Anna said, “Every time I lose my temper and yell at Chuck or the kids I feel like a total failure. I promise the Lord and myself that it will never happen again…but it does.”
Anna, the mother of four children, had been married to Chuck for 14 years. She was a kind and gracious woman, loved by her husband and children and respected by her friends, a cream puff. I was a bit surprised when she told me, in a very calm and soft voice, that she needed help in dealing with her anger.
She told me that she had been raised in a home with an angry father who made it clear that he was the head of the house. “I don’t mean head in the healthy and sense of the word,” she said emphatically, with a hint of bitterness in her voice. “He ran our home with an iron fist. I promised myself that when I grew up I would not be an angry person like my dad.”
So, Anna had grown up believing that being a good woman meant being a quiet, submissive, compliant, complacent and anger-free woman. Women, like children, were best seen and not heard. That’s what she was told and that’s what she saw modeled. “Mom was a kind and gentle woman and I never heard disagree with dad.” Whenever she would even get close to disagreeing, Anna’s Dad would give her mom “the look” and everyone knew what that meant.
Anna had met Chuck at college. They dated for two years and were married in his senior year. They had their first child 10 months after their wedding, and in the next four years they had three more children. Due to the birth of their first child, Anna wasn’t able to complete her college education.
After Chuck’s graduation he went on for his law degree and joined a large law firm. For the first several years he worked long hours, and the family life centered around his schedule and his needs. “After being with the kids all day long, it didn’t seem fair that I was always the one who got up with them at night and always the one who changed their diapers,” Anna told me. “Yet I felt guilty for feeling that way and never said anything to Chuck.”
It wasn’t that Chuck was a selfish or bad husband or that Anna didn’t thoroughly enjoy and value being a stay-at-home mom. In fact just the opposite was true. The problem was that they had both come from homes that were ruled by the “don’t think,” “don’t talk” and “don’t feel” rules, where the ideas, opinions and needs of the woman were clearly inferior to those of the men.
“At first I never expressed my needs to Chuck,” Anna said, “because I don’t think that I was even aware of them.” As she started to become aware of them, she tried to ignore them. When she could no longer ignore them she worked hard at spiritualizing them. “I really believed that if I was sincere enough and prayed hard enough, the hurts and frustrations wouldn’t bother me anymore.” Her problem wasn’t that she prayed, which was one of the healthiest things she had done. Her problem wasn’t that she stopped there and didn’t put feet to her prayers.
“By the time I realized that I could no longer run away from my feelings, it was almost too late.” Anna and Chuck had become stuck in a relational rut and were well on their way to becoming married singles. Her health had gradually been getting worse and her doctors couldn’t find any physical causes for her problems. Toward the end of our work together Anna remarked, “Looking back, now it’s clear to me that my loving heavenly Father used my marital and physical problems to get my attention.”
I’d like to share with you some of the specific and practical steps to transform the role of anger in your life. Anna learned that in order to change deep-seated anger patterns she needed to take some specific steps at three different times: (1) before she got angry, (2) while she was angry and (3) after she had been angry.
Before You Get Angry
The best time to deal with anger is before you get angry. Why? Because we need to learn how to seize opportunities to deal with discouraging, frustrating and painful situations before we reach the boiling point.
When you plan ahead, your perspective is less likely to be clouded by the intensity of your anger. If you wait until you are angry to try to understand and deal with the emotion, it is too late. Here are five important questions to ask yourself before you become aware of the fact that you are experiencing anger.
Is My Anger a Problem?
Just because you get angry once in awhile doesn’t mean that you have an anger problem. Anger is an emotion that is a normal part of everyday life. Anger only becomes a problem when we don’t understand how to allow it to serve its intended function, and when we deny, suppress, repress, deny, stuff and ignore it. It becomes a problem when we allow ourselves to remain puppets of past patterns. It becomes a problem when we don’t let it warn us before we’re taken advantage of or even victimized. Anger definitely becomes a problem when it gets out of control and moves into destructive emotions such as hostility, rage and aggression. In other words, anger is a problem when we haven’t learned to express it in healthy and constructive ways.
What Are Some Indicators That I Might Be Angry?
Anger can come packaged in many different shapes and sizes. It can hide behind many different masks. Due to its negative reputation and people’s tendency to deny it, anger could receive the award as the “Most Likely to Be Mislabeled” emotion.
This tendency is especially applicable to those with the cream puff anger style. In chapter 5 of my book A Woman’s Forbidden Emotion is a list of different emotions that are really masks for anger. I encouraged her to make a copy of the word list and for a two-week period, I asked Anna to put a check by each word that described what she was experiencing.
Anna found that for many years her anger had been disguised by terms such as “aggravated,” “annoyed,” “cranky,” “exasperated,” “grumpy,” “out-of-sorts” and “touchy.” This simple exercise showed her that whenever she experienced any of these feelings, she should recognize disguised anger.
When Am I Most Likely to Be Angry?
For two weeks Anna kept an Anger Log (discussed in chapter 6). By faithfully using this simple tool she, for the first time, realized that there were certain times and situations that increased the likelihood that she would experience anger.
Anna discovered that she was most vulnerable during a two-hour period before and after preparing the evening meal, on Sunday mornings while trying to get the entire family ready for church on time, when Chuck would come home late without telling her, and when anyone in the family would not follow through on something she was counting on them doing.
By identifying these “danger zones” Anna could decrease the control of these situations over her emotional response. If this is the only suggestion you take, I think that you will be surprised at how helpful it will be.
What’s My Anger Pattern?
For many of us anger starts as a negative feeling toward something or someone. At the outset we need to learn how to take hold of that feeling and take the emotion of anger captive.
Understanding your primary anger style points you in a healthy direction. Besides your anger style, it’s also important to identify what your personal indicators are that you are getting angry. Sometimes we are the last one to know when we’re angry. I have a friend whose dog knew he was angry before he did. When Allen would speak in a certain tone of voice his sheltie would put her head down and slink off into another room.
How do you know when you are getting angry? How do your children or your spouse know when you are getting angry? How do your friends know? Do you speak with a louder voice? Do you talk faster? Does your face get red or do you pupils get larger? Do you start to perspire? Do you have a churning sensation in your stomach? Do you feel like you want to throw or hit something? Do you want to run and hide? Does your body get tense? Does your pulse increase? Is it more difficult for you to concentrate? Do you become increasingly preoccupied with what is making you angry?
We can learn how to be more effective in the future by better understanding the mistakes we have made in the past. Mistakes can be one of our greatest teachers, and since we’ve already made them and paid for them, there is no additional emotional cost for them. But it can cost us a lot not to!
What Are the Benefits of Dealing with My Anger?
At this point it may be tempting to say to yourself, Working on this anger stuff is a lot more work than I had anticipated. Is it really worth it? Many people have found that one of the most helpful ways to answer that question is to remind themselves of the benefits of understanding and learning how to appropriately express their anger.
Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (NIV). It is easy for a bitter root to grow up in our lives. Some people think they are doing the right thing by not dealing with or dwelling on the past, but there is a big difference between not dealing with the past and not dwelling on it.
When You Get Angry
As soon as you become aware of the fact that you are experiencing anger, you can ask five simple questions to help make this emotion work for you rather than against you.
Am I Willing to Acknowledge the Fact That I Am Angry?
This sounds so simple, but for many people it is easier said than done. Anna could easily say that she was aggravated, annoyed, cranky, exasperated, grumpy, out-of-sorts or touchy, but she hadn’t been able to acknowledge that she was angry. “It’s much more comfortable and acceptable for me to say I’m annoyed or grumpy than to say that I’m angry.”
It rarely helps to “try hard” to stop being angry. What does help is to acknowledge that you are angry, identify the root causes and redirect the energy away from attaching a person to attacking the problem.
Have I Put First Things First?
When dealing with emotional issues, it’s tempting to find out what technique or gimmick someone else used and rush off to try, often in our own strength, to do the same thing. That’s not going to work.
When I say “Put first things first,” I mean that you should take it to the Lord in prayer. He created you and redeemed you and gave you His Spirit to help you do everything in His strength. Instead of turning on your husband or you children, turn your eyes on Jesus. Focus on what you do have, on your many blessings, on God’s faithfulness and His many promises to you.
In Psalm 68:8, David wrote, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us” (NASB). Go ahead; pour out your heart to God. Tell Him how you feel. Ask for His help and His guidance. It’s foolish to try to do this in your own strength.
What Are the Causes?
Notice that I said causes, plural. Anger rarely has only one cause; it usually results from a combination of factors. Remember that anger is almost always a secondary emotion. It may indicate that something is wrong with the decisions I am making or in the way I am allowing other to treat me.
When considering the possible causes of the anger it’s important for us to rule out two categories of causes. First, we must make sure that our anger is not due to selfishness. That’s right! We are born selfish. We want what we want, and we want it when we want it. When we don’t always get our way, we aren’t treated the way we think we should be, when we see others who get something we think we deserve, it is easy to get angry. If your anger is due to selfishness, identify it, confess it, and seek forgiveness.
The second cause that is important for us to rule out is that of oversensitivity. If we allow ourselves to become oversensitive, anger can easily sound a false alarm. One of my good friends recently built a new home and had an alarm system installed. The first week they lived in the house, there were 11 false alarms. My friend finally discovered that the sensitivity levels of the alarm system were set too high. If our sensitivity levels are set too high, we can take offense when none is intended. We can look for slights when they aren’t really there. We can assume the worst when it may not be true.
After you’ve ruled out selfishness or oversensitivity, you are ready to learn how to identify the causes of you anger. At the beginning Anna found this to be a difficult step. It’s not always easy to discern what might be causing your anger. However over time and with some faithful observation, record keeping and utilization of her Anger Log, Anna discovered that the primary sources of her anger were frustrations that she failed to deal with when they arose. “I kept on telling myself ‘It’s not that important!’ when obviously it was.” In addition to identifying some specific causes for her anger, Anna also uncovered factors that increased her general vulnerability to frustration. These included physical exhaustion, especially the kind that resulted from high levels of stress. Another factor was the perfectionist demands she place on herself and others. She had been raised with the “enough is never enough” philosophy and so performance always fell short of expectations. One final factor that Anna identified related to basic gender issues. Anna stated, “I’m not a feminist, but at the same time it’s frustrating to be treated as inferior, not very bright, an airhead or like a slave simply because I am a woman.”
Your situation will be much different from Anna’s. But the steps that she used to help change her dysfunctional anger patterns can also be effective for you.
What Is the Healthiest Way for Me to Respond?
You are aware of the fact that you are angry, you have committed your situation to the Lord and you have identified at least a couple of the causes of your anger.
Now you must determine if there is anything that you can do. There are three kinds of situations in life: (1) situations I can control or change; (2) situations that I can influence; and (3) situations that I can do nothing about.
Don’t increase your frustration (and thus your anger) by trying to change situations you can do nothing about. If your cause falls under this category, your only choice is to continue to give it to the Lord in prayer and turn your attention to things you can change or influence.
If it is a situation you can change or influence, get out a sheet of paper and make a list of your options. Don’t worry about how practical your ideas are; just fill the sheet with as many constructive alternatives as you can think of. This may go slowly the first two or three times, but once you get the hang of it you may be surprised at how creative you can be.
If you’ve decided that a response is appropriate, determine whom you need to talk to, when to talk to them, how you can communicate in a way they are most likely to receive favorably and how long a time frame you have.
A good rule of thumb is to deal with a problem as soon as you become aware of it and have had time to choose how you can best express your feelings. Anger can vary in its intensity. If you are experiencing a mild anger, you can usually deal with the situation on the spot.
However, if the intensity of your anger is moderate to strong, it is usually wise to wait until you’ve taken time to think and pray it through. In Proverbs 16:32 we read, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty” (NASB). Why? Because the power and energy can be focused and directed.
It is always best to express your anger at the source of your hurt. If you have bought into the myth that anger always destroys relationships, that may be difficult for you to do. The only way to pull the teeth out of that lion of fear is to do it. Challenge the miss belief. Risk speaking the truth in love.
Above all, choose to nurture a spirit of forgiveness. At some point we must choose to let go. I’ve worked with people who seemed to relish dwelling on the cause of their anger. But it’s not enough to think forgiveness. Go to him or her and say “I’m angry and I’d like to tell you why because our relationship is important to me.” If the other person isn’t available or won’t listen, write a letter stating and clarifying your feelings.
Now That I’ve Decided What to Do, Where Do I Begin?
Once you have decided that you need to communicate your anger and you have decided on a healthy way to express it, the next, and for many the most difficult, step is actually doing it. It helps to take the first step with someone you can trust. Anna decided that, while she experienced anger with a number of people, the best and safest person to begin to develop her new skills with was her husband Chuck. I would encourage you to find someone you can trust and start with her or him.
A few days after communicating her anger about a time he came home late, Anna went back to him. She reconfirmed her commitment to him to develop an increasingly healthy relationship. This helped both of the. It said, “Regardless of the surface struggles, you are important to me. My love and appreciation for you make the relationship worth working on, fighting for—and fighting about.”
After You Get Angry
Whether or not you successfully navigated those emotional rapids, you’re not quite finished yet.
What have I learned from this experience? You must ask yourself this important question to complete the learning process. Discover all you can from your experience. Ask yourself these questions: What went well? What was different from usual? Were there any positive surprises? What could you have done differently? How were you able to see God’s faithfulness?
Excerpts used with permission from the book, A Woman’s Forbidden Emotion by Dr. Gary Oliver and H Norman Wright.