Why Anger Is Your Worst Enemy - NJlifehacks
Why Anger Is Your Worst Enemy in Stoicism

Why Anger Is Your Worst Enemy

“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” – Marcus Aurelius

Anger is a passion, a negative emotion the Stoics want to minimize. Seneca’s essay On Anger is the best source of Stoic advice on anger.

Anger, the desire to repay suffering, is brief madness, says Seneca. Because an angry man lacks self-control, is forgetful of kinship, is deaf to reason and advice, gets aroused by trifles, and doesn’t know what’s true and false—“very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.”

Getting angry will hurt yourself the most. 

And its damage is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.” That’s why the best plan is to reject straightway the first signs of anger and resist its beginnings. Because once we get carried away by anger, reason counts for nothing, anger will do as much as it chooses, and it’ll be hard to turn it off.

Although we cannot control our initial reaction, if we’re aware enough, we can decide to go along or not. Anger, then, is a form of judgment. We interpret the situation in a way that we decide it’s ok to get angry.

But “of what use is anger,” asks Seneca, “when the same can be arrived at by reason?”

Anger is prone to rashness. Reason is more trustworthy because it’s considered and deliberate. “Reason wishes to give a just decision; anger wishes its decision to be thought just.”

“The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry man.” – Seneca

Anger is not useful, “No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not therefore come to assist courage, but to take its place.” We can find sufficient inducement without anger—with the right values in place such as love, compassion, justice, and courage.

Instead of being led by dangerous and unpredictable anger, we’re motivated by intrinsic values, and deliberately choose to do the right thing.

“When a man is wandering about our fields because he has lost his way, it is better to place him on the right path than to drive him away.” Seneca makes this beautiful comparison. He says we should not hunt down the people who have lost their ways and err in their actions, but show them the right course. Instead of reacting to anger with anger, we better choose a more sensible and compassionate way, and try to help them.

Instead of impulsively getting angry, take a deep breath and deliberately choose to stay calm. This calm will not only rob misfortune of its strength, but also empower you to act in a just and courageous way.

As Marcus says, “The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

Generally, we shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger. The circumstances don’t care at all. It’s like getting mad at something far bigger than us. It’s like taking something personally that doesn’t care about us. Things don’t happen against us, they just happen.

Getting angry at a situation doesn’t have an impact on the situation. It doesn’t change it, it doesn’t improve it. Oftentimes, what angers us doesn’t really harm us, and our anger will outlast the damage done to us.

We’re being fools when we allow our tranquility to be disrupted by trifles. That’s why Marcus recommends contemplating the impermanence of the world around us. What angers us now will be forgotten tomorrow.

When you’re angry, says Seneca, take steps to turn anger’s indications into their opposites: Force yourself to relax your face, take a deep breath, soften your voice, and slow your pace of walking—your internal state will soon resemble your external, relaxed state.

You can also try to describe the situation making you angry as dispassionately and objectively as possible, explains Epictetus. This will gain you time and help you see the situation with greater distance.

And he says we should always keep in mind that it’s not the situation that harms us, but our interpretation about it. “So when someone arouses your anger, know that it’s really your opinion fueling it.”

So, instead of being angry all the time and torment the lives of those around you, why not "make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure?" Seneca asks.

This is one of 55 Stoic practices of the second part in my upcoming book The Little Book of Stoicism.

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Jonas Salzgeber

What's up? My name's Jonas. I'm Swiss (not Swedish). I'm a life enthusiast and I'm curious about everything that gives me an advantage, boost, level upgrade... "That drink will make me unbeatable? I'll down it!" Haha. My motto? Go to bed a little wiser every day & be the best version of yourself.

  • Nima says:

    Hi Jonas. Interesting article. All throughout my life, my temper has been my biggest enemy. I’m 28 and my life sucks — no friends (even though I’m not a bad person at all), no job (even though I’m a skillful software engineer), no regular relationships (even though I’m good looking man). Moreover, I have missed (lost, actually) many opportunities because of my temper. And it’s not anger or fury, or it’s not that it causes any harm to anyone. It’s just that I always (over)express myself which causes people to get away from me and employers to end my contracts early. Girls ask me out all the time, but after 2-3 weeks into the relationship, they ditch me – without even informing me beforehand most of the time, too. My Mom puts my situation into words very beautifully: “A person who meets you for the first time, wants to meet you for a second time. And when they meet you for the second time, they never want to meet you ever again.” I’m very unhappy with all that’s happening in my life — I feel like a loser all the time. Even my brothers (whom I love most dearly) despise me – they never invite me over and they never want to visit me, even though we all live in the same city.

    What can I do to change all these? How to be loved?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Nima,

      Thanks for sharing your situation. This must be challenging.
      I can’t tell you what to do or how to get loved.

      In my own life, what’s been most helpful was awareness.
      I learned about it when I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. And then it’s a lot of practicing to become more and more aware.
      Maybe this could help you too.

      Plus, stay kind to yourself. Maybe you want to check out Nils’ article on Self-Compassion – this has been highly useful in my own life.

      The Stoics would recommend to focus on where your power lies. On the things you control, and trying to accept what you can’t control. Focus on your actions.

      This quote by Viktor Frankl has helped me many times: “What is to give light must endure burning.”

      All the best. Hope some of this helps.

  • Lisa says:

    Anger has always been useful but our response to it is most often destructive. It used to be a way humans gained courage to protect themselves & their loved ones. “the desire to repay suffering” is actually revenge. You can be angry without seeking revenge, you can be angry without destruction or violence. Anger is often a way of hiding the emotions below the surface & therefore becomes a clue that a person should investigate their feelings. The more a person is in touch with their feelings the more they are able to have empathy & understand other people’s pain. Check your response, not your feelings.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Lisa.

      “Check your response, not your feelings.”

      I certainly agree with that and with what you wrote.
      We definitely want to understand our feelings. I like how Marc Brackett teaches people about emotions with his RULER approach.

      R – ecognizing
      U – understanding
      L – abeling
      E – xpressing
      R – egulating

      He states, “The irony, though, is that when we ignore our feelings, or suppress them, they only become stronger… If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like debt that will eventually come due.”

      So yes, let’s check our response, not our feelings.

      With gratitude,

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