It is one of the most common human emotions. It can spring forth from something as minor (well, maybe minor is the wrong word) as a stubbed toe and something as gut-wrenching as being rejected by your significant other. It can be as cerebral as it can be visceral. Young kids struggle to control it. All people can struggle to hide it. And it can originate as subtle as a minor annoyance and as raging as an endless tirade. We are talking about anger.
For most human beings, anger (by any other name or variation) is a common part of the human experience. Our days are fully of mishaps and misunderstandings, and even when we (I) know anger isn’t the right response (e.g., when one of my kids accidentally knocks over a full cup), it can be difficult to stem the tide.
But recently, many are feeling an increased amount of anger as the sex abuse scandal continues to unfold in the church. For various reasons, all of what has occurred seems so unfair, so unnecessary, and so contraindicated by what our Church really stands for. And yet, it is the reality we are facing, and just as the scandal doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, neither is the anger for many who find themselves personally affected by the tragedy at hand.
In light of all this, and in just our everyday challenges, it is worth considering some simple, but often neglected steps to address our anger woes. Before sharing specific strategies, though, it is important to understand that any approach should target both how we are feeling (physically, emotionally) and what we are thinking (rationally or otherwise). Failure to utilize a two-pronged approach may limit our ability to effectively harness this emotion as we would like, and use it as it is designed. As I often tell kids I see in therapy, there is nothing wrong with anger (in fact, it can be very adaptive)―it is what we do with it that matters.
So, for starters, when we feel anger surging, one of the best (and simplest things) we can do is to take a break. This might mean getting up from the computer and walking to the bathroom, or intentionally pausing a heated conversation before responding in a way that we might regret. The break is designed to both “head off” and reduce negative physical outcomes (e.g., increased blood pressure, heart rate), but also give us increased time for lucid decision-making. So often, even a few minutes (but sometimes a few days), can help us come to a clearer, and more intentional state of mind, that improves outcomes on all fronts.
Beyond taking a break, it is important to understand that there are active and “slow down” ways to attenuate anger. One of the best ways to channel anger is through physical activity. Although most of us can’t hop out of our chair during work and take off on a run (although some can), building activity into our schedule, or just taking a run or bike at the end of a frustrating day, can help us better utilize the rage or frustration we might feel while we also engage in mentally “working things out.” It should be noted, however, that despite centuries of practice, research has clearly indicated that the idea of a physical catharsis is a lie. Punching your pillow might feel good at the moment, but it is likely to only increase your anger until you utilize less aggressive and emotional techniques. Beyond active techniques, too, in some situations, “slow down” skills of deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and other strategies of mindfulness can be a great way to help calm the mind or body.
But in order to do this, a third point of focus must be employed, which involves “reframing” our thoughts. For youth, we talk about the difference between “hot vs. cool” thoughts. Hot thoughts feed the fire of anger whereas cool thoughts help reduce it. As an example, let’s take the current abuse scandal. If you find yourself thinking in absolutist, furious terms (e.g., “The whole church is just corrupt”), then it is likely you will continue to feel angrier and upset. But if you frame it in more of a realistic, objective way (e.g., “It is really disappointing at how this was handled by specific church officials”), then there is a much better chance that the anger that remains will be more functional and self-preserving. By providing this strategy, I am not suggesting a Pollyannaish approach to our feelings. But what I am saying is that if our thoughts are full of furious ideas, we can expect our body will be full of rage, too. If we think something is an “absolute disaster” or “beyond ridiculous”, we can be assured that our perceptions will guide what happens next regardless of what the reality is. Thoughts matter more than we will ever know.
Finally, after utilizing all of these particular techniques, we are left with one last serious consideration. That is, do we confront the subject of our anger, or just seek to let it go? Some situations, such as the abuse scandal, mandate that we should confront the situation in the most effective, civil, transparent way possible. This is where anger becomes most adaptive, as it is simply unacceptable to “sit by” and let others be undermined or abused. But in other situations, such as when someone “cuts you off” on the roadway, we might consider that letting it go becomes the best response, especially since we are all guilty of this indiscretion sometimes.
Most days, our home with seven young kids is full of noise and disagreements (among the many positive things that occur). I am tempted to be angry a lot, and sometimes I give into these temptations despite my best judgment. But as I am learning (slowly), there are some things that I must take on directly, and there are some things I must let go. If I don’t, I am going to be consumed by anger and frustration constantly, and my effectiveness and endurance in what I do and say will wane. This doesn’t mean I am advocating a permissive course, as I fully know that this is not an effective strategy. But it does mean that I can’t make every situation into a crisis or a confrontation, and I must learn the difference between a behavioral expectation versus a developmental goal.
Ultimately, whether it is a break, a run, a letter, or just a simple, regulated response, anger utilized in a noble way for virtuous purposes is a wonderful thing. But anger left raging out of control is wrath that seeks to destroy, including thy self.