Anger is double-faced.
The Bad Face of Anger
Most of us don’t realize when we’re angry—but everyone around us does.
To stop being angry, ask your close ones to show what you look like when you are angry. It won’t be pretty. Yet, imperfection enables us to improve.
Your anger may subside in seconds, but to witnesses, it may last for years.
Anger can mess up your health and afterlife, but especially others’ relationships with you. But, saying yes when you mean no too can ruin your relationship with others. But, the best reason not to get angry is that it’s unbecoming of you. It mostly spoils your relationship with you.
The Sages of the Talmud are very clear. Anger is like idolatry. And idolatry is about the worst sin in the world. How does it resemble idol worship? When we’re angry, underlying assumptions are revealed. We deny a G^d Who is all-Good, all-Knowing, and all-Powerful, and we would do better.
However, we must put up our first nuance immediately. Many plots that G^d effectuates or lets happen (under His supervision, on His watch) are only an invitation to onlookers to object and team up with G^d to correct the situation. She got sick. We didn’t say: ‘All the G^d does is done well.’ Rather, we called for a physician. Yet, our objection doesn’t warrant anger. We can respectfully and forcefully object without getting all worked up.
The Sages also teach us that every sin is only done in a mindset of folly. This means, had we thought it over really, we wouldn’t have committed the mistake. One of the ‘best’ ways to stop thinking is to get furious. It feels different for perpetrators than for onlookers, though. When we get incensed, often our thoughts start streaming forcefully, and our words get wings. It feels good for the enraged. But, what comes of it belies the destructiveness of rage. There is nothing thoughtful or smart about it.
The Rabbis advise us to train ourselves to react unextreme in every way except two. We’re counseled to keep a sliver of pride, as we need that. And we’re strongly encouraged to do away with all anger. And yet …
The Rabbis explain that educators are absolutely forbidden to be angry at pupils. Yet, we are allowed to pretend anger to make a point. However, be careful. When we feign irritation, often we can’t help really getting tough.
Being deeply happy is a great protector against anger (and jealousy, arrogance, ungratefulness, stinginess, unfriendliness, etc.). You can get there by simply pulling up the corners of your mouth and meaning it.
The Good Faces of Anger
There are good aspects to anger that we should understand and hold dear. Not as an excuse to exhibit or tolerate destructive anger. Which aspects?
A Road to Feeling Powerful. There is the concept of ‘impotent rage.’ The underlying feelings of any anger display are often powerlessness, fear, or sadness. It just doesn’t feel safe enough to show these vulnerable feelings. So, such violent rage is an attempt to feel powerful and safe to get to the real feelings of hurt; and cry. Alas, showing anger often backfires, making things less safe. It may even enrage others, exacerbating the problem.
The most popular excuse for getting angry is someone being angry in your face. Generally, competing in anger doesn’t help. Instead of replying: ‘I could hurt you worse,’ try: ‘It really hurts, doesn’t it?’
It’s great therapy for kids to let them rage while ensuring they won’t hurt anything and anyone, including themselves and you. Don’t lecture or intimidate them, but offer them a pillow to hit and say: Show me how strong and angry you are. When they start crying or shaking (or both), the anger is broken on its own. Anger is not the problem; not listening is.
Give people who are too scared to speak up safety to say how angry they are. Ask for reasons and details. Don’t get all excited. Ask for more, calmly.
With those petrified to show how angry they are (and often rightly so), call in eight buddies to hold them down so that, for a couple of minutes, they don’t need to continue hiding their rage to not get destructive. For many men, this is being a great friend, helping them to break their numbness.
Therapists don’t need to soundproof their offices. Shouting is not a key to presenting anger. Speaking in a for the client unusual voice is enough. So, they can whisper and hiss their grievances and sound perfectly angry. (Therefore: A commitment to never raise your voice again will not cut out anger or passive-aggressive behavior (“Never mind little me, I’m fine”).
From Blame to Responsibility. Rabbi Ies Vorst says: Watch out. When you are pointing fingers, one at others, you are pointing three at yourself and one at Heaven. But, there may be a deep and benign source of anger, relating to blame. While in anger, we may fault everyone, everything, and the kitchen sink. What we typically aim to do is to rid ourselves of blame. We long for someone to confess: You’re still innocent, pure, good, holy, divine, created in G^d’s image. Yet, secretly feeling guilty is a good sign as it reveals our (exaggerated) eagerness to take responsibility. Yet, excessive past-bound guilt disheartens and paralyzes. Better it is to take future-bound responsibility. This can mean admitting guilt, paying compensation, and resolving to do better from now on. Relaxedly taking full responsibility from now on may solve all oncoming problems.
Often, innocent bystanders may feel angry about what others did. That is such a strange, wasteful habit. But, hidden under it is anger at themselves, no matter how much they blame others. Deep down, they feel that they could have seen it coming, and could have prevented this. This, of course, is untrue. If they could have, they would have. But, they may be right that, still, they should have been able to prevent the disaster. This too belies an eagerness to take responsibility. Yet, excessive retroactive guilt is often paralyzing or disheartening. Better is to take proactive responsibility instead. This can bring compensation, resolving to do better from now on.
Righteous Indignation. My teacher and friend Harvey Jackins held that few people over the age of three will ever be able to experience righteous indignation. It’s different from rage in that it doesn’t threaten, scare, or intimidate, is not destructive, but is factual and spoken in great moral clarity. ‘Enough hurting. Put down that weapon.’ (Don’t try this at home).
My teacher, social worker Rebbetzin Rachel Trugman taught classes based on the book by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Anger, the inner teacher. From her, I learned that anger can save your life. It can wake up dazed people around you that NOW, they need to act to avert a tragedy. ‘I am dying—help.’
Finding Good Inside the Mess. In her class, I discovered that nothing and nobody can make us angry but us ourselves. Others cannot press our buttons. Only we can. That doesn’t need to depress us. Rather, it’s great news that only we need to make emotional progress to stop our anger.
The challenge is not: to hide our anger but: not to make ourselves angry.
Rabbi Pliskin seems to tell us that, although it’s so ugly, our anger has a benevolent core. It reveals the values and truths we deeply care about.
We might defuse anger, the fake emotion, by not playing into its hands. There are two ways to give anger legitimacy. One, to call their bluff. You won’t dare to! Two, to plead for mercy. Please don’t shoot! Both often end with a bang—of the pistol. So, when facing a furious foe, anything else may work. Confuse, distract, surprise. ‘Nice gun you have there. What make is it?’ Don’t forget that in their hearts of hearts, they don’t want to hurt anyone. Even when filled with feelings of revenge, they don’t want to hurt back. They only want acknowledgment of how much they are hurting. Sadists don’t want to inflict pain. They just like to feel in charge for once. Yet, don’t trust that they know that enough. Good intentions can still kill.
Often people attack, oddly, when they feel attacked. It can help them to say: “I’m not under attack. I’m not the issue.” And, then ask themselves, “Could that be true? How could I check that?” It’s hard to reconstruct what happened when the aggressor is convinced to have been the victim.
Some people read danger in what others find reassuring. Those who were abused as kids may feel physical closeness as a threat. The hug that would calm you, may alarm them and push them to ‘counter’ attack. Back off and say from a distance that all is fine. But, if you fear for your safety, just run.
Marshal Rosenberg, founder of NVC (Non-Violent Communication), also was against repressing anger and anger-provoking rationalizations. You don’t want to be like mass murderers, always known as “nice” or “quiet” people. Rather, recognize and express what need or value you felt you had to defend by getting angry. Anger is a tragic and incompetent way to get your human needs met. Then, find a way that you could get them met.
We may have a habit of displaying anger to show we care. Yet, when we get passed getting angry, we’ll care at least as much. Often, friends read a stern blog post by me and think I must be furious. They worry about my health. They confuse their feelings reading this with mine. The facts may ‘make you furious,’ but that doesn’t prove the bringer of the news is too.
When it’s really hard to not get angry, try laughter: