Fr John McKinnon...
Responding to Anger
Since anger is an inevitable reaction to the experiences of life, it is important to examine what we do with it, i.e. how we act in the light of it. As I see it, there are five possible responses: we can integrate, express, repress, suppress or sublimate it.
In general to integrate is to situate a part within the broader whole. Integrating our anger means to let it consciously be part of ourselves. This supposes that we first recognize our anger. That in its turn means that we have previously allowed ourselves to feel the hurt that has generated it, without denying it or deceiving ourselves into believing that we are not hurting (when in truth we may possibly be hurting very much).
Integration also means that we own our anger. This involves that we admit to ourselves that we are feeling angry, without making any deliberate effort to censure it or to say that we should not. It also means that we own responsibility for our own feelings and see them as originating in ourselves and not as the result of the actions of others. (Others may provide the occasion, not the cause, of our feelings).
We give ourselves the right and the permission to feel our anger. We appreciate it and are even thankful for it, because its presence indicates that we are alive and reacting normally. To act angrily may or may not be unreasonable, but to feel angry is a fact that is neither reasonable nor unreasonable. It has an existence of its own independently of shoulds, musts etc.. We let ourselves feel it for as long as it is there, neither pushing it away nor using it as a means to win pity from ourselves or others.
We then choose how to act: whether to express it directly or not. In either case we live with it until the energy invested in it has dissipated. And that is what eventually happens. In time, provided it is not repressed or suppressed, the anger loses its energy and goes - unless its cause is continual, in which case the anger also persists. But then its energy can be drawn on and expressed constructively, or diverted into some other constructive enterprise. This can be a painful time.
Jesus may have found much of the energy he needed to endure the crucifixion and to remain present to the suffering in all its depth from the anger that he felt and owned, but sublimated, and chose not to direct aggressively towards the chief priests and those who jeered at him.
In the meantime the energy of the anger can be felt quite powerfully. It can persistently keep pushing a variety of ideas and images into our minds, even when we do not want them. We can find ourselves thinking a thousand times of what we could have said or might still say, what we should have done or would like to do. These thoughts arise especially at the times that our concentration is not absorbed by some other matter at hand, or often when we lie awake at night. They are often strong enough to push other issues aside for a time. The amount of energy invested in these thoughts can be gauged by the degree of difficulty involved in trying to free the mind of them. If we can move beyond the thoughts and images to focus instead on naming, owning and sifting the hurts and angers behind them, we can reach a state of peace more quickly.
We can express our anger, i.e. we can behave angrily. When we express it without the moderating control of our mind and will, we call it temper. Temper is anger expressed in action without control. Because it may at least to some degree be expressed in a spontaneous outburst before the intervention of thought and choice, it may not always be a moral action. Morality presupposes knowledge of what we are doing (i.e. of its wrongness or rightness) and sufficient freedom (and time!) to consent responsibly. Temper is normally an inappropriate way to express anger and is often destructive in some way or other.
But anger can also be expressed after thought and with consent. It may be expressed either with a degree of force or in a non-violent way. (Violence is understood to involve either unjust or excessive force.) The forceful expression can be appropriate when there is a just reason and moderation is used.
Jesus acted angrily and with a degree of force in clearing the Temple, in some cases of healings, in challenging the Pharisees by miracles done on the Sabbath, and in condemning them. Indeed, his action in dying for us on the cross drew its motivation from his love — for his own integrity, for his Father, for us human persons — but it drew its energy from his deep hurt and anger at the harm that people were doing to themselves and to each other, an anger whose energy he drew on in his struggle with sin and the evil one.
The non-violent expression of anger hardly differs from assertion. "I feel quite angry because what you have done hurts me, and I hope you will not do it again". When it takes the form of simply communicating to the other that we feel hurt and angry, it is less likely to provoke retaliation, and can be a very positive form of communication.
However, when anger is expressed inappropriately, either because it is not justified or because moderation is not used, it is quite wrong. In that case, given sufficient appreciation of the wrongness and sufficient self-control and freedom, it can be sinful. It is generally destructive and is usually counter-productive. It is probably the fear of this destructive use of anger that is responsible for the current cultural disapproval of all expressions of anger.
There are other ways, however, of dealing with anger than expressing it outwardly. Some of these ways are healthy enough; some are not. Among the unhealthy ways of handling anger are repression and suppression.
Repression is a technical word which refers to a psychological process whereby the feelings of anger arising from some hurt are automatically diverted into the unconscious areas of our being without our being aware that they have arisen at all. The process is automatic; we do not consciously divert them. The energy source that does the repressing is our fear. We picked up that fear of anger from our childhood; and it may have been consolidated sometimes in later life by erroneous teaching that anger was sinful. A result is that some people can honestly believe that they never feel angry. We can know of its presence only because our behaviour will reveal it in one way or another, generally through psycho-somatic symptoms, neuroses or various forms of passive aggression. Because the process of repression is automatic and unconscious, there is little that we can do about it directly.
We can also divert our feelings of anger consciously by suppressing them. Suppression is the dismissal of something disturbing from our consciousness: we fight against the feeling directly, trying to make it go away so that we no longer feel it. Our reason for doing this is again either our mistaken notion that we should not feel angry or even our fear that anger is sinful. Suppression of the feeling needs to be distinguished from the sometimes necessary effort to control our behaviour. We can control our behaviour without trying to make the feeling disappear. To control the energy flowing from the feeling does not necessitate trying to get rid of the feeling. We can control our behaviour while being quite aware of our feeling and content to let it remain, even though we may feel uncomfortable.
Effects of Repression and Suppression…
The conscious suppression of anger has results similar to those of unconscious repression. The energy does not go away. It simply goes somewhere else and causes trouble.
A clear effect of repression and suppression is that they tie up much of our energy sources, and we can feel ourselves to be, and come across to others, as lifeless and colourless personalities, or rigid and unfeeling. Anger is a powerful energy source. It takes an equal amount of fear energy to balance it. When both those energy sources are taken up counteracting each other, there is little energy left with which to live life. I have in mind the mental image of two steam-trains on the same line pushing in opposite directions. A lot of steam is generated and enormous power exerted, but there is no movement!
The trouble with both repressed and suppressed feelings is that they do not disappear; they stay around within us. However, because they are prevented from coming up as themselves, they become transformed into something else. Because of our conscious and unconscious fears, we are not able to direct our repressed or suppressed angers in a constructive way towards the persons to whom they should be directed. We may unconsciously feel that it is less dangerous to direct our anger at someone safe — namely, at ourselves.
When this anger is inappropriately diverted to ourselves, it can often be experienced as guilt. "I am to blame for his aggression; it is my own fault; I brought it on myself". We feel vaguely guilty, convincing ourselves that it must have been our own fault that we were hurt. When the feelings of anger are not tracked down to their true source and recognized to be inappropriate, they can also eventually come to be experienced as depression.
Depression can also arise directly, and perhaps even more commonly, from the denial or inappropriate diversion of anger without the experience of guilt necessarily intervening.
It is interesting to note that the loneliness that we sometimes feel can be a combination of aloneness plus depression, and it can often therefore be the result of repressed or suppressed anger. Perhaps, in a deep level of our being, the denial and suppression of the anger can cause a kind of estrangement from ourselves and within ourselves. We feel vaguely aware that we are "shut off" from some significant part of our own inner being, and this separation is felt as loneliness.
An important way to grow out of the spontaneous tendency to direct our anger towards ourselves is to learn to love ourselves, to build our self-esteem (truthfully), and to forgive ourselves for our real or imagined guilts. A person with good self-esteem and ready love of self does not accept any devious self-imputation of guilt. In this process a faithful friend becomes a virtual necessity. The Christian can also find a life of genuine prayer a further help, not as a substitute for friendship, but as a further experience of it. Through a deliberate exercise of faith we can let God reveal to us the fact of our worth and preciousness and the constant availability of forgiveness. This may involve purifying our image of God from the inadequate images developed in childhood and early adulthood.
Repressed or suppressed anger can also be destructive of others. In those cases where it is not diverted to ourselves it can be directed at others, sometimes indiscriminately, with irrational and excessive violence, verbal or otherwise, or in a covert way that is not obvious to ourselves and often seems inexplicable to others.
This covert expression of anger can take the form of passive aggression. "I do not get angry, I just get even". It can be the unrecognized energy source behind obstructionist behaviour, such as unpunctuality, forgetfulness, stubborn-ness, intentional inefficiency or passivity, or the unexpected cutting-off of a relationship, etc.. In reactions such as these, the desired change in behaviour is so difficult to achieve because the cause of the behaviour, the anger, is generally at work unconsciously and inappropriately.
Anger is accompanied by physical reactions, too. In the instinctive readying for "fight or flight" some muscles may stiffen, and adrenalin can be released into the blood stream and set off a whole chain of other physical changes. When the anger is repressed or suppressed, the physical reactions can still occur. The anger is kept out of my conscious awareness, but my body still recognizes it and exhibits symptoms of its presence such as organic and skeletal problems — ulcers, bad backs, etc..
It is normal to be angry with those we love, indeed especially with those we love. The effect of love is that it raises expectations. It also makes us supremely open and able to be hurt.
So inevitably we have angers towards our parents whose love could never have adequately satisfied our fragile and insecure hearts, and whose intentions and behaviour were not always understood and even sometimes misunderstood. There were times, also, when they were selfish and inconsistent. Nobody can claim to have had perfect parents.
However, we are often shocked or frightened by this reaction. We unconsciously (or even consciously) fear that we may lose the love or approval of somebody significant, our mother or father. This touches a very deep and primitive area of our being where we can interpret the loss of the love of somebody significant as the total rejection of ourselves, the emptying of our own self-worth, and the virtual equivalent to death. And so, in what can be seen as being in the interest of survival itself, the angers are repressed or suppressed.
As was noted above, these repressed or suppressed angers do not go away but are transformed into something else that acts destructively within us. It is important to remember that our feelings are spontaneous. Their existence says nothing about our true attitudes or faithfulness. We can feel very angry with those whom we truly love deeply. It is important that we unmask our mistaken fear that the anger in our hearts will somehow render us unworthy and unloved. We need to recognize these angers and bring them into the open, to give them permission to be, to accept responsibility for them, to choose what to do about them, and to allow their energy to dissipate.
Many Christians repress or suppress the anger they feel towards God. It is normal to feel angry with God. We all have expectations of how God should act. We are aware of some of these expectations; of others we are not. But we inevitably have them. We may expect God to protect us or other good people from tragedy and suffering; we may expect that God enable us to feel warm and affirmed when we pray, at least sometimes, etc.. When these expectations are not met, we inevitably feel hurt and therefore angry.
It is important to remember again that our feelings are spontaneous and have a life of their own. We may believe with all our hearts that God is good and somehow there must be an explanation for what we feel to be unjust. We may know there is a reason for the way things happen. But what we believe and what we know have no immediate or essential connection with what we feel, and can be quite different. We may still feel angry even though we know and believe that God is good and is not responsible for what we feel to be unjust.
The Hebrew psalmists had a wonderful freedom to express their feelings, even their negative feelings, to God. Jesus was brought up in that same school of spirituality. In their accounts of Jesus' Passion, Matthew and Mark saw it as quite appropriate to present the dying Jesus as shouting out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", a cry that to pious ears could sound almost blasphemous. Matthew and Mark referred to the spontaneous feelings of Jesus. It is interesting to note the different emphasis in Luke's account of the Passion: he focused on the deliberate, considered responses of Jesus, and recorded his last words as, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit", an expression of faith rather than of feelings. The two emphases are not mutually exclusive.
Because of our sometimes undetected fears of God, we may repress our angers and be unaware of them, or we may suppress them as though they were sinful or irrational or ungrateful, etc..
One result of this is that God is felt as very distant. Anger so often has the effect of making us feel distant from the ones we are angry with. We can be nice and polite, but there is a definite distancing. And so the expectations become even more frustrated, the angers deepen, and the sense of dryness between God and ourselves can be desperate.
The dryness that a number of good people experience in their prayer is often due to their unrecognized and repressed angers, or their deliberately suppressed ones, with God. And they just cannot believe it! (There can of course be other reasons for dryness at prayer that are perfectly normal and to be expected).
Another way by which we can deal consciously with our anger is to try to sublimate it. There can be times when the energy invested in our anger is so strong that it cannot be quietly integrated. We recognize our need for a safety valve. We divert the energy involved in our anger and deliberately use it in some other activity that we see to be constructive. We know that we are angry, we allow the anger to be, but we burn up the energy of the anger in some other constructive activity.
We may, for example, feel anger in face of the injustices to ourselves (or to those we love or whose dignity we respect) that we see constantly perpetrated by the institutions to which we belong. So, drawing on the energy invested in the anger, we may devote ourselves to a ministry that endeavours to change these institutions and the people who make them up, and in this way to remove the injustices.
We can also burn up our excessive anger sometimes without our realizing very clearly what we are doing. Without identifying our anger, and therefore without properly integrating it, we simply feel the need to "let off steam" and somehow to use up our energy. We may kick a tree instead of hitting a person; we may bang the table rather than punch a face. Or we can use the energy to do something useful. We might use it to chop some wood, to polish a floor, or to go for a run or a walk. An energy source of compulsive "workaholics" could well be an anger that has not been clearly integrated.
NEXT WEEK: "How to Deal Constructively with Hurts"
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©2008 John McKinnon