The spiritual-cognitive components of anger were long recognized by our Church Fathers. St. Basil recognized the loss of reason in anger. "It makes a man completely bestial...In fact, it does not even allow him to be a man at all, because he ho longer has the help of his reason."
An interesting spiritual issue arises in this context. In order for us to perceive ourselves to be "intruded on" to the extent that it justifies, anger, vengeance, and retaliation we have to have to see ourselves as 'important.' St. Basil tells us "Anger nurses a grievance. The soul, itching for vengeance, constantly tempts us to repay those who have offended" (St Basil the Great, Homily 10). I am so important, so above others I have the "right" to act uncharitably toward other.
What is the root of this reaction? The passion and sin of pride. St Mark the Acetic (Philokalia V. I) wrote: "The passion is strengthened especially by pride. And as long as it is so strengthened it cannot be destroyed. ...Thus the structure of evil in the soul is impossible to destroy so long as it is rooted firmly in pride." From the Shepard of Hermas (Book II Commandment 5) who saw the Holy Spirit choked by anger: "For he is choked by the vile spirit, and cannot attend on the Lord as he wishes, for anger pollutes him. For the Lord dwells in long-suffering, but the devil in anger." Abba Agathon wrote that anger can produce spiritual death: "An irascible man, even if he is capable of raising the dead, will not be received into the Kingdom of Heaven." Another holy desert father Abba Poimen saw anger as obliterating he who would consider himself a monk: "A complaining, vindictive monk, prone to anger, cannot exist,". That is to say that, any who have such faults are not actually monks, even if they wear the schema."
Mankind is created in the image of God and as creatures of God we are called to be "like" Him. (Gen. 1:26) The Church Fathers define the image of God in us as our free will and intelligence. To be like Him meant that mankind must choose "the good." For our first parents, choosing good was to obey their Creator — not to make themselves into gods by tasting the fruit of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Noting mankind coveted a spiritual power above it's created nature Blessed Augustine interpreted this passage to mean that Adam and Eve thought of themselves as having the knowledge of God.
When God further revealed His Will in the form of the Law: the Ten Commandments (Deut 5: 6-21). and other proscriptions listed for His people. When the fullness of time had come and God sent His "only Begotten Son" our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, He revealed to us the fullness of what it was to be "like" Him. Our Lord tells us "And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another." (John13:34,35).
What greater love could the Father have for us that even though He is God, nevertheless, send His Son to take on our nature so we — all mankind — can be lifted up to Him? "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting." (John3:16). Let us ponder some of the things Our Lord has told us about love. "If you forgive the faults of others your Heavenly Father will forgive yours. If you do not forgive the faults of others, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you." (Mt. 6:14-16). "My son your sins are forgiven." (Mk. 2:5). "If you want to avoid judgment, stop passing judgment. " (Mt. 7:1).
How do we achieve this love shown to us by the Father and His Son, Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ? St. Paul tells us: "Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God as forgiven you in Christ." (Eph. 4:31). Our calling as part of God's creation, as a member of Christ's body, the Church, is to grow and actualize ourselves; to find those imperfections in us that are barriers preventing us from being "like God"; that prevent us from loving and forgiving. In keeping with St. Paul's words, our emotions, such as anger, are just such an imperfection or barrier. By making ourselves less angry we can grow in the love of God and our neighbor.
Current research psychology has helped us understand the cognitive structure supporting and triggering anger. Besides aiding in helping us to understanding how anger comes about, this research also helps us to employ psychological techniques that can aid in overcoming and preventing anger. The cognitive-behavioral model of emotional dysfunction (Beck, Shaw & Emery, 1979; Ellis, 1962) has been shown to be effective in this regard.
Beck points out the theme of anger is "significant intrusion." We feel some one has intruded on us or on someone or something we love and posses that we consider to be an extension of ourselves. According to this model, emotions such as anger are produced by distorted or irrational beliefs, attitudes and cognitions. Situations (something that someone has said or done or events that have happened) do not produce or cause our upset.
We upset ourselves over people and events, by our "interpretations" of them, thereby making ourselves dysfunctionally angry, anxious or depressed or simply functionally annoyed, concerned and disappointed. If our thinking is clear, rational and non-distorted we have normal feelings like: bearable nuisances, caring and livable letdowns. If our "interpretations" are irrational or distorted we get enraged, intensely worried and despondent. Ellis has long pointed out that emotions such as anger add to our problems like in a 'domino effect.' Originally we have a problem, the "Activating Event." Our angry emotional response is a new problem added to the original, which in turn is linked to other dysfunctional outcomes, etc.
This was so clearly perceived by one of our spiritual fathers so early after Our Lord's message, the Shepard of Hermas said: "But anger is foolish, and fickle, and senseless. Now, of folly is begotten bitterness, and of bitterness anger, and of anger frenzy. This frenzy, the product of so many evils, ends in great and incurable sin." (Book II, Commandment 5)
Cognitive psychological research has found support for seven cognitive distortions relating to anger and the other dysfunctional emotions:
- Selective Abstraction is focusing on one event to the exclusion of others. A mother , for example, pays attention to the "D" on her son's report card while ignoring the "A's" and "B's." This "D" now becomes the focus of anger.
- Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. For example, a parishioner says "Hello" to the Parish Priest in the Church Hall, the Priest doesn't reply, the person concludes the Priest doesn't like him or her and has a right to be angry.
- Personalization, an event occurs that an individual concludes is directed to them personally. A patron in a busy restaurant perceives the waiter is purposely not waiting on his or her table. The patron never entertains the waiter may be under stress attempting to serve other patron's needs. The patron, concludes, they have a 'right' to be angry.
- Polarization is the tendency to see things in all or nothing terms. 'Cynthia, Jack's wife misses making dinner one evening, because he 'categorizes' events into polarities he views her as a "bad" wife. All the categories between the absolute categories of good and bad are missed. He has the right to be angry at a "bad" wife.
- Generalization is the tendency to see things in always or never categories. 'Jack' comes home late from work. His wife 'Jill' feels her husband will always be inconsiderate and never change. Not only is she angry at his lateness, but his future lateness as well.
- Demanding Expectations, the belief that there are laws or rules that must or have to be obeyed. A mother believes he son should not talk back because she is his "mother." She has the "right" to be angry. (Note God gave us free will, He 'asks' us to obey His commandments. Like Christ, parents can 'prefer and constructively work' toward obedience from their children, but they have no guarantees their children will respect them.) Of spiritual help here is to reflect on the life of Our Lord. He was bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, crucified and died for our salvation. He Himself told us: No servant is greater than his master (Mat. 10:24) —-why would we expect to be treated any differently than Our Lord. It is a blessing if we are treated and honored, but we have no guarantee) A program of rewards for appropriate behavior and punishment, without anger, for inappropriate behavior would be constructive.
- Catastrophizing, the perception that something is more that 100% bad, terrible or awful In the example above, the mother feels that it is terrible, the end of the world, her son answered back, which of course triggers increasing anger.
After recognizing our recognizing and labeling the cognitive distortions , eliciting anger, clinicians aid patients in re-structuring them. There are three questions that lead to restructuring.: 1) Where is the evidence? 2) Is there any other way of looking at it?. 3) Is it as bad as it seems? Using the examples above some restructured interpretations might be: (Selective Abstraction): True, my son got a "D", but he also received some A's and B's); (Arbitrary Inference): "Father didn't say Hello, he may not like me, but maybe he has something on his mind and he didn't even hear me." (Personalization): "The waiter is so busy with other tables, maybe he doesn't even see me." (Polarization): "My wife, Jill missed dinner today, there are many other things that make up our relationship besides one dinner" (Generalization): "Let me talk to Jack about his work schedule and at least ask him to call me if he is going to be late" (Demanding Expectations). "I prefer that my son not talk back to me, let me praise him when he talks correctly and fine him a nickel whenever he talks back."
In addition to the above restructuring questions the "mental ruler technique" (Burns, 1980) is particularly helpful in dealing with Catastrophizing. A situation in the example above a child 'talking back' to his/her parents is evaluated on a 0 to 100 scale, with 0 being the most pleasant thing you could picture happening to you. People infrequently have trouble imaging a very pleasant event (0). Sitting on a sun drenched tropical beach is a typical image. People frequently need help imaging a "graphic" worst event (100).
Use of an example such as the particularly horrifying death of a medical missionary in Southeast Asia several years ago can be of help. After starvation failed to kill this individual, his captors placed chopsticks in his ears and hammered then in, a little each day, until the chopsticks penetrated his brain and the missionary died. Using the "mental-ruler technique' and the restructuring questions, it can be seen that the mother whose son answered back is surely not the same as chopsticks in the ears, in fact, it is probably no more that a 10 or 20 on the mental-ruler scale. Thus successful catastrophizing challenging and a more realistic evaluation. Instead of viewing this a "catastrophe" is now is viewed as a manageable problem to be solved.
These psychological techniques have to be applied rigorously and consistently. They should be used whenever we find ourselves starting to become angry. One helpful way is to excuse yourself and leave the room for a few minutes to collect our thoughts, making sure the psychological "restructuring and reinterpretation is also permeated by Our Lord's teaching and His self-emptying life for us.
We can reflect on the words of St. Mark the Acetic: Do you want the tree of disorder — I mean the passion of bitterness, anger and wrath — to dry up within you and become barred, so that with the axe of the Spirit it may be 'hewn down and cast into the fire' together with every other vice (Matt. 3:10) ...If this is really what you want keep the humility of the Lord in your heart and never forget it...Call to mind who He is, and what He became for our sakes. Reflect first on the divine light of His Divinity revealed to the essences above [the angels] (Eph 1:21)...Then think to what humiliation He descended in His ineffable goodness, becoming in all respects like us who were dwelling in the dwelling of darkness and the shadow of death (Mat 4:16)." Petition Our Lord's help in this way to help restructure.
This "time-out" can be accomplished by something as simple as going to the restroom. Restructuring should can also be incorporated into evening prayer, especially during the examination of conscience and prayer for forgiveness of sins. This active approach toward our becoming like Christ is our vocation as Christians. St. James tells us "So you see, then, it is his actions that a person is put right with God, not by his faith alone" (James 2:24). All the wishing or prayer we do, if it does not lead us to actively make ourselves like Christ is empty.
"Since you are God's dear children you must try to be like him, Your life must be controlled by love ..." (Eph. 5: 1-2). Work, vivified by prayer and the sacraments, is the way to advance in our likeness in Christ. Only then will we be able to say with Christ: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" (Lk 23: 34) This is true anger management.
Beck, A.T., Rush, S., Shaw, B. & Emery, G (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. NY: Guilford Press.
Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. NY: The New American Library.
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. NY: Lyle-Stuart.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1979). The Philokalia 1, London: Faber and Fager
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
Fr. Morelli is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is a Senior Fellow at the Sophia Institute, an independent Orthodox Advanced Research Association and Philanthropic Foundation housed at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City that serves as a gathering force for contemporary Orthodox scholars, theologians, spiritual teachers, and ethicists.
Fr. Morelli serves on the Executive Board of the San Diego Cognitive Behavior Therapy Consortium (SDCBTC)
Fr. Morelli serves as Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
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