How to deal with anger? Stoic tools to control temper


Anger was such an important subject for stoics. This is why Seneca dedicated a whole discourse for it. In his writing he talks about the causes and consequences of anger among many other facts. Seneca urges us to objectively view the long term consequences of anger, so that we can view the energy with respect.

“On anger” is a major work about such an obvious yet conflicting subject. Let me try to share with you what I’ve learned from him. And from the many times I released the Dynamite inside me, and of course regretted it.

Getting angry

Stoics like everyone else undergo a journey of self-development, they also tend to get angry. Anger is a natural response to an injury, it usually comes from our sense of self-preservation. The great issue here is, how do we deal with it?

First of all, anger only shows its face when our instincts take over our reasoning. Seneca describes it with perfection, telling us about the transformations that happen in the face and the body of the angered person. 

“Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provoked it”. – Seneca

Anger brings out the worst within us, it makes us do and say things we wouldn’t think we’re capable of. It shows us how much work we still have to do to be better people. And that’s exactly what a stoic should do, he should transform an unfortunate episode into an opportunity for self-development.

“When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.” – Epictetus

The cause

Just as I said before, anger is a primitive behavior, so we must analyze what triggers it, to learn about how we can control it. Anger only happens when you put yourself into a situation outside of your control. This can be an event or someone else’s opinion. However, you need to step back to realize that your perception is all that matters..

To fire up anger we must perceive the cause as a sort of aggression. This is exactly where successful reframing resides. All the causes you can imagine are gifts for self development, they carry with them messages about our weaknesses, insecurities and self control. If you don’t accept the causes they will perish. That is the key to controlling them.

“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him” – Epictetus

To allow the external to break your inner balance, you have to be blinded and unfocused to let this feeling take over. The poison only kills if you take it. Therefore, if you notice some sensitivity to some “causes”, take the opportunity to understand why they affect you so much. That’s what a stoic would do.

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger for they don’t care at all.” – Marcus Aurelius

The consequence

Letting anger rise can be compared to releasing the mythological Kraken. It’s bound for destruction. The consequence is always larger than intended. And most of the time there won’t be a chance or possibility for amendment. You’ll be left with regret. 

“Anger is like those ruins which smash themselves on what they fall.” – Seneca

To be really honest, it’s more comfortable to deal with what makes you angry than to deal with the wreckage your anger leaves behind. Marcus Aurelius had already come to this conclusion almost 2000 years ago, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it”.

Don’t be mistaken, you’ll feel anger, the important thing is how you are going to deal with it. Epictetus said that it is something gradual, that you feel angry every day, than every other day, and after a while you will see it’s been 30 days and you’ve controlled it. He even suggests a sacrifice in thanksgiving to the gods. 

One of the tools to avoid anger and its casualties is time. Count till 10, 30, as long as needed to recover control of yourself. Also, get some distance and take yourself away from the situation, you might be able to even laugh at it.

“The greatest remedy for anger is delay” – Seneca

But the main stoic tool is getting to know yourself better, therefore you’ll be able to dominate it and not let your instincts take over. When you learn about what unconsciously drives your anger, you can be unstoppable. 

Generally anger is driven by unconscious defense mechanisms learned in childhood to protect vulnerability. If you learn to categorize them, you can overcome the temptation to burst into a reaction by identifying the recurring nature. It’s all about perspective and control. Keep that in mind.