Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D.
But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. James 1:19-20.
“I just lost it.” Said Aaron, 43, discussing a situation that led to his joining me in counseling.
“It had been a really rough day. My boss had been a total idiot and I couldn’t calm down the whole way home. When I got to the house, I saw my hammer on the front lawn and the sprinkler was on. Jimmy [Aaron’s 10yo son] was working on his clubhouse and left it out again. I’ve told him a million times that if he’s going to use my tools to put them back. It was just the last straw. I stormed in the house and he was right there and I just started yelling at him. His face just fell and he started to cry. I wanted to stop but I just couldn’t. My wife came in and shot me a look that let me know I’d crossed a line. I’ve rarely been more ashamed of myself. And the really scary thing is, I feel like there was nothing I could do to stop it. Later, it turned out he didn’t even do it. My wife was using the hammer to stake tomatoes. She ran into the house to answer the phone right before I pulled in the driveway.”
Righteous Anger V. Wrath or Fury
Anger is a common enough emotion. Everyone gets angry from time to time, and anger, when used prudently as a normal part of the human experience, can be understood as the gift from God that allows us to recognize and respond when we feel we have witnessed–or been the victim of–an injustice. If our anger motivates us to seek solutions, address injustices in a productive way, and heal the damage that has been done to a relationship, then that anger can be both righteous and healthy. Righteous anger doesn’t see anger as an end itself. Righteous anger stirs us out of complacency and urges us to right wrongs and seek the justice that St Augustine said was necessary for true peace to exist.
But sometimes, anger can get out of control and turn destructive. We can use our anger as a justification for lashing out at others, or we can become addicted to our anger and use it as an excuse to withdraw from the people around us. When this happens, anger turns in on itself. It does not motivate us to seek answers or right wrongs. It simply burns everything and everyone it touches. First our own sense of right and wrong is impaired and we find ourselves lashing out, blaming, and abusing those around us. Later, if left unchecked, the flames of our anger will ignite our relationships and reduce them to ashes. The catechism tells us that this kind of anger, sometimes called wrath or fury, is actually a deadly sin because it causes us to desire and even work for vengeance instead of love. As Matt 5:22 says, “Everyone who remains angry with his brother is in danger of judgment.”
Where Does Wrath Come From?
Most people don’t choose to let their anger take them over. Anger takes over because we aren’t paying attention to the early warning signs that tell us that we are losing control. As a person’s stress level increases, the body starts to flood with adrenaline and cortisol, two stress chemicals. At first, this actually helps us, because these chemicals heighten our senses and help us think more quickly, but if we’re not careful, what was helpful at lower levels becomes toxic at higher levels. If we allow these chemicals to build up, they cause physiological changes to occur that actually turn off the logical centers of our brain. When this happens, the body’s “threat response” is activated and we tend to lash out irrationally and sometimes, uncontrollably, at whatever or whomever we feel is threatening us—whether or not they really are a threat.
When a person is still in control of their anger, they tend to feel motivated to address the problem in a solution-focused way. Healthy anger motivates us to find ways to work with the people with whom we are angry to find creative ways to use our shared resources to solve the problem that caused the conflict. But as anger increases, we stop thinking of solutions to the problem and begin thinking of the other person as the problem. We tell ourselves that the “answer” to our problem is to drive away the person with whom we are angry. We start to blame and lecture them. We say things that aren’t effective, or true. and when that doesn’t work, we repeat ourselves, only louder this time. As if saying the same words with greater emphasis will someone make everything all right.
What to Do?
If you have a problem with anger, try these tips.
- Catch your early warning signs.
Stopping anger early is key to being effective. Everyone has signs that let them
know that they are approaching the point of no return. The time to take a break and calm down comes long before you start yelling at the person you are angry with. As long as the conversation is focused on working with the other person to find solutions, you are on solid ground, but the moment you start thinking of the other person as the problem, or experiencing other physiological signs of stress (rolling your eyes, “tsk-ing” and huffing and puffing, feeling the urge to pace, making disgusted sounds as the other is talking, fidgeting) it is time to take a break. All of these signs indicate that you are beginning to flood with the stress chemicals that will cause you to abandon logic and lose your cool. Once you notice yourself doing any of these actions, you probably have about 1-2 minutes to get yourself under control before you get to the point where you either become abusive or you shut down and withdraw. Catching yourself early prevents you from adopting either of these ineffective and potentially hurtful options.
- Begin with an end in mind
If you angry, before you open your mouth, take some time to pray and reflect on
the following. “What is the problem?” and “What are the one or two practical ideas I have about solving this problem.”
Righteous anger is always ordered toward solving problems, not pouring gasoline on them. You can’t help but make a bad situation worse if you begin talking before you have your own ideas about what the endpoint should be. If you don’t know how to solve the problem, then begin the discussion by admitting that and then present your ideas about where you would like to turn to get the information you need to address the problem (e.g, a particular book, prayer, your pastor, a counselor).
- Take a break
This is common enough advice, but most people don’t take breaks early enough
to be effective. Most people wait until they are screaming at each other (or want to) before they “break.” This usually means “not talking to each other for the rest of the day and then ignoring the problem that started the whole mess.” This is not a break.
Counselors recommend taking a break much earlier, at the point when you begin to think of the other person as the problem and not your partner for solving the problem. At this point, it is useful to excuse yourself to use the restroom or get a drink from the kitchen (and for bonus points, offer to get them something while your out of the room). While you are in the other room, try to remind yourself that it is your job to find ways work together with the person with whom you are struggling. Remind yourself of the purpose of the discussion and what concrete resolutions you want to achieve. Then return to the discussion and reset the focus on solutions. For instance, you could say something like, “I know we’re frustrated right now. Help me understand what you would like to be different as a result of this conversation.” Or, “Here’s what I’d like to do about this problem. What do you think?”
- Check your thoughts.
At the point that you start wondering if the person you are angry with is crazy, totally irresponsible, stupid, or out to get you, take a break, you’re too hot to be rational. Remember, the only way to solve a problem, even with a child, is to find a way to work with the other person to solve it. If you are convinced that the person you must work with to solve the problem is an idiot, you will never be able to partner with him or her effectively.
- Stop Seeing Yourself as a Victim
Wrathful anger tends to be rooted in a sense of powerlessness. When we have not done our homework and tried to come up with our own solutions to a problem before we begin talking about those problems with someone else one of two things happens. Either we can only talk about our frustration with the problem which makes us feel hopeless, or we may feel pressured to accept the other persons solutions-whether we like these solutions or not—because we haven’t brought anything to the table and, as a result, we feel resentful. In either case, the result is a feeling of powerlessness which causes us to lash out at the other person in an underhanded attempt to get them to take control over a situation we have not taken the time to figure out how to get control over.
People who deal effectively with anger refuse to see themselves as victims either of others or fate. They see themselves as responders to the challenges of life. As St Paul puts it, they know that with Christ they can be “more than conquerors.”
- Get Help.
If you find that your anger is too strong to employ any of the preceeding tips at all, or
employ them effectively. If the people in your life tell you that your anger scares them (whether or not you think it should). If your anger ever causes you to become physical in any way with the person at whom you are angry. Get help. All of these signs indicate that your anger is stronger than your ability to control it. Competent, faithful counseling can help you learn to express yourself and meet your needs in a manner that does not alienate the very people you need to work with to create solutions.
Dr. Gregory Popcak is the author of 8 books integrating Catholic teaching and counseling psychology and can be heard weeknights on his program Fully Alive! on The Catholic Channel Sirius 159. He directs a telephone counseling practice through which he works with Catholics worldwide. He invites readers to contact him at www.CatholicCounselors.com