Feeling The Pain.
In my last post (Anger(1)) I argued that anger has a vital role to play in the life of a flourishing human being. But unless I want anger to become the equivalent of those salads you get with every Indian takeaway – good for nothing except making you feel guilty for ignoring it – I need to give some indication of how anger can be managed without it becoming the destructive force we fear it to be.
My starting point for this is to suggest that we need to become aware of the ways we might use anger that are actually working against and not for us. As with all difficult emotions our initial response can be to try and get away from our anger, and the first two responses to anger I mention below are ways some of us use to do this. The next three responses are also unproductive, and therefore ways in which we fail to respect either the anger we feel or the relationship within which that anger has been provoked.
- Denial. We can escape the discomfort of feeling angry by refusing to admit to ourselves that anything has happened that warrants anger. The pressure many Christians feel to be nice rather than authentic means that denial is a very popular response to anger in our churches. It also means that churches tend to put up with all kinds of wrong behaviour and injustices and that there are many Christians suffering the effects of repressed anger.
- Lashing out. This has nothing to do with a need for justice, but everything to do with us wanting to get away from an uncomfortable feeling we have never learned to manage.
- Passive aggression. If you think I’m going to tell you what this is, then think again!
- Displacement. If, for some reason, we feel or we think that we can’t express our anger towards the person who has wronged us (e.g. our boss), then we might unthinkingly take it out on someone or something else (e.g. the cat).
- Storing up. Think of this in terms of a coffee shop loyalty card. Each time you buy a coffee your card gets stamped and when you’ve accumulated enough stamps you get to cash in all the stamps for a free cup of coffee – usually the most expensive type the shop offers, in a huge mug with various syrups, whipped cream and possibly a flake on top. In a similar way when someone does something that hurts us, rather than expressing how we feel we may put another little stamp on our anger loyalty card. We keep doing this until one day the card is just too full for us to fit another stamp on it and so we cash them all at once. We use them all up on a single outburst of anger-with-all-the-extras. As a result the person we’re angry with thinks we’ve completely lost it and we end up feeling really bad for having overreacted.
None of this means that we should be scared of feeling or expressing anger. After all, our anger is telling us that something is wrong and is providing us with the motivation to bring about necessary change. So how can we turn this uncomfortable feeling into productive and transformative action? Let me suggest a series of steps that can help us achieve this. I make no claims for the following system other than that it has been helpful to me.
- Accepting. This, of course, is the opposite of denial. It requires us to accept that we are angry. Bizarre though this sounds our habit of escaping our anger through denial can be so deeply rooted that this can be a hugely difficult task.
- Allowing. Feeling anger can be a threatening experience for us, often because we learned as children to associate it with being punished by our parents. For this reason some of us may find it helpful to have someone who will witness our anger with understanding and acceptance so that we can allow ourselves to feel our anger in their presence. Their acceptance of our anger can begin to erode the sense we have that these feelings are wrong or dangerous.
- Identifying. Not all anger is derived from the here-and-now. Displacement is an example of an experience of anger that actually belongs to a different time and space. There are others. For example we can be angry as adults because of wrongs inflicted on us when we were children and which we have never been allowed or able to process. We keep looking for a satisfaction for our anger in the present even though none will come because the event we are angry about belongs to the distant past. Having allowed our anger it is therefore also important for us to identify from where and when it comes.
- Understanding. What am I angry about? Is something in the here-and-now reminding me of an incident in the past over which I’ve never been allowed to express my ager, if so, what? What is my anger telling me is wrong with the here-and-now situation? It may be of course, that what is wrong with the situation is our behaviour or attitude, in which case our anger may be with ourselves (i.e. guilt). Understanding our anger means that we analyse the situation that gave rise to it to figure out what it is our anger is telling us needs to change.
- Deciding. What shall I do to bring about the change needed? This final step contains a world of possible actions, none of which can be prescribed as every situation we face is unique, even as the people embroiled in that situation are unique. Very often, however, whatever the course of action we decide on, it will require courage. Most of the options available to us will contain the risk of conflict, which for most, is a scary prospect. It is very common therefore, for our anger to run up against the buffers at this final step. But courage, like every other virtue, can be nurtured. I suggest that if we want to make the difference to our world that being created in the image of God implies that we can, then the nurturing of the courage necessary to act wisely in response to anger is a must.
But what if there are no options available for us? What if it looks like we can’t do anything to bring about the change our anger is demanding? I believe that anger can still be put to good use even then, but I’ll leave that for my next post.