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
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?
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.