Temper control

Abigail and I were recently corresponding about the subject of anger. I don’t know whether it’s my background as a spoiled only child or my Irish genes or my naturally selfish disposition, but I think that the majority of my day-to-day sins involve getting disproportionately angry and frustrated when things don’t go my way.

For example: the other day I was in a desperate hurry to get out of the house, my two toddlers were fussy, the baby was crying, and I needed to print something before I could leave. I hit “Print” on the document, ready to snatch the paper as soon as it fell into the tray, and…nothing. I waited. Nothing. Not only would the printer not print, but there wasn’t even an error message so that I could diagnose the problem. I was furious. I eventually gave up and stormed around the house, shutting the kitchen cabinets extra hard, slamming my purse onto the kitchen counter, and indulging in other childish behaviors. I’m sure I made my kids miserable with my grouchy temperament, and it certainly did nothing for my soul to fly around in such a state of disquiet and agitation.

Shortly after this incident I received Abigail’s email bringing up the topic of dealing with anger in daily life (which she also wrote about here). It was a wakeup call that this is an area of my life that I need to work on right now: having three kids ages three and under often puts me in situations where I feel out of control and things aren’t going my way, so it would be a great service to my family (and my soul) to learn to adapt a more serene disposition in the face of frustrating events.

But how?

intro devout life Temper controlI thought I recalled St. Francis de Sales saying something about this in his amazing Introduction to the Devout Life, so I got my copy off the bookshelf to review. I opened it to a random page and my eyes immediately fell on a paragraph discussing the control of anger. (Dear God: point taken.) The great spiritual director writes:

It is better to attempt to find a way to live without anger than to pretend to make a moderate, discreet use of it. When we find ourselves surprised into anger through our own imperfections and frailty, it is better to drive it away quickly than to start a discussion with it. If we give it ever so little time, it will become mistress of the place, like the serpent that easily draws in his body where it can once get in its head.

When I first read this it struck me as impossible. I thought back to the printer incident, muttering something along the lines of, “How am I supposed to not be angry when my printer won’t print and WON’T EVEN GIVE ME A FREAKING ERROR MESSAGE?!?!” Surely my anger in this incident was completely justified, even if my actions were out of line. So it once again seemed like St. Francis was speaking directly to me when he wrote:

[Anger] is nourished by a thousand false pretexts; there never was an angry man who thought his anger was unjust.

Hmm. So it sounds like step one is to stop justifying my feelings, to silence that voice in my head that assures me that anyone would feel angry in such a frustrating situation and that my feelings are completely justified. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but I wouldn’t be able to properly discern the truth in the heat of the moment anyway, so I might as well banish that line of thinking altogether.

Next, St. Francis recommends that we work on meekness as a counter-balance to tendencies toward anger:

[W]hen we find that we have been aroused to anger we must call for God’s help like the apostles when they were tossed about by the wind and storm waters…Prayers directed against present and pressing anger must always be said calmly and peaceably and not violently. […]

Correct the fault right away by an act of meekness toward the person you were angry with. It is a sovereign remedy against lying to contradict the untruth on the spot as soon as we see we have told one. So also we must repair our anger instantly by a contrary act of meekness. […]

[W]hen your mind is tranquil and without any cause for anger, build up a stock of meekness and mildness. Speak all your words and do all your actions, whether little or great, in the mildest way you can.

He then exhorts us to seek a calm state of mind, even when (perhaps especially when) we find ourselves in a state of anger:

[A]t the first attack you must immediately muster your forces, not violently and tumultuously but mildly yet seriously. Among the crowds in certain senate chambers and parliaments we see ushers crying, “Quiet there!” thus making more noise than those they want to silence. So too it often happens that by trying violently to restrain our anger, we stir up more trouble within our heart than the wrath excited before. […]

When overcome by anger [many people] become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed, and vexed at being vexed. By such means they keep their hearts drenched and steeped in passions. […]

We must be sorry for our faults, but in a calm, settled, firm way.

In the short time that I’ve been trying to apply St. Francis’ ideas to my own behavior, I think it is actually his wisdom from the chapter on temptation has been of the most help to me. He writes of dealing with any kind of temptation, whether it’s to anger or lust or gluttony or anything else:

Temptation to a certain sin, to any sin whatsoever, might last throughout our whole life, yet it can never make us displeasing to God’s Majesty provided we do not take pleasure in it and give consent to it. The reason is that when we are tempted we are not active but passive and inasmuch as we do not take pleasure in it we cannot incur any guilt. […]

Never think of yourself as overcome as long as [temptations] are displeasing to you, keeping clearly in mind the difference between feeling temptation and consenting to it…Our soul does not always have the power not to feel the temptation but it can always refuse to consent to it. Therefore, no matter how long a temptation lasts it cannot harm us so long as it displeases us.

With Thanksgiving coming up and lots of friends and family around, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to feel frustrated. Maybe this one person didn’t follow my directions about what food to give the toddlers, my children were misbehaving, and someone gave me some unsolicited parenting advice. What would typically happen in these types of situations is that as soon as I felt upset, I’d feel like I’d lost. “Well, there I go again, getting upset about little things!” I’d think in defeat, huffing around and making sure everyone knew of my displeasure.

Yet this advice makes me realize that, when those familiar emotions of frustration or anger or exasperation arise, I haven’t lost yet. As long as I don’t indulge in them — walking around with an inner dialogue about how annoying it all is, shutting doors and cabinets extra hard, wallowing in a “woe is me” mentality — I have won. Even if the feeling is still there, if I reject it with calm displeasure and refuse to allow it to impact my thoughts or actions, good has won out.

I thought I’d share this since it’s sometimes interest to hear what others struggle with and what is helpful to them in overcoming it. Also, since big family holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving are sometimes stressful, I thought that these excerpts from St. Francis de Sales might be helpful to some people this week. icon smile Temper control

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22 Responses to “Temper control”
  1. Terri says:

    You are right. This is helpful and just what I needed. Your description of the way you react when you are angry or frustrated sound much like my own reactions. It’s true that we always want to justify our anger and frustration.

    By the way, computers and printers are an endless source of frustration for me, perhaps because I know so little about how to solve the problem. At any rate, I think God must use them to teach me patience. :)

  2. LSK49rs says:

    I also struggle with anger – and it usually stems from a feeling of not really mattering to people around me. I know I need to remember that if I matter only to He who is my Savior then I am fine. However, the sin I take most often to the confessional is the sin of selfishness and self-centeredness. Thank you so much for your post.

  3. Abigail says:

    Fantastic post! Unbelievable about how a Saint’s words from so long ago has the perfect prescription for modern life. I suggest we all log in on Sunday and report on insights gained from the Great Thanksgiving Meekness challenge.

  4. Ave Maria says:

    I accept St. Francis’ premise to pray first and become humble, and I even have first hand experience with the positive outcome of prayer in a difficult situation. But how to become meek? I could use some for examples of how to become meek in the face of two specific situations that I struggle with.

    1 Someone attacking the Church.
    2 A client refusing to pay for services rendered.

    Both situations drive me to distraction. How does one behave meekly while under attack? I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying I haven’t figured out how. Even with prayer I struggle.

    If I don’t insist on collection of my receivables I am damaging the company and everyone who works there.

    If I don’t speak up for the faith, I feel I am assenting to it’s attack by my silence.

  5. Jennifer F. says:

    Abigail – great idea! I’ll definitely write about how it went.

    Ave Maria – From what I understand, I think it’s possible to be *firm* but not *angry* (which is not to say that I’m great about doing that personally). In the case of a client not paying, for example, I think it would be OK to calmly explain that you’ll be forced to take them to court to get the money they owe you if they won’t pay. :)

    In terms of defending the Church, I think that this site has some great resources and advice. Check the “Internet Evangelization” section.

  6. Cow Bike Rider (alias, Chris Sagsveen) says:

    Anger and Temptation. Too bad we have to deal with all that stuff.

    Signed,
    Enjoying Your Blog

  7. Vincentia says:

    This is very helpful. Thank you. I have struggled with anger, and even though I am tons better now that I am older, it still shows its evil little head now and then. Rage is not really an issue with me, but I tend to get moody and frustrated and complain and just have a bad attitude sometimes, and that is not at all good either.

    And as for the book by St Francis de Sales, I read that some years ago, and I think I should reread it. Might even make for a good Advent book.

  8. Christina. B says:

    I am not sure if you know this but you have been nominated in two categories for the bloggers choice awards.

  9. Courageous Grace says:

    I also suffer from a tendency to anger, so much I’ve begun to go to therapy (with a Christian therapist who shares similar philosophies) and have found that my anger towards others stems from my own insecurities and a feeling of lack of control in situations.

    Prayer has been a wonderful way to combat my feelings of helplessness, and then when I realize that I don’t need to “control” everything the anger dissipates. I’ve been trying to get into the habit of praying as soon as I get behind the wheel of the car (before I put it in drive). It usually ends up something like:

    “Lord, I know that people are going to do stupid things today, someone is bound to cut me off, run a light in front of me, or something equally dangerous or just plain idiotic. Please guide my hands and feet so that I may safely arrive at my destination, and calm my heart so that I do not yell at those who cannot hear me.”

    Great post, Jen, and thanks for visiting my blog :D

  10. P says:

    How does one behave meekly while under attack?

    I find it helpful to consider the following scenario, in which *blank* is “whatever it is that’s ticking you off:”

    Imagine that Our Lord Jesus Christ should descend from heaven, and say to you, “My child, you are a sinner. The devil has accused you day and night before me since first you attained the age of reason. My own perfection recoils at you; my holiness shrinks from you; my justice demands your eternal damnation. Yet for the sake of my Precious Blood, my Father has decreed that you shall never see Everlasting Fire. Instead of an eternity of torment, He has decreed that you shall be punished with a lesser penalty.

    “Your sentence is this: one day, you will suffer *blank*, and you will respond with kindness only.”

    So personally, I think the best antidote to anger is gratitude. It is impossible to be angry at any wrong, when we consider how preferable it is to the alternative, and what a mercy God has shown us in accepting these sufferings in union with His own.

    There is one other consideration: all that we suffer, we can offer to Christ, and He shall offer it to the Father as though it were His own. And the result shall be grace for you and the world.

    So consider this, if you had an enemy, who decided to express his displeasure at you by pelting you with fistfuls of three-carat diamonds, would you:

    A. Think how mean he was to throw things at you?
    B. Whip out the dust pan and start sweeping up a big new house?

    So here is another question for you: is the grace of God more valuable to you than diamonds? Is it really? If the value of the diamonds would make you lose all thought of the man throwing them at you, how much more should the blessing of God make you ignore all evil done to you? Do not men do you a greater good by wronging you than they could ever give you by any gift they have to give?

    But go still farther: imagine that as this man was throwing handfuls of diamonds at you, you had a sick loved one who could not afford medical treatment, or you were about to lose your house, or your business was about the go bankrupt.

    So now I ask you: do you not know anyone in need of the grace of Christ? Should you not thank God for every opportunity you have to win them the grace they need?

    What greater friend has a Christian than an enemy?

  11. blog nerd says:

    Ave Maria–

    I apologize for providing unsolicited commentary on your question but I think that when someone is attacking the Church anger is the only correct response. Just as if someone attacked our husband or children unprovoked. de Sales here is acknowledging that anger is often appropriate, but acknowledges that it is easy for the Tempter to use that excuse to suck us into overwhelming and inappropriate uses of Wrath.

    But remember Jesus in the Temple.

    Jennifer F.–thanks for this as I have not read de Sales and this was a good sampling.

    Why do printers fail when we have limited time? ALWAYS?

    I have similar issues with anger–most of my daily inappropriate shows of anger have to do with EXACTLY what you are describing.

    I also find that WRATH is usually the end result of a few other sins snowballing.

    Like, PRIDE and VANITY–I want to get xy and z done because I want people to see I can get things done.

    Or I need to get this done in order to fill a disordered sense of ambition.

    Ambition is my biggest sin and most of my wrath has involved a thwarting of it in some way.

    God help the event or worse, the PERSON, who gets in the way of me completing a chapter.

  12. Christina. B says:

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  13. Alicia Nin says:

    Thanks Jen! You can not imagine how useful this is for me.

  14. Abigail says:

    My stressful part of the weekend is over, so I wanted to report on my progress. This advice really worked well for me.

    Wednesday, my husband had to work late. All three of my kids had colds. My family wanted to take my family out to dinner and I couldn’t reach my husband at his office to check on his plans. My temper really started to slip. I stopped and prayed as directed by St. Francis de Sales. I have NOT gotten to the “pray calmly” yet, but God must reward my humble beginning efforts.

    Every time I started getting angry at my husband, I countered it with “I’m glad he’s busy with a new client because he is providing well for our family.” It felt a little forced and strained for a while. I kept at it.

    Finally, I cleared up enough to realize why I was really upset. I was really scared to take 3 sick kids to a fancy restaurant alone. I took that prayer to our Blessed Mother and man was it answered. 3 perfect, sleepy kids who let me eat in peace for 2 hours. (A feat not to be repeated for the rest of the weekend, but that is alright!)

    So this basic strategy got repeated for Thanksgiving Day and for the dinner party we hosted today.

    During this practice, I found it extremely helpful to be to say an “Act of Contrition” after each anger episode. This gave me great peace when I review my actions at bedtime. Instead of feeling a great distance with God at the end of the day, I was more comforted by noticing how many times I successfully turned myself around to face him again.

    Also, in one instance I had trouble coming up with a positive statements towards the person that I was angry with. I struggled for awhile on my own, then asked my husband to pray with me. Having him bless the person with the same words I was having trouble “believing’ in my prayer really help. Who knew this was the real way to save a dinner party?

  15. Jennifer F. says:

    Abby – very interesting! I don’t have time to write right now but will post my update soon!

  16. Val says:

    I entered the church at Easter and was confirmed in the name of Saint Francis De Sales. His “Introduction to the Devout Life” was one of the key reasons I continued my journey into the church. When the idea of taking a Saint’s name for confirmation came up, I didn’t really have anything in mind, and my RCIA director said sometimes you don’t find the Saint, the Saint finds you. Saint Francis found me for confirmation, and it looks like he found you, as well.

    Thanks for blogging – you are truly an inspiration.

  17. Kristen says:

    Wow. There are a lot of good pieces of advice here. I guess my comment doesn’t have advice so much as and a question. Is it unfair to point to the husbands out there, and ask them what they are doing to help their wives avoid the stress and anxiety that can lead to anger fits?

    I am thinking back to the early years of my motherhood (we have 8 kids now, and my toddlers still occasionally will hear mommy yell) and remembering the desperation of dragging five kids under the age of six to the grocery, and one was autistic, so I really had to be on my toes to make sure that he didn’t lose it. By the end of the day, I was often toast.

    Now, I’m older, wiser, and I have more experience just receiving whatever the kids dish out. But I am not immune to the feeling of desperation that I can’t get anything done!

    An old Irish priest who wouldn’t let me confess that I had yelled one time asked me, “Well, did they deserve it?!” Well, no one does, but his Q got me to thinking of better discipline, and the trick to that, for me, was involving my husband more in the problem solving and discipline…and stress relief.

    The other key was resignation that I wasn’t going to get much done, and in fact, I would get done only what God allowed for on top of my daily grind. And being ok with that. (I still struggle with that…)

    Your advice is good, and yet, I find many women (those who work and those who are stay at home) enduring stress levels that I think are too high, because it is a pressure cooker dealing with so many little ones at once, especially if you are homeschooling or have all tiny ones. They are not rational, and even the best of moms will find that when surrounded by little unreasoning tyrants, you tend to resemble the least common denominator. How many tantrums can you endure before you cannot resist throwing one yourself?

    The change for me was working with my husband to lower my stress level after the birth of #6. We got help in the home, and I pulled back on outside activities, and that was the year that I finally felt like I could be the mom God wanted me to be.

    I thought it was wonderful and heroic that the one person was rescued by the Blessed Virgin when she was (rightfully)annoyed with hubby for leaving her home alone with 3 sick kids. (forget who posted that) But, at the same time, daddies need a reality check about making a living. The kids and mom need him too. My husband changed radically after staying with our oldest 3 for three days when baby #4 was in the hospital…I came home to a man who suddenly appreciated everything I did, and came home promptly everyday to prove it!

    God created the domestic church with only two people first – and they were to be helpmates. To the extent that my hubby learned to practice his role in my motherhood with more attention and devotion, my tirades became more infrequent.

    Sorry this got so longish…I just think that so many women feel that they need to be paragons of virtue, when in fact, we are little children ourselves who desperately need to climb on our own Blessed Mother’s lap and be hugged and reminded that this is a very tough vocation– and not one to tackle all alone.

  18. Melanie B says:

    Jennifer,

    Thanks this is very helpful. Anger is one of my big problems too. The worst is that it’s usually frustration with my poor little toddler who can’t help it that she can’t explain what she wants or doesn’t understand why she can’t have it now or why I can’t always give her all the attention she needs exactly when she wants it. Of course what I’m usually really angry about is having to drop what I want to be doing to pay attention to her desires. I find myself acting just like she does, complete with whine and temper tantrum.

    I think I might have to get a copy of this book. This looks like something I’ll have to read more than a few times.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for posting about a topic most of us struggle with.

    I was just like you when my kids were little. . . slamming doors, yelling, throwing pillows, etc. I’m sorry to admit that but it is the truth. I only did that when they were VERY young and I thought it wouldn’t matter.

    Well, guess what, my teen responds exactly the same way when he/she is angry. It is a horrible lesson to learn– our kids mimic our every response.

    Plus, when you yell at your kids, you’ve lost.

  20. Peter says:

    OK, I need to go back and read this one again, and again.

  21. Clavem Abyssi says:

    Hi Jen, stumbled across your blog.

    I too am somewhat new to the Church and St.Francis is very dear to me, too. Someone said that St.Francis was from “so long ago”, but really, Francis is one of the more modern doctors of the church. He is also an especially modern thinker in regards to his advice to laypeople, which was considered novel at the time. All of Francis’ advice seems so incredibly balanced and reasonable – nothing is out of place or exaggerated for the sake of rhetoric. His writings really drive home Christ’s words that His yoke is light and sweet. They’re also full of delightful folksy medieval French proverbs and wordplay.

    Regarding anger, I’m reminded of a chapter from the Spirit of St.Francis de Sales (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/9184), his biography, which is worth reading as well.

    “Blessed Francis candidly owned that the two passions which it cost him the most to conquer were “love of creatures and anger.” The former overcame by skill, the latter by violence, or as he himself was wont to say, “by taking hold of his heart with both hands.”

    As regards the passion of anger, which was very strong in him, he fought against it, face to face, with such persevering force and success that meekness and gentleness are considered his chief characteristics.”

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  1. […] to be the theme of my prayers and writing for the past few weeks, but ever since the subject first came up I haven’t been able to avoid it. I didn’t realize how often I let my Irish temper get […]