Expressing anger appropriately in our modern age
By Jeannie Ewing
Whenever an injustice befalls us, it’s natural for anger to surface. Think of the times you have experienced betrayal, deception, or some type of misunderstanding. It’s not an emotion we’re comfortable with, especially as Catholic Christians, because we’re conditioned to believe (falsely) the sunny spirituality of “everything happens for a reason” and “look at the bright side.”
While it’s true that it is not healthy to allow our anger to seethe, it does have a purpose. In an of itself, anger is not sinful. We have all heard homilies about righteous anger and the example of Jesus overturning the money changers in the Temple (see John 2: 13-16) to pinpoint the truth that anger has its place in our lives.
THE PURPOSE OF ANGER
Anger is often what is considered a “blanket emotion.” This means that we tend to express anger as a coverup for other, more painful feelings, such as fear or grief. Anger is really a tool. In positive situations, it functions as a barometer to invite us to deeper self-awareness that leads to self-knowledge.
Anger is meant to propel us toward positive change. As Catholics, we can liken the other side of the coin to zeal. Both fuel our desire to make things right, to correct a wrong that has been done to us or to others. Like pain, anger first points us toward ourselves. If we are prudent, we will pause long enough to bring the intensity of our anger to conversation with God before all else. Nothing can be resolved well without creating a habit of turning to God in honest prayer about what breaks our hearts.
SITUATIONAL ANGER VERSUS STATE OF ANGER
There is a difference between situational anger and a state of anger. In general, situational anger is something every one of us has experienced, from being tied up in traffic to having to wait in a long line or wade through construction. Situational anger is specific to circumstance but can lead to what is called a state of anger.
When we are upset by a specific incident, allowing the emotion free reign in our minds and souls is spiritually detrimental. Without managing the thoughts and feelings related to the injustice we’ve experienced, anger snowballs rapidly into a state of being. It becomes more of a spiritual malady that infects every facet of our lives, so that we become angry all or most of the time.
This is dangerous but not uncommon, even among Christians. It’s clear that when we are frequently angry and express it by yelling, becoming impatient with our spouses, gossiping or
slandering one’s reputation, or becoming bitter and resentful, then our anger has become sinful and should be confessed.
HEALTHY EXPRESSIONS OF DARK AND DIFFICULT EMOTIONS
Dark emotions are never easy to manage, because we are not accustomed to a) recognizing them and b) naming them. Most people would consider anger to be a “negative” emotion as opposed to happiness or exhilaration. Other dark emotions, which are much deeper and are often triggered by anger, include loneliness, fear, sadness, shame, and overwhelm.
It’s easy in our modern age to vent online or via social media. Unfortunately, this destroys communication. 85% of communication is expressed in tonal inflection, body language, and facial expressions. That is entirely lost when we are careless with our words, whether spoken or written.
Technology is helpful in many ways, especially when we are networking or connecting with family and friends from a distance. We can even evangelize online. But when anger is raw, it’s unwise to choose technology as a platform of uncontrolled venting. This is because technology can feel like a safe place for us to throw around words that may deeply hurt, because we don’t have to face another person.
It’s harder to sit down with a person face to face and have an uncomfortable but honest conversation than to simply spew unchecked emotions online. What’s better is to take those feelings to pen and paper, a trusted spiritual director or pastor, and directly to prayer. Anger is only constructive when one works through the deeper, underlying issues that are inciting it to surface. And when clarity is obtained, you are ready to take your message to a person or group of people.
If anger is a tool, we have to learn the proper channels to use it. I can’t take my pen with the intention of cutting my food, because the appropriate tool for cutting is a knife. Likewise, anger isn’t meant to contribute to injustice by spreading lies, rumors, or gossip. Again, that is spiritually dangerous.
The only way to express anger in a way that can heal is by taking it to face-to-face communication. It’s natural to cringe at the thought, because most of us would rather avoid the certain discomfort that may result. But bringing to the table an idea or thought that can fuel discussion rather than rage will result in building positive relationships.
First, identify the source of your anger: what is really going on, and why are you upset about it? Then, take it to prayer; ask God what He wants you to learn from this situation, and to see it truthfully, through His eyes. Finally, bring it to the attention of someone who may have made a mistake or created a misunderstanding and be respectful but honest: “This really hurt me
when…” or “I had the expectation that this was going to happen and was surprised when this happened instead.”
The more you practice this technique, the more you will notice your relationships moving to a deeper level of maturity. In such cases, you are learning ways to make anger useful, rather than harmful, in your life.