Anger and the Measure of a Person

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column talks about anger and how it disguises itself.

anger and the measureI have heard it said that you can measure people by the size of the things that get them angry. The smaller the size, the smaller the man. The shorter the fuse, the smaller the person.

Many angry people don’t recognize that they are the problem. To them, the problem is always something external; it was something else—or someone else—that made them angry in the first place.

It’s easy to blame others for our problems, but no one else can determine your feelings. In the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl said that the one thing the Nazis couldn’t take from them was the ability to choose how to respond. No one can make you angry. Anger is a choice that you make.

Now for some of us it’s a natural choice. Perhaps we were born into angry homes. That anger may not always have been expressed; perhaps it simmered under the surface, until the tension was so great that you had to leave just to escape from it. But you couldn’t completely leave it behind, and that tension has followed you. Or perhaps you lived in a family that was quick to anger and quick to yell. Now that’s just how you express your feelings.

While that may explain why you often erupt in anger, it doesn’t give a pass on the responsibility to confront this personality trait and deal with it. And the first step is recognizing where anger comes from.

Anger is a master disguise artist. We like to think that every time we feel anger it’s righteous indignation: someone did something wrong, and naturally we’re appalled. Yet most anger isn’t the indignation sort, because anger tends to be a secondary emotion. It’s our psyche’s way of dealing with something that makes us uncomfortable. When we feel fear, or feel hurt, we react in anger instead because that seems safer.

Let’s take a woman who is trying to raise three small kids and keep her head on straight. But deep inside she’s worried that she’s doing a bad job. The kids whine, they don’t listen, and the place is always a mess. So what does she do? She starts yelling. She doesn’t want to yell, but the anger is what comes out when she can’t face the fear that she is failing at what is most important to her.

Or what about a guy who is secretly afraid that he’s not a real man? He doesn’t want anyone looking at his family or his home and thinking that he’s not in control, so whenever his teenagers talk back or his wife expresses an independent thought he grunts or yells. Soon no one tells him the truth about anything. They just dance around his anger, and everyone loses.

Living with someone who is angry is exhausting, but living with that kind of anger is awfully tiring, too. So here’s the cold, hard truth: big people confront their fears. They admit them, face them, and deal with them. Small people ignore them by taking their pain and transferring those to other people. They get angry and yell and make everyone else miserable so that they can avoid confronting the fact that they feel like failures, and they’re afraid of the future, and they worry that they are not in control.

If you’re an angry person, then the next time you feel angry, don’t just count to ten before you erupt. Take that time to ask yourself, “what else am I really feeling?” And then deal with that. When we can be big enough to ask the hard questions, we’ll often find that our fears become much smaller, and our life, in turn, much bigger.

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  1. I find that if I listen to someone rant or blow of steam long enough, the real source of their anger will often surface in a direct of even indirect way. They may not recognize it, but I will pick up on it right away. This seems to be an especially good process to use with women. They are not accustomed to to vocalizing their pain or disappointment. They seem to feel it is their job to suck it up and keep the relationship boat afloat. If you let them vent long enough they will get to the crux of the matter. It usually sounds like “No body appreciates me and what I do for them. They don’t think about what can they do for me sometime.” OF “No body listens to me when I talk. They don’t understand what I’m saying.” It can sometimes take quite a while to get to that point as women will hit all the manifestations of the problem before finally saying what is really on their heart. I think a lot of this likely stems from the feeling no one listens to them until they finally get good and mad so they keep bundling up issues until they get “angry” enough to be listened too. What do you ladies say about that? Seriously.

    • Wow, does this describe me! I was always the pleaser in the family trying to smooth things over while my sister or brother fought about everything. Once I became an adult I started yelling at my students when it seemed like I had no other way to control them and then after having children I started screaming at them and as they got older and the house got messier and I felt like more of a failure every day it got worse. I am trying to stop myself and am doing better, but my children are all screamers now and I am desperately trying to help us all look at why we are yelling. Not being heard seems to be the answer all the time, so I am trying to help us all show more respect to each other by listening and responding the first time someone speaks. The sad part is I would yell at the children that I had to yell to get them to ever listen. I know I am not disciplined myself and dislike disciplining my children so that is why they never took me serious until I yelled. If you are not a screamer, but know someone that is, send this to them and pray that their eyes will be opened. I wish I had been strong enough to seek help when this first started all those years ago. I wish I had gone to some type of anger management group or counselor. I wasn’t being heard by my students, husband or children, but in the end I realize that I needed to set boundaries and speak up for myself before I became so frustrated. BUT it is never too late and now that i know better, I can and will do better. Thank you Sheila for bringing up this subject so many of us are trying to be good every where else and fall down horribly in this area.

  2. As a people pleaser, I’m a feelings stuffer and then yep, I end up angry. It’s something I am constantly battling with. I know it stems from my abuse as a child and having it ignored when I told. Very good reminders Sheila. I’m working on it!
    Mel @ Trailing After God recently posted…Wear GratitudeMy Profile

  3. Words can not express how much I appreciate this post. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this post! I was just thinking the other day about sending you an email about this very thing. Perfect timing! Hmmm…God’s timing, probably so! Thanks!

  5. Thanks for posting this. What advice would you give to someone living with an angry person?

    • Excellent question! Let me think on that and turn that into a Reader Question post. Quick thoughts: work on friendship to keep tension down. When you can laugh, it’s easier to talk about issues. If he/she is yelling, be polite, but leave the room. Tell them you are more than willing to discuss it when they are not yelling. Try to find regular times to say what’s on your mind; when people feel listened to, they don’t get angry as often. But big thing: don’t reward the behaviour. Don’t allow them to push you around. Be strong. Leave the room. Say no. And, in some cases, bring in a third party and insist you sit down and see a counselor to come up with ideas on what to do when anger rears its head.

  6. There are no coincidences with God–this article came to my Inbox just as a social/friendship issue my 18 yo daughter is involved in exploded. A supposedly close friend took very easy offense at something, and after some hurtful comments, ended the friendship. As my daughter was complaining to another friend about the issue, with her anger building up steam, I was able to share this article with them both. I pointed out that the offended/ing friend obviously has issues hiding behind the anger, so they should be understanding; and they in turn should not let anger get the better of them. They both really appreciated the advice and wisdom in the article. Thank you for sharing, Sheila!

  7. This Article Sheila, is Exactly the Truth, I know first hand what living with a “short fused” person is and what it does and has done to those around them. if you read this and your “fuse” seems shorter than most..please get help for those you love or you could even risk, the lose of those most precious to you.
    “The measure of a person is their fuse” Truth!!

  8. Wow, I felt as if you wrote this to me. I am that mom of three who is scared she’s failing. Then, today, a friend said something to me that just burrowed into those fears and I became angry. After I cooled off a bit, I realized my anger was made up of more than just a response to what she said, it was because of those deep rooted fears and insecurities. After realizing WHY I was angry, it was much easier to deal with that anger and give it up.

    It’s not easy to choose to give up being angry, but I like the fact that it IS my choice. I’ll be working on that. Thank you for pointing that out to me, especially today.
    Vinae recently posted…The Real MeMy Profile

  9. I don’t know if I feel like it is *quite* that simple for everyone.

    First, to belittle a person’s feelings (“the shorter the fuse, the smaller the person”) as not being worthy enough to cause anger seems pretty judgmental. Most people who have issues with anger have pretty good reasons to feel that way and the hurt they’ve received along the way to lead to that place of pain should not be discounted by judging them as a smaller person. That would seem to only add to the pain. Of course, they need to mature and not hurt others in the process, but they are not less of a person.

    I used to judge people’s anger because I didn’t think I struggled with it and therefore thought it should be easy for other people to control their emotions. But since I’ve gotten married and had kids, I have struggled with anger and the way I express it. I have come to realize that I often don’t feel heard and that makes me feel uncared for. When you have an expectation that Christian people who love you should show that by listening and they don’t, that seems like a pretty good reason to be upset.

    It also doesn’t feel like I’m making a conscious choice – it happens so quickly. So it feels more difficult to know how to stop it. With both my husband and children, they often won’t respond when I first communicate calmly, so I get frustrated with not being listened to, then I yell, and then they finally respond. So though I don’t want to yell, I feel put in a position by them that conditions me to and when it happens over and over again, it can intensify the hurt and anger. They need to take responsibility for ignoring/disrespecting by not listening and realize that their decision has consequences as well.

    I could relate to the mom in your example, but I get tired of hearing how moms, who are already trying so hard and doing so much, have to also be the ones to fix their marriages and be even better parents than we are already trying to be. It takes 2 parties to have a conflict and both need to work on their issues. Where are the blogs that husbands are writing and reading on how to love your wife as Christ loves the church? Why do kids get a pass to be immature, but adults who are emotionally immature have to somehow fix that? If children can’t do it, why would emotionally immature adults with a past of hurt and pain be able to?

    I think the answer lies more in grace and the power of the Holy Spirit then counting to 10. And just telling people to just deal with the underlying feelings doesn’t always make them seem smaller. I’ve realized that throughout my entire life there is a theme of not feeling heard (and therefore cared for) by a host of Christian people. That has felt sad to me and I’m grieving this. And unfortunately, my lifelong companion (and his Christian parents) is one of the ones that has emotionally neglected me the most. Discovering this has not made life easier or minimized the anger.

    I have experienced some emotional healing (at a women’s retreat prayer service) regarding my own parents and I have started reading “Bait of Satan” which shares such Truth about not having the right as Christians to be offended. So I’m praying that God will continue the healing through that. But it’s long and hard and these kind of posts seem ungracious and discouraging. I think you have a lot of wisdom and experience, but I would appreciate you sharing it with more compassion and less pigeon-holing.

    God bless your ministry.

  10. @mel its simple: ‘be angry and sin not.’ adults take ownership of their anger. we all get upset but if i need that many words to justify why i’m an exception and being sinful in my anger is excusable i’m working too hard at avoiding personal responsibility.

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