“Ugh, what is the matter with me?” You’ve just blown your top at your children again, for a relatively minor infraction. You’ve only told them a half a million times to put away their shoes instead of leaving them in the middle of the floor, but you tripped over them, almost dropped the full load of groceries you were carrying, and before you know it, you’re yelling. “I have got to start controlling my anger,” you think to yourself after apologizing to the kids yet again.
Is controlling anger issues the goal?
Anger issues can certainly be a destructive force. Consider the following wisdom from the book of Proverbs:
We have probably all been in a situation in which not controlling anger resulted in a degree of harm or consequences that were difficult to deal with. However, for many Christians, it seems the goalpost has moved from controlling anger issues to obliterating the emotion. Rather than trying to gain a better understanding of when it is appropriate to be angry or being curious about why we have such intense anger, it is tempting to squash the feeling.
A man of quick temper acts foolishly. – Proverbs 14:17Like us if you are enjoying this content.
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. – Proverbs 14:29
This often leads to temporary control over your anger, followed by a large eruption that feels out of control when you’re no longer able to hold in the force of pent-up anger. Instead of a chaotic and unpredictable cycle of masking and losing control, perhaps developing a relationship with the emotion of anger could be a more helpful approach to controlling it.
Emotions are like children
The analogy of emotions as children can be a helpful one. If you are a parent or work with children, then you will know what happens when you try to ignore a child’s whining or problematic behavior. It gets louder, more unmanageable, and more complicated. The longer an issue goes on, the more difficult it becomes to know what it is about.
Ignoring emotions works in a comparable way. To go away, emotions first must be tolerated and felt. It also helps emotions to dissipate when someone can name exactly what it is that they are feeling. The phrase “name it to tame it” is a common therapist trope, but this is because it is helpful.
Just as acknowledging a child fully often downgrades the level of problematic behavior, acknowledging your emotions for what they are instead of dismissing them can ultimately allow them to pass more quickly.
One therapeutic approach that addresses anger in this way is called Internal Family Systems, and this model assumes that all emotions and “parts” of you act the way they do for a reason. When you can identify them, listen to them, and ultimately unburden them a little bit, they become less disruptive and can integrate fully into a healthier and more whole person.
But what if it’s not really about anger issues?
One of the things that can make anger issues so tricky to deal with is that it is often what is referred to as a protective, or secondary emotion. What this means is that while you might feel angry, there also could be another emotion that is hiding beneath the anger. Anger can be easier to deal with initially than feelings of shame, grief, helplessness, guilt, or anxiety.
For example, let’s return to the initial scene of the mother tripping over the groceries and yelling at her children. While the frustration because her kids didn’t put away the shoes as asked is understandable, the reaction to this minor problem was out of proportion, which is a clue that the anger is not really about the shoes.
It might be that she already feels overwhelmed by her areas of failure as a mother, so the frustration of tripping over shoes brings up all sorts of other thoughts, “I’m not a good mom,” “I’m failing,” “my children will never learn,” “why can’t I keep my house clean!”
In this instance, the primary problem is not just the fact that she needs to not yell at her children, but that the level of internal shame and anxiety is so high that any small item is threatening to tip her over the limits of her self-control.
Rather than berate herself for not being able to control her anger, it could be more helpful to offer self-compassion and allow the over-functioning and critical voice in her head a little more room for error. She could find that when she can speak more compassionately to herself and stop yelling angry thoughts in her head, they will also be less likely to come out sideways at her children.
Grief and anxiety are some of the most common emotions lurking underneath angry outbursts. Anger is often an anxiety symptom. This doesn’t excuse us from the need to learn to control our responses so that we do not harm others. The Biblical imperative is, “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26 ESV).
What this imperative tells us is that the emotion of anger is not sinful, in itself. After all, God’s anger is mentioned many times throughout the Bible. The difference of course, between God’s anger and ours, is that God is a perfect and just God who never misdirects anger in sin. We are more than capable of missing the mark and causing harm with our anger, but it does not mean the emotion itself is sinful.
When we are angry at injustice, when we are wronged, when there are situations with real heartbreak, when we are angry at the hand life has dealt us and we process that healthily, it can lead to a deeper layer of health and trust in relationships.
Honesty in anger is an expression of trust
Dan Allender, a professor of Counseling Psychology at the Seattle School authored an essay that deals with the topic of lament. Within this he speaks to the role that anger plays:
“Anger in lament reveals the utter seriousness of the cry. Not all anger at God is good, but an anger that moves the heart to confusion, to feeling trapped between our belief in him and our movement away from him, opens the heart to redemption.”
There are things in life that justify our anger, but God does not ask us to squash those feelings under the guise of controlling our anger. Rather, He invites the fullest expression of our anger as a measure of our trust.
Allender asks us to consider, “To whom do you vocalize the most intense, irrational meaning inchoate, inarticulate anger? Would you do so with someone who could fire you or cast you out of a cherished position or relationship? Not likely. You don’t trust them – you don’t believe they would endure the depths of your disappointment and confusion…The person who hears your lament and far more bears your lament against them, paradoxically, is someone you deeply, wildly trust.”
The safety to express the fullness of all our emotions to God provides us with a place to unburden the struggling parts of ourselves, ultimately leading to an increased ability to control our anger. When we can take that anger to God, He can handle it in all its messy, raw, state, and we are not left unheard.
Christian counseling can provide a path forward in learning to deal with anger healthily. If you feel you are struggling, need more tools, or have started to realize that your anger is a symptom of other issues in your life that you could use help to untangle, we are here for you.
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