Vacillating between Anger and Guilt

Blog entry by Kathy Cleveland Bull

March 24, 2012 

Many years ago I was speaking at a conference that included an evening reception on a large yacht in a beautiful harbor.  It was a lovely setting.  So the unsettling conversation I was about to have seemed even more out of place.  One of the conference attendees greeted me and we chatted casually over a glass of wine.  It wasn’t long before he started sharing a bit more about his life and his feelings about his life.  I don’t remember all the details.  But, I will never forget this.  He said, “My whole life is just a vacillation between anger and guilt.  Those are the only two emotions I have anymore.”  He went on to describe the situations where his anger was triggered by his wife and children, followed by his reactivity and outbursts of anger, ultimately resulting in tremendous feelings of guilt and remorse.  And I thought that the hit taken by his feelings of self-worth likely fueled his next bout of anger….A seemingly endless cycle.

Since that time I have often thought about what he said.  I have reflected on it again and again.  I know people in that same boat.  I used to float that boat too.  But through good luck, good Karma or good instincts, I found a business partner who gently helped me consider a new way of looking at negative emotions like anger, guilt, jealousy and envy, among others. It made no sense.  “Make friends with your anger”, he would say.  Did I mention that he is a Japanese-American Buddhist Clinical Psychologist?  OK, yea, that’s an important part of the story….

Through years of working with negative emotions, I have discovered that the more I resist them, the more they are fueled. As they say, “what you resist, persists!”  The more I hated my anger, and its impact on those around me, the stronger it got.  The more I got curious about my anger, looked at it objectively, without judgment, the weaker its hold!  I was astounded!

A helpful metaphor, particularly for anger, is that of a pressure cooker.  If you keep the lid on tight while heating, the pressure and temperature get higher and higher.  Releasing the pressure of anger or guilt through the skillful means of curiosity, wisdom, non-judgment and finally acceptance, allows the contents to “simmer down”, the temperature to drop, the tension to be released in a way that is not harmful.  No one gets burned!  The heat/steam/anger simply dissipates.

The process that works best for me is sitting meditation, but there are certainly other methods.  I have found that I can often (but not always) work internally with a negative emotion that has been triggered in me and not have to work it out in the relationship.  Knowing that processing negative emotions internally is even an option can be a profound realization and a great comfort!

If the story of the man on the yacht resonates with you and you have found yourself vacillating between anger and guilt, or dealing with the effects of any negative emotion, then I invite you explore it in a new way.  Simmer down, and make friends with your negative emotions.  To begin, I would suggest that you read one of these books by Pema Chodron.  She is recognized around the world as a wise elder and she communicates simply, clearly and with a big dose of humor.

Start Where You Are

The Places the Scare You

When Things Fall Apart 

All are available from Amazon or from Shambhala Publications at .

One thought on “Vacillating between Anger and Guilt

  1. While these issues are relevant to everyone, I wonder if you found this especially transformational because as an Enneagram 2 one of our transformational tasks is to “acknowledge, and accept, our negative feelings without fear”?

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