Anger: name it and tame it?

My pastor read a ghost story to us, an excerpt from The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. There was a red lizard on the ghost’s shoulder that kept whispering things in his ear. He was embarrassed by it. An angel offered to make the lizard be quiet by killing it. The ghost was reluctant to let the angel kill the lizard even though it tormented him; he was afraid that he would be killed too. When the ghost finally accepted the angel’s help, he and the lizard were transformed.

My pastor shared the lizard story because we are studying the book of Ephesians. In Ephesians 4, Paul told the believers that they must no longer live as the Gentiles. “Put off falsehood and speak truthfully.” “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Get rid of that thing that is controlling you. Ask God to help you resist whatever temptations you are facing.

Years ago, I read a book called Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts, by Michael Mangis. Anger is one of my signature sins – the red lizard on my shoulder. Fortunately, it doesn’t whisper in my ear everyday but I struggle to tame it when it raises its ugly head.

In Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It, Michaeleen Doucleff explains that if you are able to distinguish specific kinds of anger, it will help you regulate your emotions. This is known as “emotional granularity” or emotion differentiation. If you differentiate between the many variations of anger, you will better understand what is causing the emotion and how to handle it in a more constructive way.

Doucleff named three variations of anger that she struggles with: hurry-up anger (directed a people who are too slow), illogical anger (directed at people who are illogical), and disonophous anger (a made-up word for anger caused by noise). I can relate to Doucleff’s hurry-up anger but I sometimes think of it as “get out of my way” anger.

I have a few names for the kinds of anger I struggle with:

Overwhelmed Anger. This is one of my most challenging kinds of anger because it is stress-induced. If I am being pulled in too many directions, I feel overwhelmed. If there are too many things on my plate, I can’t even think straight. My anger stems from feeling stressed and out of control. And if I am feeling overwhelmed, I am less patient with other people. To get rid of this kind of anger, I know that I need to ask for help or to say no more often.

Interference Anger: This anger is directed at people who interfere with my ability to get something done or to accomplish my goals. For example, I get angry with my manager when he waits until the last minute to review my reports. He keeps me from completing my work early so I end up being stressed out as deadlines approach. I realize that my priorities are not my manager’s priorities. I have learned that he doesn’t have great time management skills so I have to manage upward.

Interruption Anger: This is another form of work-related anger. When I am really concentrating and focusing on the task at hand and someone interrupts me, I can get annoyed because the interruption messes up my train of thought. I have to anticipate that there will be interruptions and that unexpected things will happen.

Righteous Indignation: This anger is directed at people who are dishonest, immoral, greedy, selfish, unjust, unmerciful, etc. While I don’t want to be and should not be indifferent to immorality and injustice, my anger at evil does not always produce the kind of righteousness God wants. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr wrote, “most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image…”

Michael Mangis says that “we are justified at being angry only at the evil that also angers God.” It’s very easy for righteous indignation to turn into self-righteous indignation. Our reasons for being angry are rarely pure and unselfish. Getting rid of righteous indignation requires humility. I have to admit my own sinfulness and accept the fact that I can’t fix people and I can’t eradicate evil.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

James 1:19 (NIV)

In writing about anger, Mangis said that it cannot be safely tamed. He quoted St. John Cassian who described anger as a deadly poison that must be completely rooted out of your inmost being. Anger can be extremely destructive. As long as anger remains in our hearts, it prevents us from seeing clearly. It impairs our judgment.

I don’t know that you can really tame your anger by naming it but I think it is beneficial to understand the causes and the underlying emotions. In a blog post on Psychology Today, Leon Seltzer, Ph.D., says that “anger is, unquestionably, the most moralistic of emotions.” We think our anger is justified if someone wronged us. A variety of other emotions underlie anger such as feeling disrespected, powerless, humiliated, etc.

Anger is most accurately understood as a potent psychological defense against a variety of more distressing emotions that underlie it.

Leon Seltzer, Ph.D.

There are all sorts of corrective actions you can take when you feel yourself getting angry. If you know your emotional triggers, you can anticipate the behaviors that provoke you to anger and become less reactive. You can try to see things from the other person’s point of view. You can become more assertive. You can try to see the humor in the situation.

The truth is, I have struggled with anger for years even though I know what triggers it, even though I can take my anger temperature, even though I’ve got emotional granularity. I would love to get rid of it once and for all. So maybe the next time the little red lizard of anger whispers in my ear, instead of trying to fix myself, I will just say, God, please kill it.

*****

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

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