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.”
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’re 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.”
If you find that your anger is too strong to employ any of the preceding 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.
For more ways to get your anger under control, check out God Help Me, This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!