Let It Go: Don’t let Anger or Frustration Derail You

July 12, 2009

In the last month I’ve chatted with a few folks who were grumpy or bitter about some situation in their work life.  I find myself giving the same advice over and over. “Let it go.”

My kids have a great book Zen Shorts, about Stillwater the panda bear and his three new friends Michael, Addy and Karl. Stillwater shares a story with each child based on a typical issue they are dealing with. For Karl, it’s anger at his older brother Michael over various slights and bossings around.

Stillwater relates the story of an elder and younger monks’ journey in China. At one point the older monk stops to help a wealthy lady across the street. She is haughty and ungrateful for the help. Hours of brooding later, the younger monk says to the elder, “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”

The elder monk’s reply? “I set her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Hanging on to anger isn’t effective in the long term. It may motivate you in the short term, but probably not to a useful outcome. It also diverts attention from your own journey.

I’m not saying don’t be frustrated or get upset. These are normal human emotions. You need to learn to control them and help them empower you.

Why are you angry?

First, think about what is making you angry. Is it a personal slight, unjust treatment of others, poor performance of a work group or individual? Context matters.

How do I deal with it?

Did someone hurt your feelings or embarrass you? DON’T respond in anger.  Most of the time, the clever retort or blunt email will come back to haunt you. Try to develop a thicker skin. You need to learn to control how you reveal your emotions. Manage them or they’ll manage you.

1 – Vent. As a venting mechanism (because we need help letting it go), I try to do two things. One, have a good friend you can let it rip with to get it off your chest. I’ve peeled wallpaper off the walls of conference rooms sharing frustrations with some of my close colleagues. Then I try to put it in a box and tuck it away. Catharsis is good if it moves you forward.

Another strategy is making sure you’re exercising and in decent health. My ability to regulate my mood and patience is greatly improved when I’m exercising.  A long run or time on the elliptical runner help me think clearly and let the endorphins go.

2 – Do something about it. Frustrated because something is unjust or a work situation is bad? Work to make it better, rather than simply ranting and becoming a crank.  Nobody likes the “angry” person. Be useful and channel your frustrations into action.

I am also not saying “turn the other cheek” or ignore people if they are trying to attack you. But responding angrily will go badly. Respond coolly and be disciplined in how you manage the situation. In Godfather terms, be Michael, not Sonny. He dies shot up in a toll booth because he was a hot head.

I’ve heard it called “personal mastery”. Whatever you call it, get it.

As the buddha said:

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”