Gautama Buddha, the prince, warrior, mediator and enlighten teacher of who was born in what is now Nepal and died in India, said in one of his teachings that “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” There is no one alive who cannot relate to this saying. We all know about anger and often try to deal with it every day. But where does anger come from? There are several theories, let’s look at some of them.
While it is not the same in everyone’s case, feelings of being depressed often go hand-in-hand with feelings of anger. Some psychologists say that if there’s a circumstance in our life that’s causing us to be angry, but we feel powerless to change it, that means we’re carrying around that anger every day with seemingly no way to release it. It’s easy to see how this could lead to depression. So dealing with the anger may help to resolve the feelings of depression. And since anger is the strong emotion we feel when we think that we have been treated unfairly, or disrespectfully, or abusively, that would be a good place to start.
But we also know that anger can be triggered by little things. Psychologists tell us that if little annoyances upset us more than we think they should, it’s probably because our irritation isn’t about those small annoyances — it’s about something larger that we haven’t been able to deal with yet. And when we’re holding on to those unresolved feelings, small infractions will often play into our already existing circumstances and reinforce our anger. So don’t get mad at the little things that set you off, find out what you haven’t yet come to grips with that is much larger. For instance, a boss came in and found out that his secretary had not completed all the correspondence needed to be signed. He immediately began to yell at her and called her names he had never used before. Come to find out, before he left the house that morning his wife had asked him for a divorce. So that was the cause for his anger, not the unfinished correspondence.
Psychologists also point to times when we feel stuck in an uncomfortable situation. Whether it’s a personal or a professional relationship, if we feel like we’re in a constant state of limbo with the other person, it might be because we’re holding on to anger. we’re not telling them we’re angry, so there’s no arguing on one hand — but on the other, there’s no progress, either. This can cause us to feel like we’re stuck in a holding pattern. This can also happen with unfinished business or projects. For instance, if the wife wants the TV mounted on the wall so it will give her more room to move her furniture around, but the husband wants to keep it on the stand so he can get to it easier if something goes wrong, as long as that contention is not settled, anger is very likely to show itself over even the smallest unrelated disagreement.
But clinical studies also tell us that sometimes we deal with anger through isolation. As long as the situation or disagreement is not resolved it can cause us to cut ourselves off from the person or people we feel angry at. This can be a problem, particularly if those people are our loved ones. If we find ourselves avoiding or drifting away from specific people, we should ask ourselves why. It may be that it feels easier to avoid them than to maintain a relationship, in which case we will likely have to address our anger. But over the long term, being honest about our feelings will be much more constructive. It is a very soothing and healing feeling that happens when we tell someone we love that we were angry with them, but it wasn’t their fault, it was ours. Asking for and receiving forgiveness will come very quickly.
But there is also another factor that must be addressed when we can’t seem to resolve what’s making us angry. We keep telling ourselves the same story, in which we are right and they are wrong. Psychologists tell us that it’s a good thing to try to make sense of what we’re experiencing — and many of us do this through stories. But if we find ourselves telling the same stories about how our partner or friend’s did us wrong over a lengthy period of time, it’s probably a sign that we’re holding on to anger that hasn’t been dealt with yet. We all need to vent, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But if we’re venting about the same things time and again, that’s likely something we want to look into a little more deeply. The more we keep those closest to us at arm’s length, the colder the relationship will become.
So, if these signs sound familiar to us, what can we do to let go of our anger so that we can move on? Here are a few helpful steps:
We should stop going on guilt trips all by ourselves. We live in a culture that demonizes anger. As a result, many of us feel like there’s something wrong with us if we’re holding on to anger. We feel like we should be “nicer” people, and feeling this way means we have a bad temper. As a result, we hide our anger, even from ourselves. But the truth is, there’s nothing wrong with being angry. Give yourself permission to truly feel your emotions. It’s dealing with our anger and its cause that takes time, but it is worth it.
As one counselor said, for many of us, the source of our anger can be the feeling that we’ve been victimized or wronged in some way. And this can be completely true. It might genuinely be the case that the other person acted wrongly and that they hurt us for no reason. But continuing to let that person have power over us will only keep us stuck. We didn’t have control over what they did, but we do have control over how we react. If it’s a toxic relationship or workplace where we’re continuing to be victimized, it’s better to leave than to stay and remain angry. Or if there are steps we want to take to address our feelings and repair the relationship, we should know that it’s in our power to do so.
Another counselor stated that it is alright to express our anger. Often, we bottle up our anger out of a desire to keep the peace. But this never works out well, as it often leads to resentment. We should allow ourselves to express what we feel. This doesn’t mean shouting and accusing. There is a respectful way to have a conversation in which we let the other person know we feel angry. And it’s important to do so, otherwise, the relationship will continue to operate based on false pretenses.
One of the simplest and yet most powerful ways of dealing with anger is learning to forgive. There is a time when this is appropriate, and that time might not be right now. We must allow ourselves to truly feel and express our anger first. If we try to jump right to forgiveness and skip the process of really recognizing what we’re feeling, then “forgiveness” becomes just another way to sweep our feelings under the rug. However, once enough time has passed and we’ve allowed ourselves to process our feelings, forgiveness will be very powerful. Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting the other person off the hook if they wronged you. It doesn’t mean you’re saying everything that happened is okay. It means you acknowledge what happened, you’re just not going to demand restitution before you let go. You’re not going to let it keep you stuck. It really is the most powerful way to let go of anger.
The Bible is not silent when it comes to dealing with anger. David said in one of his Psalms that it’s alright to get upset and aggravated, but don’t let it make you do something wrong. Stop, go lay down, meditate on what has happened, examine your heart and it will calm you down.1 In another place he said that we should turn our feelings over to the Lord in prayer. Don’t get upset if the one who wronged us is doing fine while we’re still aggravated. This will help us stop our anger from causing us to do more harm than good. When that happens, then the possibility of ever resolving our differences will be remote at best.2
Apparently, David’s son Solomon learned quite a bit about anger. He once said that a person who is short-tempered can end up acting like a fool. That’s because they hate the person who is patient. Then he says that a person is long-tempered knows how to control themselves because losing their temper can lead to making a great mistake.3 Long-tempered individuals have learned that giving a soft answer can calm the other person down as well. If we yell back each time we’re yelled at it only makes the situation worse. Furthermore, when we let our temper get the best of us, it can cause a fight, but if we keep it under control, we can keep a fight from happening.4
Solomon goes on to say that it is better to be known as a person who does not easily get upset than it is to be famous.5 It’s not that things don’t bother us, but that by withholding our anger, it gives us time to look at what happened. In the end, we get greater admiration for having forgiven than that we took revenge.6 In fact, Solomon said that a person without any self-control is like a city whose walls are broken down.7 Today we might say that it is like a dictator of a small country with a rag-tag army taking on the United States Military. Solomon would say that such a person was a fool to lose their temper. They should have been quiet and let their anger cool down.8
The Apostle Paul was also keen on believers controlling their anger. He wrote the church in Ephesus and told them to go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.9 And the Apostle James joins him by writing to his constituents that should never forget that it is best to listen much, speak little, and not become angry; anger doesn’t make us good, as God demands that we must be.10
Keep this in mind: anger, like love, joy, peace, is an abstract emotion. You can’t pour it into a glass like you do orange juice or grape juice. But the consequences of anger are very concrete and real. A broken chair, a busted mirror, or a black-eye, swollen lip, or multiple bruises can prove that. But it’s the wounds on the inside that are not seen, and they often hurt the most and take the longest to heal. So remember what Buddha said about wanting to throw a hot coal at someone in anger, you will be the one who will end up with the most burns. – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 Psalm 4:4
2 Ibid. 37:7-9
3 Proverbs 14:17, 29
4 Ibid. 15:1, 18
5 Ibid. 16;32
6 Ibid. 19:11
7 Ibid. 25:28
8 Ibid. 29:11
9 Ephesians 4:26-27
10 James 1:19-20