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Rabbi Shmuel Gluck - Areivim - When Anger Holds Us Back
by Rabbi Shmuel Gluck

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10/22/10

When Anger Holds Us Back: Part 1

Feeling angry is normal. This doesn't mean that people have a right to feel angry, or that it's an effective thing to do. Anger is certainly against the Torah's teaching. When I say that it's normal, I mean that human nature allows for people to become angry.

Anger can be an emotional or logical reaction. There's a beautiful comment by the Malbim in Sefer Shmuel 1 Perek 11 Posuk 6: "Anger, when experienced by a Gibor, a strong person (not in the physical sense, but one who has strong self discipline) motivates him to respond effectively. When experienced by a weak person, it makes him unhappy."

I believe the Malbim is telling us that Hashem has instilled the trait of anger in people with the intention of motivating them to respond to injustices. Anger highlights to people that they feel "strongly" about something, and should motivate them to intervene.

When used in this manner, anger is a logical reaction. People observe a situation, assess its effect, and begin to think of solutions. (Articles on problem solving and self esteem, which play a large role in how people react to difficult situations, are available.) However for most people, anger is rooted in their emotions and not with logic, and there's a big difference between emotional and logical anger. When rooted in people's emotions anger is a negative, hurting all those involved; when used logically it's positive, focusing on making things better.

Before discussing how one should deal with anger, I need to differentiate between anger and frustration. Many people are not "in touch" with their feelings and, as a result, can't differentiate between these two words. Frustration indicates that something went wrong and there's no one to blame. Anger indicates that the frustration can legitimately be directed at someone.

For instance, a father may ask his son to go home from Shul in order to get his glasses. However, when he does, he wakes up his mother. Is the father to blame for waking her, or is it the circumstances. (The father didn't know that the mother was sleeping.) Nevertheless, some wives will become upset and angry at their husbands for this, when they should only become frustrated. When these distorted emotions are repeated often, they generate long term consequences.

Teenagers may compile multiple reasons why other people are to blame for their not doing well in school. However, in reality, there may be no one to blame. The school standards may be too difficult, or the other boys may come from different backgrounds. Nevertheless, they may still convince themselves that someone, or a group of people, are to blame for their poor performance. What should be frustrating episodes in their lives become angry ones.

Feeling anger when one should feel frustration is damaging, because it's much more difficult to "let go" of anger than it's to let go of frustration. In addition, the anger is often directed at people who continue to be involved in their lives. Whenever the teenagers see the "guilty" people, they're constantly reminded of the incidents, making it very difficult to "let go" of the anger.

There's another reason why anger is more damaging to angry people and to those involved in their lives, than is frustration. People don't forget events that involve other people as fast as they forget events that involve objects. For example, when people trip over a branch and fall, they can't be angry at the branch for very long, since it's an object that's unable to have any independent thought or motivation. They have no choice but to feel clumsy or, maybe even, stupid.

However, if they were tripped by a person, they may never really know what the "tripper's" real intentions were. However, to avoid feeling clumsy or stupid, they prefer to believe that the "trippers" meant to trip them, or, at least was so careless that they can still be blamed. To preserve their self image, they must "decide" that the situation is not a frustrating one, in which there's no one to blame, but that it's one that deserves anger, and in which someone can be blamed.

Placing blame and anger elsewhere, may help people in the short term. They can continue to think well of themselves. However, the long term cost is often "horrible". The anger may: 1) stay within them causing self damage; 2) be directed at the "trippers", ending their relationship with those people; 3) be so strong that others will distance themselves from them; 4) cause them to disassociate, not only from the people who tripped them, but with everything that the trippers represent. This last possibility has caused many teenagers to place themselves both at risk and in crisis.

One must keep in mind that the "right" to be angry isn't always simple. Life is full of different shades of black and white. It's possible that the "trippers" had some bad intentions, but not as many as the victims believe. There may be room for anger, but the situation is often a blend of anger and frustration. In such cases full blown anger is misguided and will prevent logical thought, causing what should have been a short term problem to be a long term problem.

For example, a boy may have been told to leave a school. It's possible that the principal was "out to get him". However, the boy should also consider that he was at least partially to blame. He "missed" school multiple times, brought prohibited items into school, and broke multiple other rules. Another principal could have been more patient, but the majority of the blame is the result of either a mismatch between school and boy, or the boy's own behavior.

This example highlights how multiple factors can negatively affects peoples situations. However, there may be circumstances in which people are totally to blame, nevertheless directing anger at them is still unfair. For instance, parents may have truly wronged their children. They made commitments to their children, didn't keep them, and then didn't apologize. This may seem to be a case where the anger directed at the parents is appropriate.

Although the parent's may seem to be totally at fault, they may have been products of a similar upbringing, with similar parents (which is not unusual). Should one be angry, frustrated, or possibly pity, these parents' personal challenges? It's difficult to have pity, instead of anger, for someone who has wronged us, especially when it may have been over a lifetime. However the children should allow frustration to at least temper some of the anger directed at their parents.

To be continued...

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