Using Imagery to Move beyond Anger
There are many parallels between anger management and pain management. Anger and pain can both be intense, chronic experiences — and you can easily find yourself ruminating about both.
When you continue to rethink, reconsider, relive, and rehash some incident that provoked your anger well beyond the point where it happened, you're ruminating. And rumination invariably intensifies the emotion. At first you may just be irritated, but the more you think and talk about it, the madder you become. You can't let go of the thoughts, so you can't let go of the feelings — you're stuck!
So, how do you get unstuck? Try taking your attention to another, far more pleasing place through imagery. Here's how:
1. Find a quiet setting.
You can't engage in imagery if you're distracted. Find a quiet place where you can be alone for at least ten minutes. If you're at work, that could be your office — if you close the door and put a Do Not Disturb sign on your door. Or you can take your break and find sanctuary elsewhere — an outside bench, sitting in your car in the parking lot, or, as one of my more creative clients, did — sitting in a stall in the bathroom.
2. Rate your preimagery level of anger.
Rate how angry you are at this minute on a scale from 1 (mildly irritated) to 10 (extreme rage).
3. Close your eyes.
Imagery is about visualizing. If you're going to create internal images to use as an antidote to anger, you first have to stop visualizing what's in front of you in the external environment. Closing your eyes is the first step in letting go — and you may find this difficult. It's all about trusting yourself and the world around you.
If you aren't comfortable closing your eyes in the quiet place you've found, chances are you don't feel safe there. Try finding someplace else.
4. Release your hold on reality.
Letting go of the real world so that you can enter into the world of imagery takes more than simply closing your eyes. It also requires a receptive attitude. You have to grant yourself permission to loosen your grip on both the circumstances that provoked your anger and the emotion itself. This is no different than loosening your grip on the steering wheel in order to avoid road rage.
5. Imagine something positive.
This is the fun part! You're free here to conjure up any positive image you want. What's your favorite vacation spot, where you're your most relaxed, carefree self? A lot of people say the beach or the mountains. But it could be sitting on the deck in your own backyard. The only requirement is that it be someplace where you're never angry.
6. Be specific in your imagination.
This has to do with the who, what, and where of the situation you chose. Are you alone or with someone else? Where are you and what are you doing? Lying in a hammock? Sitting on a dock fishing? Working in your herb garden? Imagine what you're wearing. Can you see the colors of your clothes? What kind of day is it — cloudy, windy, warm, rainy, sunny? The more detailed you are about the image, the more into it you are.
7. Stay with the image for at least five minutes.
This exercise is just for use in derailing anger that may otherwise get out of hand. It's not something that you need to do for a long period of time. You'll be surprised at how refreshing five minutes of positive imagery can be and how easy it is to release anger in that short interval.
8. Evaluate your postimagery anger level.
While you're still relaxed and have your eyes closed, rate your anger on a 10-point intensity scale again. Is there a difference now? If so, you've obviously succeeded in your attempt to transcend anger for the moment. If there's no change or you actually find yourself more angry than you were earlier, the exercise didn't work. Maybe you just need a few more minutes of positive imagery. Don't be discouraged; no one solution works for everybody.
9. Linger in the moment.
If the exercise did what you wanted it to, why not linger a bit and enjoy the change in your mind and body — the lack of tension, the inner peace. Don't be in too big a hurry to get back to reality!
10. Open your eyes and move on with your day.
As soon as you open your eyes, you'll realize that the world didn't go anywhere — you did. You took a short, refreshing trip to some imaginary, anger-free place that you call your own — and, in the process, you left behind the circumstances that provoked your anger in the first place.
You can use this imagery technique in two other ways:
- Instead of imagining yourself in another positive situation, imagine yourself in the same situation that caused your anger, but without any feelings of anger.
- Imagine yourself in the same (or different) situation, but feeling a negative emotion other than anger (for example, sadness). Emotions compete with one another. Feeling angry and sad at the same time is difficult (if not impossible). In fact, that's why many people get angry in the first place — it's their way of not feeling sad. For example, imagine feeling sad (rather than angry) about the fact that the person who was just yelling at you doesn't appreciate what a wonderful person you are and how helpful you can be.