AT ONE OF our recent closed meetings here in Toledo, the moderator touched off a lively discussion by introducing “anger” as the evening’s topic. We heard almost as many viewpoints and opinions as there were members present. We also received some valuable information for future program-working.
At the outset, there was some confusion about the nature of anger. Many of the members thought of it only in terms of temper outbursts–getting visibly angry or upset about certain conditions or actions. The moderator thought of it this way, and said that AA had shown him how to keep his anger under control. When he found himself getting mad over something, he said, he was able to suppress his feelings so that he didn’t lose control of himself.
This comment brought a fiery response from another member, who felt that restraining anger was an unhealthy practice. In his own experience, he had found that it was better to let your anger out, to give people both barrels when you thought they were in the wrong. This was a good safety valve for the emotions, he said, and it also kept people from walking all over you. After all, he declared, there was nothing in AA that said you had to be a doormat to stay sober.
As the meeting progressed, both sides of this question came in for thoughtful discussion. But we also discussed the broader subject of anger, in addition to temper outbursts. At some point, a member said that his real problem with anger was not the occasional explosion of temper, which was merely a surface condition. Just as a bottle binge could be a result of continuing wrong thinking, a temper outburst was really only a symptom, he said. We needed to improve our thinking on a regular basis, so we’d be prepared for the occasional times when temper threatened to storm out of control.
I had to agree with this explanation. In my own experience, I had actually tried both suppression and release as ways of handling sudden, explosive anger. I had often tried to restrain or suppress my anger, as the moderator thought you should. I had also tried the outspoken approach of blasting people when I had a grievance. Neither had worked well, although I usually came off better when I restrained my anger, because that restraint kept me from committing irrevocable acts or saying things that never could be recalled or forgiven.
In fact, during recent years, I have usually worked rather hard to keep my anger from showing or getting out of control, because I have been frightened by several instances when I completely lost my temper. These unhappy episodes were not the direct result of drinking; they occurred many years after my last drink. And I could not agree that any good came from such temper outbursts, other than in showing me that I had more work to do on my personal inventory and ways of thinking.
What really is behind a temper outburst? A temper explosion is not something that just blows up out of nowhere, a storm without a cause. It is actually a surface manifestation of inner hostility, of the emotions we often call “resentments” in AA. I’ve learned that I am subject to moments of rage only if I allow myself to wallow around in a swamp of resentful, self-pitying thoughts. It is easy to become outwardly angry, for example, when I have spent several hours thinking about past mistakes, or going over how badly someone treated me in the past. I can also become angry over rejections or setbacks, or just about anything that threatens my security. I find, too, that considerable surface anger can be generated by reading or hearing things that arouse my indignation.
It is also true that I am usually selective about my feelings of anger. For example, I am not likely to get angry over things that mean nothing to me. I used to chuckle over the temper tantrums of an old man when stray dogs and cats would damage his flower beds. But I should have realized that the old man became angry because he cared deeply about his flower beds and had given them hours of hard work and attention. I would have become equally indignant over damage to something that meant a great deal to me, so what right did I have to laugh at the old man in his fury?
Yet it is this kind of temper outburst that has to be avoided at all costs, if only because most of us are ill-equipped to show rage without letting it get out of control and destroying our peace of mind. AA co-founder Bill W. discussed this question very well in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
“It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also. But are there no exceptions to this rule? What about ‘justifiable’ anger? If somebody cheats us, aren’t we entitled to be mad? Can’t we be properly angry with self-righteous folks? For us of AA these are dangerous exceptions. We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.
“Few people have been more victimized by resentments than have we alcoholics. It mattered little whether our resentments were justified or not. A burst of temper could spoil a day, and a well-nursed grudge could make us miserably ineffective. Nor were we ever skillful in separating justified from unjustified anger. As we saw it, our wrath was always justified. Anger, that occasional luxury of more balanced people, could keep us on an emotional jag indefinitely.”
In other words, we seriously injure ourselves with anger, no matter whether we nurse it perpetually or let it explode in a fit of fury. We may think we can get away with it–for instance, when we lose our tempers at somebody who is unable to fight back. But we never really get away with it; we pay a price for every temper outburst and for hanging on to old resentments, grudges, and other garbage. We have no more chance of entertaining anger with impunity than we do of resuming drinking without destroying ourselves.
Many of us know this, however, and are still victimized by attacks of anger and resentment. It is not always enough to know that something we’re doing is wrong or harmful. Such knowledge is of little benefit if we are unable to find a method of changing our habits. They are not easy to change. We are not equipped with automatic mechanisms that enable us instantly to eliminate that which is harmful and replace it with something that is positive and constructive. Also, there is never likely to be any pill or drug that will make better persons out of us; we already had our fill of such an attempt in our sick dependence on alcohol. So what is left to us?
I am convinced that we probably have to face anger in much the same way we faced alcohol: by realizing that we are powerless over it and that it makes our lives unmanageable. Granted, anger doesn’t usually reduce an alcoholic to the condition of helplessness that resulted from drinking. But it is not hard to see that we lose some ability to manage our lives if anger gets out of hand. Even in sobriety, I once stormed out of the house in a rage and had an accident twenty minutes later. I have also told off friends of long standing and committed other dubious actions that required considerable amends later on. I’m sure that other AAs have made similar blunders while in the grip of anger. We may have had reasons for our anger, but the results of our actions left us filled with shame and regret. So it’s not stretching the point too much to say that we should admit complete powerlessness over anger as a first step toward getting out from under it.
Following the logic of the AA method, the next phase would be to turn it over to “a Power greater than ourselves.” I really believe that this is the only completely effective answer to the problem. Now and then, I hear people give out advice in the form of cliches such as “Count to ten before you blow up” or “Try to see the good side of it” or “Look at it from the other person’s point of view.” Such remarks sound good, but they don’t work out well in practice. I am usually incapable of counting to ten or seeing the “good side” when I am blind with rage. If I try to do this, I usually become more resentful than ever!
But if I truly release my resentment to the Higher Power, it fades away, and I get a feeling of peace concerning the matter. It is entirely correct to say that this isn’t easy. Not only is it difficult, but it would be impossible if the Higher Power did not also work to bring about this result. I am unable to explain how this works, except to say that it does work.
The third phase is moral inventory, which includes discussion meetings such as the one mentioned in this article. As I look back over hundreds of AA meetings, I would have to say that I have received excellent advice and information on the subject of anger and resentments. It is true that some AA members try to rationalize bad ways of thinking and behavior, but the general trend has been in the direction of real self-improvement. If we are close to our Fellowship and familiar with many of our faults, we may often think that we are making little progress in correcting serious defects of character. But most of us have abandoned at least some of the worst forms of resentment, and have also committed ourselves to a path of recovery that should include further growth. Our progress will depend on our persistence in remaining on the path, for the conquest of anger is certainly a lifetime job.
But we don’t have to wait very long to enjoy the benefits of our effort. It is something of a thrill to find myself remaining calm and objective while undergoing an experience that would have filled me with rage a short time earlier. It is also a pleasant surprise to feel real pity for people who are in an ugly mood most of the time and frequently blow up during the day. It is obvious that victims of anger and temper explosions cheat themselves of happiness and often destroy the happiness of those close to them. No matter how they try to justify anger, there is no real justification for something that is doing so much harm. It is no chance thing that anger is often called a “deadly” sin. It kills so much that is good in life, and sometimes destroys life itself.
I am grateful to have been given ideas and principles that helped me do something about my temper tantrums and feelings of resentment. Things always work out better if I don’t get mad. By the way, I’ve never been used as a doormat simply by refusing to get mad. Only anger–and alcohol–did that to me.