5 min read

What Peter Attia Taught Me about Anger Management

My wife had never snowboarded in her life, and last season I took on the challenge of teaching her. The fifth day we went, she was ready to get off the green trails (easiest) and move on to the blues (intermediate). We had just successfully gone down Powder Puff many times without falling. It was time to go down Easy Rider. We pulled up to the edge and I put my most positive face on. “Not bad, right? Take your time, take wide turns, stop whenever you want.”

“I’m not going down that.”

I was worried this was going to happen. “It’s not that steep, you’re crushing it, this is the next step up.”


I could feel the anger start to build inside me. She didn’t even want to try? She was ready. She was ready two hours ago. She was using all the techniques I taught her, she was carving down a trail literally called Powder Puff with perfect edging all morning. I knew she could handle the next level, why wouldn’t she trust me and just do it?!?

“It’s way too steep!”

I always control my anger. On the outside. I don’t scream or yell or raise my voice or destroy things. But on the inside, I’m not thinking clearly. I’m justifying, rationalizing, arguing internally. The way I keep it from getting out is by disengaging. Thinking to myself, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Nodding and smiling. Thinking, “I’m never going to talk to this person again.” When I get angry with people I know, it’s harder. I can’t abandon this relationship. But my iron grip on my physical state wars against my need to show I’m right. The compromise is an impatient, icy diatribe of my argument. Step by step, conclusion by conclusion, not letting in a word, words chosen for their sharpness, until my anger clears and I’m stuck supporting a position that I haven’t fully thought through. Or until the other person has no interest in hearing what I have to say. Or both.

I thought this was a success. I wasn’t harming anyone. I told my perspective. If other people didn’t get it, that was their problem, right? I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a healthy way to deal with anger until I heard Peter Attia speak about anger management on his podcast. Peter Attia is a polymath who shares his interests on his blog and podcast. His interests range from longevity to open-water swimming.

His podcasts on anger caught my attention.

He speaks about how he had trouble controlling his temper and about the consequences. He spoke about techniques and solutions he had tried. He only had success by fully exploring his anger.

Causes of Anger

At its root, anger is a reaction to the shame derived from both helplessness and grandiosity (the unrealistic sense of superiority). In Peter’s podcast with the family therapist Terry Real, he tells a story of his anger when a food delivery came late and he wasn't able to make dinner on time. He felt shame because he felt he couldn't provide for his family and needed to overcome the shame with anger at the delivery person. Terry gives an example of grandiosity when he relates an episode of road rage. Another driver cut him off and he expressed his anger by needing to show that he was a better driver. A feeling of inadequacy driven by helplessness or grandiosity creates shame. Anger is the reaction to the shame. [1]

Effects of Anger

Anger doesn’t just cause shame in yourself, it affects your relationships. People look at you differently. They change the way they act around you, confide in you. Peter and Ryan Holiday, the author and Stoicism advocate, discuss how anger always results in negative consequences. There’s always regret and shame afterwards. The problem isn’t solved and then you have to deal with all the negative consequences. [2]

Countering Anger with Meditation

Peter tells Sam Harris, the author/philosopher, how he learned to apply meditation and mindfulness into anger management. He discovered that the practice of meditation doesn't prevent you from being angry, it helps you recognize the state of anger faster. The practice is to notice the anger as soon as possible, NOT to never be angry. [3]

The Stoic Response to Anger

Anger has existed as long as humans have existed. Ryan explains to Peter how the Stoics struggled with anger 2,300 years ago. Contrary to popular opinion, the Stoics were not calm, unfeeling robots.

Ryan says, "if they were perfect, they wouldn't have talked about anger so much. I think they're talking about anger because it's a perpetual problem in their life."

According to Ryan, the Stoics did not believe that anger was a solution. The problems that caused the most anger needed the most discipline and clear thinking to solve. They believed that not having anger doesn’t emasculate you. You don’t need anger as motivation, you can still act without it. Not having anger simply means that anger doesn’t control you. [4]

Reflections on Anger
What does anger actually do for you? Peter can’t recall a situation that anger actually improved.

Peter used his curiosity to understand where his anger came from. He used his curiosity to explore different methods to think about anger. He found out what anger actually is. Peter came to understand why anger is such a presence in our lives:

“Anger is actually kind of an interesting emotion because in the short run, it is actually quite anesthetizing. It overcomes a lot of the inadequacy that underpins it. Inside, there's a hollowness. I think there's a void that needs to be filled. There's a grandiosity that stands in the place of a true inner strength, the anger kind of fills that void and numbs that pain in the short run, but it's immediately followed by quite a bit of shame.” [5]

Most people think anger must be controlled. Or they think that they can find a switch and not be angry. Peter discovered that instead you need to recognize and understand your anger.

If you get angry at someone for being incompetent, will that stop them from being incompetent? If you get angry at someone for being a sociopath, will that stop them from being sociopath? [6]

Motivated by Peter’s example, I went on a journey of self-reflection and self-exploration. I had covered up a lot of shame with anger. I was afraid to be vulnerable, to show any weakness. My relationships were kept at a distance. I pampered myself with grandiosity. Anger was my cover. Through meditation and some principles from Stoicism, I became more aware of the feelings of helplessness and grandiosity that fed my anger. And I’m learning empathy and self-compassion. Without going deep, without gaining as much understanding as possible, I would not have come to these realizations.

The impatience spawned by my anger also inhibits my curiosity. When I’m angry, I’m only looking through my own lens. I’m impatient because I’m trapped in my own perspective and I’m frustrated by my inability to convince (helplessness and grandiosity!). I realized one way to break out of this is to be more curious about the other person. Why are they thinking that way? What led them to that perspective? What is their actual view?

Back to the top of the mountain. I saw my anger. My vision narrowed and all I could see was an immovable object. How could I be a great teacher if I couldn’t even get her to try? I couldn’t control the anger, but I recognized it. I reminded myself this wasn’t about me. The goal was for her to learn snowboarding, not for me to persuade her to go down. Ironically we were at the same mountain where I learned how to ski when I was a kid. Even more ironically, I had refused to go down the same trail thirty years ago. My dad had to eventually ski down with me between his legs. The anger faded as I realized this.

I waited.

I asked her what she was scared of. We got through it. She went down, flawlessly.

What did I learn? The space to recognize the anger, the empathy to be open to her feelings. Understanding that the anger came from the frustration of “knowing” a solution but being unable to implement it. The curiosity to find another way. These lessons came in handy the rest of the season. And by the end of the season she was cruising down black diamonds (the hardest trails).

  1. Terry Real - EP119 ↩︎

  2. Ryan Holiday - EP90 ↩︎

  3. Sam Harris - EP34 ↩︎

  4. Ryan Holiday - EP90 ↩︎

  5. Robert Abbott - EP142 ↩︎

  6. Ryan Holiday - EP90 ↩︎