We teach our children self-control because we don’t want them to become monsters.
Anger is a feeling we all experience but it causes a different outward response in each of us. For some, anger sparks aggression and violence. It is acted out. Volume rises. Abusive language erupts. Arms and legs flail or the gas pedal goes to the floor.
There is a split second between anger and action. This is the moment of decision. For some the impulse to act a certain way has been followed so frequently that it is as though there is no space between anger and the resulting behavior. The two appear to be one and the same. But there is a fraction of time in between, when the body receives instruction from the brain. It says, “Now you do this….” It might even say, “This feeling justifies doing this….”
Anger is dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be destructive.
Unfortunately our anger not only hurts others. It often hurts us. We do things that cause injury to ourselves.
Picture a woman in a movie who has been hurt and becomes angry. What do we see? A man is likely to smash something but a woman will grab the ice cream container out of the freezer and sit down on the sofa and eat it all. This may look relatively harmless. It may even be called “soothing.” Soothing can be good. In fact, it is definitely the better alternative, as opposed to violence. But she is justifying a behavior that she will later regret, when her clothes don’t fit.
I’ve studied my response to anger and I’ve noticed something I’m not proud of. When I get angry I tend to justify behavior I might not otherwise engage in. In other words, I say to myself, “I am angry so I can do this.” What I am really saying is, “My anger is my justification for doing this. My anger makes this OK.”
This is a learned response and it is possible to un-learn it. But we often don’t want to change. It feels good to be angry. We hold onto our anger. This is where we get the expression ‘holding a grudge.’
In the story of Cain and Abel, God warned Cain when he was angry with his brother. He told him, “Sin is crouching at your door and it desires to have you.” To “have” means to “master” or “overpower” you. It connotes ownership. In other words, sin wants to “possess” and “control” us. Cain had a moment when he was still in charge. He could be angry without yielding to sin.
Our anger can be our master. It can overpower us. It can control us. But it doesn’t have to. Cain was essentially told, “At this point I am warning you and telling you that you have a choice. You can yield to this power, this ‘sin’ that wants to control you. Or you can resist it.”
Cain became angry when God accepted his brother Abel’s sacrifice, and not Cain’s, and Cain killed his brother. In one day his parents found themselves bereft of a son and face to face with his murderer, their surviving son.
Cain probably concluded that Abel was God’s favorite. He could also have looked at Abel and observed for himself what was involved in presenting a sacrifice that was acceptable to God. He could have said, “I’ll do as Abel did, since that appears to be the right thing.” Instead, he brooded and his thoughts became darker and darker. He called his brother out to the field where he killed him.
Jealousy and a sense of entitlement, or a perception of injustice, is often behind anger and violence.
Anger distorts our thinking. We get tunnel vision. We become fixated. It becomes all about us, and what we want, and about how others have wronged us, and how they have withheld things from us. Then the illogical conclusion is that we have to destroy, or at least harm the other person.
Recently my sister’s house was broken into while she was away from home. The thieves trashed her house and made off with her valuables as well as her important papers which were locked in a safe. On her recently installed security cameras she was able to see people in her house as she drove home. The police did not arrive in time to apprehend the thieves. She was outraged, and understandably so.
When are overcome by anger we can easily act irrationally. I spoke with an inmate who was serving time because he pulled a gun on motorcycle gang members who threatened his business. He shot and killed one of them.
There is plenty of injustice in the world. There are many things that trigger our anger. When we don’t see wrongs righted, or at least addressed over time, we not only become angry, we can become depressed. We can even despair.
The legal system is designed to punish and incarcerate those who commit crimes, but sometimes even the courts get it wrong. The justice system fails us. Law enforcement fails us. Life does not turn out the way we think it should.
What do we do when life does not turn out as we believe it should? When things are not fair? When we don’t see justice?
If we are wise, and in control of our anger, and resist the urge to seek revenge, we can sometimes be agents of change. Positive change can happen, but it requires vision, a plan, and perseverance over time.
I’ve been married for over thirty years and my husband and I have had our angry moments. There has not been violence, but there have been words, and some of them were very hurtful. It can be tempting to throw up one’s hands and leave. But there is a bigger picture worth considering. Over the years we have worked through a lot of things. It means coming back again and again to the same issues, with a new approach, to see if things will turn out differently this time. We’ve made progress. But progress cannot be made if there is not at least one person who is willing to put in the work and to remain consistent and committed.
The next time you are angry, pause during that split second between when your anger flares up and you react. Ask if you are hurting yourself. Ask if you are justifying your behavior. I know I do things to hurt myself. Maybe it’s eating that pint of ice cream or finishing off that bottle. Or maybe it’s saying something ugly that just came out of your mouth, but didn’t need to be said that way. Or maybe it’s something more serious.
Why are you so angry about this? Pull apart the situation and see if you can put your finger on an underlying reason. For instance, a husband might feel that his wife doesn’t respect his desire to provide for the family by limiting their spending. The wife might feel her husband does not trust her judgment in her spending, or that he is unjustly withholding things from her that she wants. Maybe they have the same goal, of being responsible with their finances, but they are not seeing each other’s dilemma and working together at solutions. Instead, their default is accusation and recrimination when they could sit down and work out a budget instead. But their personal feelings of not being appreciated are clouding their vision and causing them to react. In the process they are ruining the thing that is most precious–their relationship.
One of the most impressive things I’ve ever watched was a TED talk where a woman who received threats on social media actually contacted the perpetrators and went to their homes and talked to them. Many times the result was positive. Rather than respond in kind, she sought to build relationship.
At work I watched in amazement as a fellow employee talked down a very irate customer. This set me on a journey to learn how to understand conflict and anger management.
We will find ourselves at the receiving end of the anger of others. When in such a situation, try to remain calm, use an even tone of voice, and let the other person know you truly want to hear all they have to say and are willing to work with them to find a solution.
Anger is like smoke. It’s a warning. But it doesn’t have to turn into a raging, destructive fire if we manage it early.