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Three-Step Program to Controlling Anger

Contrary to popular "myth," that we should "let it all out," the author of Getting Control of Your Anger teaches that we can and should restrain this negative passion.

"Surely anger kills the fool," declares Job 5:1, a warning echoed by sages through the centuries and more recently by physicians and psychologists. People prone to anger seek help to reduce the risk of heart attack or because they are troubled by the corrosive effects of anger in their relationships and family life. They turn to counselors, confessor, rabbis, gurus or self-help books, such as Getting Control of Your Anger by psychologist Robert Allan, a specialist in helping coronary patients manage their anger.

Allan draws on recent scientific research to back up his three-step method. As a medieval historian who has studied Christian therapies for anger, I was struck by the similarities of Allan's approach to ancient and medieval teachings about anger. For this mass market self-help book Allan keeps technical information to a minimum and instead makes his point through engaging stories—an ancient strategy in anger management. The Roman Seneca used anecdotes about angry tyrants for his book On Anger, although his own pupil, the cruel Emperor Nero, eventually sentenced him to death.

Medieval preachers like to compare the wrathful to savage animals, such as the rabid dog or the wild boar, as well as to more exotic creatures such as the mythological basilisk serpent that kills with its poisonous glance and fiery breath, a metaphor for insult and abuse. Then as now, anger was likened to fire, which flares up quickly and spread out of control. Fire also evokes the flush of rage as well as the hellfire in which the wrathful and violent are punished.

Before explaining how to control our anger, Allan's first task is to convince us that we can and should restrain our passion. He demolishes modern myths that warn us about "bottling up" anger instead of "letting it all out." On the contrary, angry outbursts are bad for our coronary health and lead to self-defeating actions that harm those around us. Nevertheless, unlike Buddhists or ancient Stoics, Allan does not counsel the elimination of anger altogether. In fact, like Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, he argues that anger has been hardwired in our brains as a way of coping with threatening situations. Although the way that we express our anger is learned at an early age, it can be modified when we are adults. Allan doesn't promise that "the meek shall inherit the earth," but he hopes at least to help people to live more fulfilling and harmonious lives by overcoming angry habits and not passing them on to their own children.

Allan's first step in controlling one's anger is to identify what he calls anger "hooks," namely the situations that lead to rage. In other words, anger isn't something that happens to us automatically. We choose to "take the bait" when becoming angry. Similarly, medieval preachers warned that the devil uses anger to blind and trick us into doing his work. When we identify these hooks, however, we can start avoiding occasions for anger. In therapy, patients talk about their hooks, but Allan suggests journaling as a way to reflect individually upon our angry behaviour. These techniques resemble examination of conscience and confession.

Because Allan believes that anger's function is to alert us to threats and frustrations, his second step involves determining which of our basic needs are not being met when we feel angry. We act out in anger when we don't get the respect we need, or when our boundaries (space, time, authority, etc.) are violated.

The third step is to find constructive ways to acknowledge and address these needs rather than trying to hurt others. In the words of Psalm 4:5, "Be angry, but do not sin." For the most part this involves learning to communicate more directly and tactfully. Allan offers some practical tips for complaining effectively, diffusing enraged people, dealing with meddling grandparents and getting along with divorced spouses.

Allan admits that changing angry habits is difficult and that perfect control is unattainable. The goal is to become an "optimal anger family' … that strives to understand, manage and express this often challenging emotion in the best possible way." Allan also concedes that when our conflicting needs can't be resolved, we may have to adjust our expectations and brace ourselves against adversity. For the same reason medieval preachers likened the patient person to a knight suited in armour.

Allan's therapy is practical, but it lacks the persuasive arguments of faith. The Bible commands us to avoid anger, turn the other cheek and trust in God's justice. Romans 12:19 says, "Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, 'vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'" The rewards of heaven and the threat of hell are further motivations to be meek, patient and forgiving.

Getting Control of You Anger is worth a read. The wrathful will find Allan's book a sensitive and clear guide to mastering passion and using it constructively. Milder readers will gain sympathy toward their more irascible friends and relatives and realize how mundane occasions—bad service in a restaurant, noisy kids, heavy traffic, pushy in-laws—can be anger hooks for just about everyone. Allan hints that the virtues of patience, forgiveness, mercy, charity and humility remain as relevant to modern life as they were in centuries past. Therefore, although the psychologist promises a clinically proven plan for achieving emotional temperance, because it also leads to moral transformation, it places Allan in a long tradition of teaching self-mastery.

Marc Cels is the author of books for young readers, including Life on a Medieval Manor, Life in a Medieval Monastery and Arts and Literature in the Middle Ages. He has a PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto.

Originally published in The Catholic Register, Week of June 25, 2006.




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