The modern world is a vexing place, and more of us than ever before are struggling to keep a lid on our emotions. Patrick Regan OBE unpicks the tricky issue of responding well when we’re feeling under pressure
Britain is getting angrier. That’s not just my view, formed after spending way too much time on Twitter, it’s what The British Association of Anger Management say too. And according to them, 80 per cent of us feel the same way. The UK is the top European country for road rage incidents; 45 per cent of employees say they regularly lose their temper at work and more than half of us admit to having stormed out of a shop in frustration over bad service. The number of people seeking help to manage their anger has doubled in the last five years.
But despite this increase, there’s still not much discussion about anger, its root causes or how to handle it – especially in the Church. Many of us have been taught that anger is always negative – something that’s dangerous, shameful and should be hidden at all costs. Yet the Bible tells us that God himself gets angry. The prophets got angry. Jesus got angry. Ephesians 4:26 says: “In your anger do not sin”, which suggests that it is not anger itself that is sinful, but how we respond to it.
I know very little about cars, but when a light flashes on my dashboard, I know something is wrong. That light has been designed as an indicator that I need to take action straight away. Sometimes it’s a problem I can fix myself – a passenger without their seatbelt on, or a near-empty petrol tank. Sometimes it’s something I cannot deal with alone, and I need to take my car to a garage for specialist help.
In the same way, anger is an indicator, designed to warn us that we may need to check out what else is going on in our lives. Perhaps a need has gone unmet, a boundary has been breached, or an injustice has occurred. But just as there’s little point in my pretending the light on my car dashboard isn’t flashing in the hope that it will go away, there’s little point in me pretending that I’m not angry. If I do, it’s likely I’ll just be storing up worse problems for myself down the line.
Part of managing anger well is learning to take care of our basic needs
Most of us have learned ways of dealing with – or suppressing – anger, often through the way we saw it modelled in our families. Perhaps we were shut down, sent out of the room or told to be quiet. Maybe we had a parent who tried to soothe our angry outbursts or distract from them, rather than helping us look at what was making us angry and how we could respond in an appropriate and helpful way. As a result, we may not feel fully equipped to deal with anger as an adult, which can contribute to us viewing it as something dangerous, or even shameful.
Many people have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing their emotions, and anger is no exception. We might say: “I’m angry” when we’re actually mildly irritated, extremely annoyed, furious or completely outraged. Pinpointing our exact feelings helps us to understand them, express them and take healthy and appropriate action.
If we dig a little deeper into why we’re feeling angry, we may find other emotions at play. We might be feeling disappointed, anxious, bitter, overloaded, frustrated, stuck, trapped, confused, ashamed or betrayed. We might be grieving. It’s helpful to ask ourselves some questions: In what ways do I feel like my needs are not being met? What am I believing about myself or about someone else that’s contributing to this anger? Can I know for sure that belief is true? What boundaries have been crossed? What other emotions am I feeling?
Anger can also trigger our flight-or-fight mechanism, which can make it difficult to maintain perspective. Sometimes, if we are viewing a situation through the lens of unresolved pain, our anger becomes misplaced and spills over. We lash out at the wrong person, or at the wrong time. To prevent that happening, we need to pay attention to the warning light. Give yourself a moment to think about the real root problem and how to best deal with it. If you find this hard because of something that has happened in your past, or what has been modelled to you growing up, it might be time to seek some specialist help.
When God asked Moses to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3 and 4), they had a fairly lengthy conversation. Moses kept asking questions and God kept answering. After some more back and forth, followed by some miraculous signs, Moses was still not satisfied and asked God to “send someone else” (4:13). At that point, his patience probably exhausted, we read: “the Lord’s anger burned against Moses” (4:14). But even in his anger, God didn’t send Moses away, belittle him for his lack of faith or destroy him in a fit of fury. Instead, he asked Moses if he’d like to take his brother Aaron with him.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m burning with anger at a person, I’m rarely that rational. God can be angry and still respond well, but we, as imperfect humans, often need space and practise to get this right.
If you know that you find this difficult, perhaps try counting to ten when you feel angry. This advice is said to go as far back as America’s founding father, Thomas Jefferson, and there’s much wisdom in his words. If we respond straight away, it is easy to let anger do the talking without examining what we’re really angry about and the best way of dealing with that.
Once surrendered to God, anger can be a powerful catalyst for change
If you’re tempted to send an email, WhatsApp or tweet while livid, or launch into a conversation with someone while your heart is thumping with indignation and outrage, it may be best to pause. Give yourself time to ask: What’s really making me feel angry? What is God asking me to do in this moment to address any issues? What’s the most helpful way to bring about resolution without causing unnecessary hurt?
This does not mean smothering your anger and acting like everything is OK when it’s not. But neither does it mean letting anger take control.
Running on empty
Our lives are often full of demands that leave us with little margin for dealing with unexpected curveballs. So when we spill the milk or the traffic makes us late, we often don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with it.
Part of managing anger well is learning to take care of our basic needs. I think of it like a bucket: there are things that go into the bucket that cause us stress, such as deadlines at work, rising bills or lack of sleep. Then there are things that help us release some of the stress, so that the bucket doesn’t overflow. These stress-relievers don’t have to be time-consuming or expensive; I’m not talking about week-long retreats or exotic holidays (as lovely as those things can be). They can be simple things such as talking with a friend, praying, taking the dog for a walk or having a bit of time alone to unwind.
Learning what causes us the most stress means that we can better minimise these (where possible). Equally, identifying the things that help us relax and feel closer to God, along with looking at how we can build more margin into our life, will increase our resilience and mean we (hopefully) don’t boil over at the drop of a hat.
There are, of course, times when anger is good; an appropriate response to a situation that is clearly unjust. When I was a teenager, I went on my first mission trip. I saw people living on the streets with no shelter, food or safety. It was my first real experience of the injustice of poverty, and it made my blood boil. That experience, and the anger I felt, motivated me to start working with local young people experiencing poverty and, eventually, to set up the charity XLP.
Years later, my anger at the lack of support for people struggling with their mental health drove me to start Kintsugi Hope, a charity that helps churches support mental wellbeing in their local communities. As we look around our world, there’s a lot that Christians should be angry about. We should be angry about the number of children born into poverty. We should be angry that racial and gender injustices continue. We should be angry when people are mistreated, marginalised and abused.
Christians should be angry when people are mistreated, marginalised and abused
The question is: What should we do with that anger? If we bring it to God and use it to pray for a situation and ask what we can do to make a difference, we can play our part – however small it may feel – to bring about change. Once surrendered to God, anger can be a powerful motivator and a catalyst for change.
Whether our anger is righteous or not, Ephesians 4:26 commands us: “do not let the sun go down while you are still angry”. Whatever the causes of our anger, this verse tells us that we should never hold onto it. We must not let it eat away at us – and God gives us this instruction for good reason. Research has shown that unexpressed anger can cause all sorts of problems, including depression, anxiety, passive-aggressive behaviour and even physical pain.
Expressing anger in a healthy way is vitally important. Talking often helps, but even with close friends, honesty can be hard. We don’t always want those we love to see the depths of what we’re feeling, especially if we believe that our anger is ugly, will be uncomfortable for the other person or may make us unlovable. We might feel that we have to gloss over our anger and make our feelings more palatable, shrugging it off as not that big a deal. With God, it is different. He sees all our emotions, knows all our thoughts and loves us regardless. There is no point in pretending with God, or downplaying our emotions, because he knows it all anyway.
The Psalms show us that before God, we can let it all out; there is no need to hold back. In difficult times, I’ve found it a helpful exercise to write my own psalms. They don’t have to be poetic; the point is to be real with God about what we’re feeling. If you’re not keen on writing, speaking it out can be just as helpful. Ask God the difficult questions, just like the psalmists did. Tell him what’s really getting to you. Vent about the things you don’t understand and that don’t seem right to you. The bottom line? Don’t hold back; God isn’t put off by your anger. Take it to him, he can use all things for good.