Every day I feel that I am developing inwardly. Why, then, should I be in despair?”
This is the essence of what the Stoics talked about: making the distinction between what’s in our control and what’s not. We don’t control what’s happening around us – the world at war, the particulars of our birth, the vagaries of our living situation, that this person is an imbecile, or that that person wronged us. We do have the power to control how we respond. We have the power to control who we are inside. We have the power to focus on all the gifts we have been given. We have the power, as Marcus wrote to himself, to say, “This is unfortunate, I’ve been harmed,” OR, “No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it.”
The Roman poet Terence once wrote that, “The life of man is like a game of dice: if the throw doesn’t give you the number you most need, you have to use your skill to make the best of the number it does give you.” The way we respond to the roll of the dice that is daily life, is the one thing we control. In that response lies the key to a happy life.
Accept That There Are Going To Be Stupid People (and Stupid Things) In the World: “When you wake up in the morning,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.” One suspects he was referring to a particularly frustrating person, some opponent who just would not, or could not, get the message, when he wrote: “You can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face and they’ll just go on doing it.”
There’s an American expression along those same lines: “Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty and the pig enjoys it.” We need to remember this when we face the inevitable moments that we find ourselves in conflict or at cross purposes with one of those nutty, obnoxious, stubborn jerks that make up a certain percentage of the population. Although it’s tempting to fight and argue with them, it rarely ends well, because you can’t beat someone with nothing to lose, and it’s impossible to reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.
It takes great skill to identify irrationality and emotional reactions in other people. It takes a lot of confidence to avoid battling with someone acting out of ego. It requires patience to endure their onslaughts and put up with them in your midst.
But if you can, you’ll preserve your happiness and live a much less stressful and angry life. It’s not your job to change other people – and even if it were, crazy doesn’t want to be changed. Learn how to walk away. Learn how to de-escalate. Learn how to let other people be themselves and you just do you. It’s a much easier life, you can count on that.
Don’t Get Upset in Advance: There is a balance to Stoicism between awareness and anxiety. The Stoics want you to be prepared for an uncertain – and oftentimes dangerous – future, but somehow not worry about it at the same time. They want you to consider all the possibilities, and not be stressed that many of those possibilities will not be good. How exactly is that supposed to work?
The answer lies simply in the idea of presence. As Seneca writes: “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives.”
It may rain tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you have to get wet in advance. You can enjoy the sunshine today, while still bringing in your furniture just in case. It’s important not to take the phrase premeditatio malorum (a premeditation of evils) too singularly. When Seneca says that all the terms of the human lot should be before our eyes, and then lists only the bad things, he’s accidentally doing that. Because of course good stuff can happen too. Bad stuff can not happen also.
The point is that the future is out of our control. It is uncertain, and also vast. We have to be aware of that, yes, but we don’t need to suffer, particularly not in advance. Because we have plenty of time to prepare, and plenty of wide open present before us still as well.
Let Go of the Past: Cato the Elder – the great-grandfather of the Stoic Cato the Younger – had a great farming aphorism, one that feels practical and applicable for us in the battle with anger. “The forehead is better than the hindhead,” he wrote in his only work, “On Agriculture.” Meaning: Don’t look back. Look forward.
It’s easy to want to look back at the past. To reflect on what’s happened. To blame. To indulge in nostalgia. To wistfully think of what might have been. Maybe it’s wounds from our childhood. Maybe someone didn’t treat us right. Or we experienced something terrible. Or our parents were just a little too busy or a little too critical or a little too stuck dealing with their own issues to be what we needed. These raw spots shape decisions we make and actions we take – even if we’re not always conscious of that fact. We have to let them go. Because the past is dead. It’s lost. Now, all that remains before us is the present – and if we are lucky, the future.
We must seize today. The here and now. We must give it everything we have. No matter what has happened before – whose fault it was, how much pain it caused us, what regrets we have – all we can do is move forward. Drop the old stories. Lest in looking backward, you walk into a wall, or worse, right off a cliff.
Get Physical: A young fan once wrote to the beloved children’s television host, Mr. Rogers, asking if he ever gets angry. Rogers wrote back, “Of course I do; everybody gets angry sometimes. But, Alex, each person has his and her way of showing angry feelings. Do you know what I do when I’m angry? I like to swim, and so I swim extra hard when I’m angry. There are many things that you can do when you’re angry that don’t hurt you or anybody else.”
What he’s talking about is the need for an outlet for dangerous passions like anger – so we can get them out of our system as soon as possible, with as little harm as possible. Seneca wrote similarly about physical activity as a kind of medicine. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” Seneca said, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.”
A politician fueled by anger is going to get themselves in trouble. A politician who lifts weights when they are angry is going to make better policy decisions. A hurt spouse who gets up and takes a walk and then comes back to the argument later is going to be more rational, kinder, and less likely to say something they regret.
We can’t always prevent that impulse of anger. It’s natural. But we don’t have to give ourselves over to it – simply because it’s natural – or we will hurt ourselves and other people in the process. Nor can we try to stuff our anger down and white knuckle it. Like a long-quiet faultline or a sleeping volcano, on the surface there may be serenity, where beautiful things can grow and life can be lived, but under the surface the tension and the pressure has been building all along, and eventually, inevitably, it is going to find a way to vent. Stuffing down your emotions and passions only makes it more likely that they’ll explode in spectacular, life-altering, earth-scorching fashion.
We have to find helpful, harmless outlets for our emotions if we want to be able to manage them and avoid seismic, cataclysmic disruptions to our lives.
Meditate on Your Insignificance: The Stoics believed there was ego in anger. There’s selfishness. There’s a belief that we are so significant, that everything has to go our way, that they don’t realize who I am. What we must learn to do, Seneca said, is: “Draw further back and laugh.”
It was why Marcus reminded himself repeatedly to take the view from above. The Stoics first termed this sympatheia, the idea that we are all part of a larger whole. It’s simultaneously a reminder of our greatness and our smallness, our insignificance and our essentialness. an affinity of parts to the whole, mutual interdependence. It’s about letting the self feel small to gain strength through unity with the whole, it’s surrendering to your insignificance in order to realize our significance. It’s empowering.
Everything about today’s culture is at odds with that understanding. Social media. Me-first self-help. Hero worship. The normalization of toxic ego. You have to fight that. And you fight it by looking to nature, by zooming out your view so it is unable to focus on the tiny, trivial matters before you, by subsuming yourself into something larger, something greater.
Focus on Not Making Things Worse:
At the beginning of “The Odyssey”
, Zeus utters a famous lament that must, one imagines, be shared by all gods and parents and presidents alike: “This is absurd. That mortals blame the gods! They say we cause suffering but they themselves Increase it by folly.”
At the heart of Stoicism is an admission that life is unfair and largely out of our control. Bad stuff happens to everyone, the vast majority of it not even remotely our fault. Nobody asks to die. Nobody asks to be lied to or smacked by natural disaster or leveled by some freak accident. The Gods, or luck, or Fate – that’s what is responsible for these untimely deeds (to us at least).
But the Stoics also agree with Zeus’s complaint: That humans take this misfortune and compound it. We make things worse than they need to be. With anger. With complaining. With getting upset about them. With placing blame. With seeking vengeance or recompense. With trying desperately to undo what must happen, or to outsmart it by scheme or by bargain. We add folly on top of misfortune.
That’s really the plot of “The Odyssey”, if you think about it. The whole story is Odysseus making a bad situation worse, over and over again until he is rescued by Athena. The key to life may not be brilliance or power. What if it’s just not increasing our troubles by adding folly and hubris and greed on top of them?
“Emotional control is certainly one of the core tenets of Stoic philosophy that can allow us to become more fulfilled and character driven. A practicing Stoic has emotions, of course; however, he/she is able to control their emotional state so as to diminish the manifestation of irrational behaviors that are produced from unrestrained emotions. This allows one to think and behave more rationally without interference from destructive emotions.”
Notice how Robert said, “A practicing Stoic.” Diminishing the manifestation of irrational behaviors, controlling the toxic emotion that is anger requires continual practice through deliberate actions and positive choices. To help you with those actions and choices, we’ll close by recommending some further resources:
Look For Something to Be Grateful For: Laura Ingalls Wilder had a hard scrabble existence. From the Kansas prairies to the backwoods of Florida, she and her family eked out a life from some of the most unforgiving environments on the planet. That’s what being a pioneer was really like. It wasn’t glamorous, it was hard. Yet, what comes through in her work is the joy and happiness and beauty she managed to see despite all that hardship. “There is good in everything,” she later wrote, “if only we look for it.”
That’s what many of the best Stoic exercises are about – looking for the good. Or at least realizing that we have som choice in seeing things one way or the other. As Epictetus said, ultimately it’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgment and opinions about things that do. So, conversely, we choose not only to not be angry, but to be happy, to be grateful, to see life as an adventure that we can make the most of.
Try it next time you’re angry. As Tony Robbins has said, “You can’t be angry and grateful simultaneously.” Look for that good, in anything and everything that you do. Because it’s there. If Laura Ingalls Wilder could find it in a one room cabin, amidst tragedy and terror and pain and pestilence, then you can find it at the office, in traffic and in the confines of modern life. We all can.”
Freely download “Of Anger”, by Seneca, here: