A new Jeep Grand Cherokee sits in my garage. When I walk by, I admire its appearance. I have a weird thing with the exterior of cars: I love it when they’re shiny and new, unblemished and perfect.
I recently bought this car after trading in my silver Xterra. I loved that car so much that it was my ride for the last 7 years. The car represented me well. Noticeable, but not imposing. Powerful, but not overwhelming. Always immaculate on the outside, but ridiculously un-organized and dirty on the interior. (If you’ve seen my office, it all makes sense.)
I’d wanted to get rid of the car for the last 3 years, but I couldn’t despite having the type of flaw that would always catch my eye.
My old car hid a scar.
Like most damaging aspects of life, the mark on the car wasn’t noticeable to most. But if you knew what to look for—or even knew you were looking for damage—the problem had spotlights beaming on it.
And no matter how hard I tried to look away, it was like a car wreck—literally. My eyes drawn to the fist-sized indentation right below the passenger-side handle. And every time I saw the damage, it tugged at my emotional catheter. The dent was a memory, an enemy, and my friend all in one. And because of that, I held on to the car, at least until I was ready to remove the dent.
About 3 years ago, right after I moved to California I was in a huge argument with my wife. We were in an empty parking lot with both of our cars. I can’t remember why, but we both drove separately and it was now time to go home.
I couldn’t tell you what the argument was about. I have no idea. In long-term relationships most fights are about nothing; stupid bickering that tends to start from miscommunication, misunderstanding, or the fact that sometimes everything my wife says sounds like French…and I don’t speak French.
But here’s the thing, I rarely get upset and hardly show a temper. When I was young, I’d have outbursts and break pencils. That was my thing. I’d snap pencils in half. I’m pretty sure my mom was terrified I had some sort of anger issues that would only show up if I had a pencil in my hand or a tennis racket. Because I would throw those John McEnroe style. Call it teen pre-teen angst.
But as I grew older, I settled into a calmness and happiness that I’d wish for all. I don’t get angry, and I hardly ever stress. My resting heart rate is 36 beats per minute. That’s not a typo. My heart beats 36 times more than a dead person, as my doctor loves to joke.
But on this day, I was fired up. All I know is that it wasn’t this argument that had me heated. It was other arguments. Unresolved baggage that was begging to bust open and spill my clothes all over the terminal in the most ugly of fashions.
My wife was in her car talking through the window, and I was just standing in the lot like some idiot. The little angel that appears on my shoulder was saying, “Walk to your car. Walk to your car.” Instead, I exploded. The childish version of myself made a cameo, only I didn’t have a pencil to break or a tennis racket to hurl.
So I walked away from my wife and turned toward the only object that made sense: My pristine silver Xterra, with it’s smooth siding looking more punching bag that protective layering. I loaded my back foot just like my grandfather (a former Golden Gloves boxer) taught me, and hurtled every pound of pressure towards the passenger side door in an anger-releasing punch.
I honestly don’t remember what happened after that. Probably more yelling and then each of us driving home in our cars.
I remember driving home and then jumping into my wife’s car in the garage and apologizing. The short ride home gave me clarity and returned me to my normal non-Hulk-like manner.
I hugged my wife, exited the car and then walked towards the door. But on the way, I had to walk by the passenger side of my car. And there is was.
The shiny perfect siding was no more. I made my car pay and it showed.
As we walked upstairs I joked with my wife about how—while very childish—the dent was pretty impressive. I thought, “Wow, I punched a hole in my car.” Little did I know how much one dent could change everything.
Anger: The Unsuspecting Toxin
The way our garage was set up, I had to walk by the passenger side of my car every day. And each time I did I saw the dent and it weighed on me more and more.
I went from thinking, “I did that!” to “I did that?”
At first I was upset with my outburst and lack of control. Both a manifestation of what happened.
The real problem wasn’t so much my reaction (which was uncharacteristic) but more what caused the outburst: me holding on to anger.
And in the most awakening of ways, the dent showed me exactly what happens when you hold on to anger. It causes damage. And sometimes that damage is permanent.
It doesn’t take a dent in a car—which is clearly visible—to see the imprints of anger all over your life.
You can disrespect people and treat them inappropriately.
You can turn inwards and not take care of yourself.
You can even hurt the people you love most in life.
Do you have reasons to be upset, hurt, or in a bad mood? Always.
But nothing good will ever come out of holding on to anger and either turning it inwards or outwards.
Anger is poison. It will bruise your heart in the same fashion that I dented my car. And as much as you want to turn away, those marks stay and last.
Be Angry, Don’t Stay Angry
I held on to my car to the bitter end because I wanted a reminder to let go of anger. It helped me change and be happier. Even though I rarely was upset, I did hold on. Now I let go.
Which is exactly why I had to get rid of the car.
I talk all the time with my online clients who struggle with health and fitness about how we beat ourselves up for past failures. We are all our harshest critics. At times it’s good because it propels us forward. But there’s a line we cross where self-criticism becomes harmful. We don’t allow ourselves to see a better version because the prior mistakes cast a permanent shadow. Sometimes it progresses to the point where we are incapable of seeing our own success, but always dwell and magnify failure.
In letting go of the car I was not only acknowledging that I didn’t need the reminder, I was also accepting that I could change and didn’t need to be defined by any prior experience.
It doesn’t matter if it’s anger, weight loss, or success at your job. Letting go of our own self-hate is essential to reaching the ceilings of our potential.
Anger is a part of life. It’s easy to say, “Never let anything piss you off.” It’s also unrealistic.
When those moments of anger happen, you have to find a way to let it go. It’s ok to let go of anger, to forgive, let kindness into your heart, and not be mad.
We have far too many angry people who never realize how much their anger is holding them back, or never comprehend that the reason they don’t enjoy life as much as they should is that they are holding on to the toxic emotion.
When you keep that poison in your body there are only two choices: It will hurt you or it will hurt others. (Just ask my car.)
If you want to control your anger, you need to understand that there are certain things in life you can control and many more that you cannot.
Let go of all the things you can’t control. It’s a battle you’ll never win.
This is not about anger. That’s a reaction. Like a doctor hitting the sweet spot on your knee. It’s a reflex.
Every time something triggers your anger, ask yourself if it’s something you can control. If it’s beyond your control, you must find a way to let it go.
The first goal is to allow fewer things to bother you. Then start fighting fewer battles. And finally learn how to let it go.
When you fight, don’t be driven by anger. Instead, focus on recreating control and stability.
Eliminate the Dents: The Road To Happiness
Anger can be used for good. If you failed at your job, you can use anger to identify your weaknesses or errors and become better. If you let down a friend, let anger make you a better person.
But even then, don’t hold on to the anger. Let it be a catalyst to promote change, and then allow the positive emotions (becoming better, helping more) be what pushes you forward.
You don’t need to buy a new car to start fresh. But you do need to acknowledge that at every point in life, the punches we deliver will always be blows we take on ourselves.
Instead, take the fight elsewhere. Fewer punches. Fewer Dents. Then everything looks shiny and smooth. Just the way I like it.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.