Anger is an emotion that usually comes with content. By contrast, sometimes when we’re depressed or anxious and someone asks, “What are you thinking about when you feel these things?” we honestly reply, “I don’t know. I just feel down or wound up.” But with anger there is usually content to our thoughts: events we replay, phrases we repeat, or arguments we’re still trying to win.
This makes sense because anger is, perhaps, the most moral emotion. Anger declares things wrong and doesn’t feel like it can subside until these wrongs are made right. Because of this, when grief stagnates in the anger phase, our cognitive world gets set on repeat. Even when we’re tired of being angry, we’re not sure how to silence the thoughts when the injustice that prompted it is still unresolved.
The churchy answers to this dilemma often only add fuel to the fire of our anger. “Everything may not be made right in this world, but you can rest knowing it will be in heaven.” That feels like telling a starving person about the incredible buffet in heaven’s cafeteria. “Because Jesus suffered an injustice far greater than our own, we really shouldn’t focus on our own injustices.” That feels like we’re being silenced by the person who’s supposed to be our source of comfort.
Our earlier work in this journey should reassure us that Scripture is not dismissive and God is more compassionate than these responses. The problem with these responses is that they try to tell us why we shouldn’t feel the way we do (or, at best, why we should ignore what we feel) instead of helping us process the anger. That approach adds another layer of unfairness to the anger we’re already grappling with.
By contrast, the approach we are taking is to contextualize our anger within the grief process – which validates its legitimacy – and more healthily engage with each ramification of our angry-grief: emotional, cognitive, social, volitional, and theological. In this reflection, we are seeking to reduce the cognitive interference that comes with being stuck in the anger phase of grief. We will do this in two ways: (a) making the sticky phrases less sticky, and (2) concluding the perpetual trial in our mind.
Addressing Sticky Phrases
Anger has a high propensity for being repetitive. That means you make a list of the things you say to yourself in your anger. Perhaps it’s something like this.
- I’m done!
- It’s all fake!
- It was all for nothing!
- Forget it all!
- Nobody even cares!
These may not be your phrases. But you know the things that have been stuck on loop in your mind; the things you say to yourself whenever something bothers you (even if the prompt is unrelated to your anger-grief). But when you say these things the energy and despair of your past pain infuses the present moment.
A significant part of managing the cognitive interference of grief-stagnated-in-anger is learning to engage these moments differently. The distinction between primary and secondary emotions can be helpful. When a sticky thought intrudes, remind yourself, “This is hot grief. It’s okay to be hurt. It’s okay to be sad.” Hopefully, this alleviates some of the fight-mode we retreat into when we feel compelled to prove our pain is valid.
Second, allow the phrase to become just a temporal description rather than a universal declaration. You might change your phase to (corresponding to the bulleted list above):
- I’m tired.
- Things aren’t as simple and clear as I thought they were.
- My dream for that isn’t going to come true.
- It hurts to remember.
- I’m sad that they don’t seem to get it.
“I’m tired,” is more temporal than, “I’m done.” “Things aren’t as simple as I thought they were,” isn’t as final as, “It was all for nothing.” “It hurts to remember,” describes your experience in this moment, while “Forget it all,” is a desperate statement that can’t even really be done.
Yet, none of these phrases dismiss your grief. By contrast, they focus on what is sad rather than what makes you mad. The goal is to progress in grief rather than stop being angry. Replace your angry phrases with words that give direction to your grief.The goal is to progress in grief rather than stop being angry. Replace your angry phrases with words that give direction to your grief. Click To Tweet
Third, engage with the implication of the restated phrase (again corresponding to the bulleted list above):
- What would it look like for me to rest, emotionally and physically?
- What are the tensions that I didn’t see before but need to manage now?
- What redemptive things did/could happen, even though my main dream for this did not?
- Can I give myself permission to stop rehearsing what happened?
- Who are the people who have understood and supported me?
These aren’t the only alternative questions, but they are meant to give you suggestions for the style of question to engage to disrupt the repetition of your angry phrases. The goal is to give yourself the freedom to feel your primary emotions and, thereby, provide more fruitful questions for your mind to ponder. We aren’t eliminating emotions and thoughts; we are getting them unstuck.
One word of caution here, when you get cognitively tired – even on your more fruitful questions – give yourself permission to rest. If you force yourself to grapple with these questions until they are as resolved as you would like them to be, the cognitive fatigue can give way to a new form of anger and irritability.
Bringing the Trial to Conclusion
The narration of how things should have been handled, or what we would like to say to prove our case can be even stickier than the simple phrases above. We can get completely wrapped up in writing and replaying different versions of these fantasy events. It’s like cognitive junk food; it winds us up and then leaves us feeling exhausted.
As you seek to bring this mental trial to an end, ask yourself a few questions.
- Who is present at my mental trial? Why is each person there?
- What is the point I am trying to make? What is the false point I don’t want to people to believe?
- If the trial was resolved the way I wanted, what would be different? It can’t unwrite history.
These questions point to three responses that can help end our cognitive court proceeding.
- Change your audience – too often we focus on changing the mind of the defendant in our trial; that is, the person(s) who hurt/offended us. Who are the current people of consequence – that is, the equivalent of the jury – that should be our focus? In real life, rather than in your mind, is it possible to have a meaningful conversation with them?
- Clarify your message – too often we focus on declaring the hurtful things bad. What are the potential implications of the hurtful thing that you want people to understand aren’t true? How can you articulate your fears in such a way that key people can help you refute them?
- Request changes – too often we focus on getting an admission of guilt or neglect. What are the future actions that would create a context where you felt safe, honored, or cared for? With those who are concerned enough to be trusted, share these things to begin establishing a social environment that allows you to cognitively rest more.
Again, different hurts will fit these categories more or less than others. Allow this to be a prompt to a healthier style of thinking. The healthy outcome of anger is resolution – a sense that the future is less maligned by the past wrongs (rarely do we eliminate the influence of the painful event).
Once you have answered these questions and begun to take proactive steps with trusted people, consider going through your mental trial one more time; intentionally letting it be the “last hearing.” Use these three questions to paint the setting and set the agenda. Instead of letting the trial spin into circuitous and repetitive lines of reasoning that escalate anger, move the trial towards your key message(s) and changes. Then imagine the gavel falling, indicating the end of the trial.
This may not be satisfying in terms of ultimate justice. But if the key message(s) and changes are being honored in your trusted relationships, it can be a point of reference to remind yourself of when the next version of this trial arises in your mind. You can tell yourself:
“I’ve attended this trial. I’ve stated my case. I’ve been heard by the people I trust. The changes that can be made are being honored by those most meaningfully involved in my life. I choose to be free and allow this trial to be over.”
You may have to say this to yourself many times. But it gives you something to interrupt the mental trial with others than just surrendering or distracting yourself. As with any trial, rarely do we get everything we want. We do live in a broken world. But once the trial is over, we can know the parameters within which we have to live the rest of our life.
What you have now are strategies. That is different from having victory or resolution. It can be easy to think that because you have an approach, that the issue is resolved. That would be overly optimistic. That would be like the athlete who thinks that because he has the drills to improve in a needed area, that the skill should already be achieved.
We have discussed approaches to the cognitive interference, and now we begin the process of becoming skilled at these approaches and tailoring them to the pain that prompted our grief-anger. Give yourself the freedom to practice and understand that relief will build as you become more proficient in these approaches.
Questions for Reflection
- How do you feel about the possibility of sharing the more vulnerable expressions of your sticky-angry thoughts, those stated in a way that focus on your primary emotions, with a trusted friend?
- What was the key message you wanted to convey in the mental trials that you would rehearse? What would it mean to have someone understand and sympathize with that message?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.