If you are like millions of Americans, you went to see the new Star Wars film “Rogue One” this holiday season. Star Wars has made billions of dollars over the years and one of the most iconic and favorite characters of the sci-fi series is Yoda. A small, green, ancient creature, Yoda teaches Luke Skywalker about the force. Yoda tells Luke: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Anger, oddly enough, is one of my favorite topics to cover in group therapy. I enjoy telling group members “anger is one of my favorite subjects!” Because that usually gets a laugh. Laughter is an important part of therapy, just like it’s an important part of all things we do in life. Most people don’t realize that a lot of the philosophies of Star Wars and the force are similar to Buddhist principles. One of the most famous quotes about anger actually comes from the teachings of the Buddha! Perhaps you have heard “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”? This is an interpretation of the Buddha’s statement: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Buddha knew that of all of the gamut of emotions that human beings experience, anger has the ability to damage us in deep and unique ways. Anger is an active emotion, but when we hold onto anger, when we take care of it, when we tuck it away so that it glows inside of us like that hot coal, it turns into something else: resentment. So, similar to what Yoda told Luke, Anger it seems, is the path to deep, enduring pain.
Anger leads to resentment. Resentment leads to bitterness. Bitterness eats us alive, tainting all of our experiences, even those that have little or nothing to do with whatever caused our anger in the first place. It’s a gradual process. For example, someone might say “all men are liars.” This kind of generalization is not accurate, it’s related to a personal experience that has seethed inside that person and turned into bitterness. The situation that caused this was likely a person being lied to by a man that was close to and important to that person – perhaps they were habitually lied to. Still, that doesn’t mean that all men are liars, but the person who was hurt hangs onto that hot coal of anger. Soon, it becomes resentment. Resentment is less fresh and active than anger – resentment is the creek that runs underneath the foundation of the house, washing the concrete away so slowly that we do not realize that it is a problem until it has damaged the home beyond repair.
In anger, I might yell at you, cry “how could you do this to me?” but in resentment I am passive. I might make passive aggressive comments to you, or try to hurt you in small ways to get revenge for the way that you hurt me. The coal of anger remains, and resentment can morph into bitterness. Bitterness is what makes a person say “all men are liars” instead of “that important person lied to me.” Bitterness takes the resentment that you feel for that one lying man and transfers the responsibility to all men. Bitterness is what would make us distrust someone we barely know, or predetermine an outcome we cannot possibly predict. The wonderful thing about this is that this is not the only possible outcome! We actually get to choose what we do with our anger.
When I do a therapy group on anger, I typically start by asking “is anger bad?” I like to do this because people usually disagree with one another. Some will say “no” a few will say “yes.” The answer is it’s neither – anger is a normal, human emotion. We will all experience anger because that is part of who we are. It is what we decide to do with (or about) our anger that causes us problems. A mentor of mine used to tell a humorous story about anger, she would say:
If my husband tells me that he is working late, and I decide to go down to the Red Lobster with my girlfriends, and I walk in and see that he’s in there with another woman, having dinner, I am going to be angry. It’s ok to be angry. I should be angry! Now, if I go outside, and I find his car, and I take my keys and I scraaaaaatch down the side of his car, that’s not ok.
Ultimately, we get to decide how we will handle our anger. Will we allow it to control us? To effect our relationships and become a part of our daily lives, will we be tormented by our resentment? Will we allow it to turn into bitterness? Or will we take our power back and express our anger in a healthy way and move on? The choice is ours. Resentment, bitterness, they are the path to the dark side, as Yoda might say. If we let go of the coal, that’s the only way that we “win.” Because the sad truth is that the people we are resenting move on. They may not even know that we resent them! They likely do not care that we resent them so hard that we have become bitter – it doesn’t hurt THEM it hurts us. If your anger, resentment, or bitterness seem impossible to let go of; if they are related to pain so deep that you can’t remember a time when it didn’t hurt, I urge you to seek out a mental health professional. We are not made to hurt, and with resentment and bitterness we hurt no one but ourselves.