Dear Father John, I am a priest providing spiritual direction to a young man suffering with anger problems. He has recently returned to the sacraments. He is frustrated with God that he has asked him to take away this hurtful anger but God has not answered his prayer. Can you offer advice about how to overcome severe habitual challenges with anger?
Anger is the most complex of the human passions. Understanding its underlying dynamism will help give you some light, but first we can begin with some general comments pertinent to this particular case.
When Not to Worry
The young man has recently returned to the sacraments. This means he has recently undergone some kind of conversion; he has repented, turned away from the path leading far from God, and turned onto the straight, hard road leading to greater intimacy with God. The initial turn, the repentance, the conversion, can happen in a moment. But the transformation of behavior – from vices to virtues – rarely happens quickly. Usually, it is a painful and gradual process. But you should be seeing at least some progress right away. For instance, if the young man feels intense contrition (more than before) right away after an angry outburst; if the frequency of his outbursts is decreasing; if the intensity of them is decreasing; if he is able to recover from them, ask forgiveness, and repair the damage more quickly…
His conversion was sincere, and he is now praying and receiving the sacraments, so there should be some sign of progress. If this is the case, I would recommend simply continuing the normal means of spiritual growth, and supporting him closely in this initial stage of his re-version. If he is showing no progress, however, or if his anger issues are even worsening, in spite of his efforts to grow spiritually, extraordinary means may be necessary. To understand what means can be used, we need to understand the internal dynamism of anger.
Why We Get Angry
Anger is a passion of the soul that follows on our experience of some present evil (an injustice, a pain, an attack against our person of some sort) that we judge to be overcome-able. If a present evil is judged to be non-overcome-able, we simply feel deep sadness and painful resignation. But if we perceive that a bad thing is happening to us, and we think that our resistance to that bad thing can actually yield good results, we feel anger, and the feeling of anger moves us to act out against the perceived evil. If someone, for example, is insulting me and causing those around me to think badly of me, I may feel anger if I perceive that I can counteract the insults and turn the tables to save face. And the feeling of anger will move me to retaliate, to defeat the insulting attack.
The Morality of Anger
Anger as a passion of the soul is morally neutral – we just feel it, because we are created that way; that’s how human nature is designed. It becomes moral (righteous anger) or immoral (the sin of anger) depending on how we deal with the feeling. The feeling is meant to be governed by our reason (and as Christians, our reason is meant to be enlightened by our faith). If a coworker insults me unintentionally in a meeting, I may feel anger welling up in my soul. If I choose to let that anger dictate my actions, I may lash out at my colleague, creating a scene, damaging a relationship, and disrupting whatever we were supposed to be working on. That’s uncontrolled, unjustified, disproportionate anger – it is a form of self-centeredness, of sin. If I choose to rein in the feeling of anger through the acts of patience and mercy, I avoid that damaging fallout, and I avoid the sin of anger.
From Sin to Vice
If a person has habitually allowed free rein to their feelings of anger, instead of governing them with reason and faith, they will gradually form the vice of anger: a habitual disposition to commit the sin of anger. Some people have by nature a choleric and stormy temperament, and they have a kind of built-in tendency to fall into this sin and develop this vice. For those people, forming the virtues of patience and mercy (the virtues we use to govern the passion of anger) may be very difficult indeed. And they may spend their whole lives engaging in the struggle. But with God’s grace, they can indeed form those virtues, and if the struggle is particularly hard, they will be crowned by our Lord with particular merit and give great glory to God through their spiritual battle.
If the person you refer to in your question is already showing small signs of improvement in this area, we can assume that he is beginning to grow in virtue, and that this growth will gradually eliminate the vice. But he must persevere. Growth in virtue takes time, effort, and decision, especially if the vice has been deeply rooted for an extended period of time.
If he has shown no progress, even though he has tried to improve, then another element may be involved. His anger may not merely be a vice (a habitual disposition to sin which has been formed by repeated, self-centered choices); it may also be a compulsion. Compulsive anger can have mixed causes. It can be linked to a vice, but it can also be rooted in a psychological condition. In such a case, the anger is a kind of defense mechanism. The person in question perceives innocent actions of others as attacks, and responds with angry outbursts – “acts out” in exceptionally unreasonable and uncontrollable ways. This is because there is some wound in his psyche that is festering. Like an infected cut, it is hypersensitive. And so, comments and actions of others that should not be seen as attacks (that are objectively not attacks at all) are perceived as attacks. And the resulting anger is the defense-mechanism; it is shielding a wound that has nothing to do with the specific situations about which the person keeps getting angry.
If this is a habitual situation, and normal means for spiritual growth have not shown any improvement, then a reasonable next step would be to have the person see a dependable Christian counselor or psychologist, someone who can help identify and heal the underlying psychological wound that is really causing the angry outbursts. Here is a link that can help you find Catholic therapists: www.catholictherapists.com. And here is a link that can help you find Christian counselors: Christian counselors in your area.
There is one more level of complexity that we should mention. If someone has suffered psychologically, and the anger is compulsive, there may also be spiritual forces present exacerbating the wound and impeding it from being healed. The devil’s favorite weapon is lying. And often, psychological wounds are based on lies: “I am unloveable; I will never be loveable…” If an experience of abuse or violent rejection at a young age created a deeply ingrained psychological condition in a person based on lies like this, then the devil can prey on that weakness, exacerbating the self-hatred, exaggerating the lie, and causing the psychological infection, so to speak, to spread. In this case, healing masses and prayers of deliverance can be a helpful complement to solid Christian counseling and a program for spiritual growth.
It is often difficult to identify this type of demonic activity. Personally, I would rarely recommend that someone undergo formalized prayers of deliverance without also having a program of spiritual growth and being involved in adequate counseling. Not everyone would agree with me on this point, I know. The reason I say that is because it is so easy to blame everything on the devil and become obsessed with deliverance, to the point of neglecting both our own capacity to grow in virtue, and also the value of solid psychological counseling. Nevertheless, as a priest, you can offer a prayer of deliverance over someone after confession, and this can have a significant spiritual impact. To find out more about deliverance ministry, this is a good place to start:
As you can see, anger is no simple thing! I promise to pray for the person you are helping, and I ask our other readers to say a prayer for him as well.
Art for this post on how to help someone who suffers with severe anger issues: Tiroler Bäuerin (Tyrolean Peasant Woman), Anita Rée, 1921, PD-US published or registered with the US copyright office before January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.
Mad As Hell: Anger and the Economy Part Four
We all know people who express their anger loudly and aggressively. They think that’s the best way to handle it and society as a whole has supported that notion. ‘Let it all hang out’ was the treatment of choice for angry feelings since the olden days and it seems we’ve been stuck there. Until now.
Recent research insists that a more regulated expression of anger is best. Dr. Jeffrey Lohr, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas explained this to an incredulous NPR reporter:
“The more you get angry, the angrier you get. And, so, researchers across the nation are now on a campaign to recast our view of anger expression. Sadly , even screaming is now out of vogue because arousal just increases your arousal. So no more screaming at your family.”
“Now, to be clear, Lohr isn’t pro-repression. Repression, he says, can also be bad for you. The key is to speak out your anger without getting emotional about it. Basically, we’re not supposed to yell at anyone anymore. In fact, Lohr claims the immediate sense of release we get after screaming or breaking plates is an illusion.”
Therefore you would think that asking your loved one to express their anger more reasonably is a good thing. But what if they don’t buy it and go on screaming anyway?
Whenever we have relationship problems we think: “If only he/she would do thus and such, everything would be great.” Not likely to happen. Our power to change anyone but ourselves is teeny-weeny. So we get frustrated, maybe even angry, and the stress and tension in the relationship gets even worse.
What we do have power over is how we respond to anger expression. So here we go…
Understanding why your loved one is angry is not necessarily to excuse it. It may be important to you, however, to consider whether his/her anger is situational or chronic. In other words does he get mad only when he reads the headlines about the economic crisis or does he appear to be irritable about anything and everything? Irritability is a major symptom of depression. Taken in the context of other signs and symptoms you may weigh the options of either talking directly about his possible depression or if he is not receptive, getting the help of a mental health professional for yourself. Depression is a serious condition in which potential harm to self or others is best evaluated by an expert. Please keep this in mind as you read the rest of this article.
How was anger handled when you were growing up?
How comfortable we feel with the expression of anger is largely the result of how we were reared. No surprise there.
When I was a kid my family was one of those where anger was suppressed behind tense politeness until the pressure grew intolerant. Then the anger erupted with crying, yelling and slamming doors. After the explosion, with a false sense of resolution, the atmosphere would freeze over until the next time.
As a result when someone said they were angry with me I’d get very anxious and go into turtle mode anticipating an explosion.
Take a look at your history and ask yourself: In the face of anger, what’s my response style?
Without an effective way to handle anger we can become…
• The Turtle: Silently going behind thick emotional walls until the storm is over.
• The Cornered Rat: Not at all pretty. We become them. Yelling, nagging and shoving back in defense.
• The Ostrich: Denying the existence the anger. Sometimes people can be so good at the ostrich response they don’t even recognize anger in themselves.
• The Chicken: Running away from anger as quickly as possible.
If your response to anger is measured and reasonable, taking responsibility only for yourself, expecting others to behave reasonably, if you express your anger directly in firm, civil tones, good for you! You are a more highly evolved creature than most of us. You are our role model.
How can I improve my response to anger?
• Make protecting your self-esteem your top priority.
• Take responsibility for your own anger and take charge of how you react to your partner’s anger.
• Resist the urge to take his/her anger personally no matter how much he/she provokes you.
• Do not escalate an argument by getting defensive, raising your voice or retaliating.
• Stay reasonable; keep your tone on the quiet side. A whisper can often be a bigger attention getter than yelling.
As long as the person venting their anger is under control (they can stop if you ask them to) and not directed at you, it may be good to listen and allow our loved one to talk it out. Often the person venting (sometimes it’s us) is grateful for the ear and they feel better being validated.
During a time of great stress, my husband needed to be able to talk about his anger about a situation at work. To be a good partner I had to learn to not to give into my turtle instincts, control my anxiety and hear him out. Venting, if done well, can be a useful exercise, like thinking out loud, not just pointless ranting.
Guidelines for being on the receiving end of venting:
• If you get anxious, quietly breathe slowly and deeply while you listen. You don’t have to say anything.
• The point is to listen; do not to feel you have to FIX IT.
• Assure the angry person you ‘get’ why they are angry. Reflect back their frustration, “Yeah, it stinks, I understand why you feel that way.”
• Don’t try to cheer them up.
• If the venting lasts longer than fifteen minutes or so, or if it escalates to yelling, it’s time to call a time out, suggest a change of subject, a walk around the block or shift to problem solving mode.
Are you in danger of physical, verbal or emotional abuse?
All bets are off if you feel seriously threatened. If you are afraid for your physical safety you must get help. You may be confused about whether of not you should be scared. Get a reality check immediately. Talk to a trusted friend or a counselor to get some perspective. Be sure you and everyone else in the house are safe. Have an emergency plan in place in case you need to get away quickly.
Take all the pointers in the other Mad As Hell Series of articles and apply them. Find help from a professional counselor or a self-help group like Al-Anon. You are not alone.
Dealing with this economy basically means we are all in recovery. Anger relapse will happen when the media hits us with the next financial horror. When that happens remember to forgive yourself, get back on the wagon and recite with me:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
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Anger is a common emotion that can easily spiral into rage, so there’s a chance you will someday encounter a friend, family member, or partner who has trouble controlling their anger. You can help them first and foremost by reeling in your own emotions, as becoming upset yourself will only worsen the problem. After responding appropriately and de-escalating their anger, try motivating them to get help for their anger. Having a loved one with a fiery temper can be stressful, so be sure to look after yourself, too.