On our journey together, we are learning many things about anger. Another observation about anger we can make is that anger doesn’t sit well. Anger ties into the adrenal system. It energizes us. Anger is a response to injustice. It calls for a response. Anger and stillness coincide like fire and ice.

This means, when we’re angry, we are likely to be doing things. This is often where one of the more pronounced disruptive impacts of our anger emerges. The choices we make when we’re angry tend to be of a poor quality. We frequently look back on them with regret.

Bad choices made when we’re angry elicit a defensive response within us. We want to excuse the choices because of our pain. It feels like anyone who questions our choices is invalidating the pain that prompted our anger. The reality is that legitimate past pain fueling destructive present choices is still destructive.

Our goal in this reflection is to learn to mitigate the reactive nature of choices made in anger to continue getting unstuck from the anger phase of grief. When defensiveness about our choices reinforces our anger, we become distracted from the grief we need to process by the consequences of our reactive choices.

As a parallel example, consider a teenager who loses a parent. The young person gets stuck in the anger phase of grief and begins to make reactionary choices. School doesn’t seem “worth it” anymore, so they quit studying. Life seems unfair, so experimenting with drugs doesn’t seem like a big deal. As the consequences for these choices mount, the teenager becomes defensive, “All you care about is what I do; not what I’ve been through.” The reactive choices become a distraction from processing their grief and engaging what could be an enjoyable life.

The question is, how do we do this? Once again, our discussion of primary and secondary emotions will be helpful. Unhealthy, reactionary choices emanate from our secondary emotions. Healthy, constructive choices emerge from our primary emotions. This distinction helps us navigate the misnomer that we’re being asked to be passive. The opposite of destructive choices is not passivity, but action rooted in our primary emotions.

Positively stated, this means our question becomes, “If I took the shield of anger off of my grief and pain, how would my choices be different?” To answer that question, we should define what the volitional shield of anger is that we’re trying to remove. We’ll use three questions to help us answer this.

What Have I Stopped Doing?

These are choices you may not notice yourself making. We don’t always pay attention to choices that fade away because they are dominated by pressing life situations.

  • Life Management
    • Did you quit planning your day, week, or month?
    • Do you still dream about the future and how to pursue personal aspirations?
  • Spiritual Development
    • Has your enjoyment of reading the Bible and Christian books faded?
    • Has your prayer life evaporated or become a rote engagement to avoid guilt?
  • Personal Interest
    • What hobbies or forms of expression (e.g., playing music) have you pulled away from?
    • What forms of entertainment do you no longer find stimulating?

These questions reveal passive, non-choices we often make amid our pain that cause our world to fade to a lifeless gray. When stagnated grief results in life becoming perpetually gray, the splashes of red anger feel like a welcomed relief. Re-engaging these actions is a way to reintroduce a spectrum of color into our world.

As you re-engage these actions, you may initially feel worse not better. Imagine when you sleep on your arm wrong, and it loses circulation. As the blood returns, there is a shooting-prickly pain. That is not bad. It is part of the body’s healthy response to correcting the absence of needed blood flow. As you re-engage these activities, you may experience the grief that stagnated when they dissipated.

The equivalent of the “tingly arm effect” is not permanent. Be patient with yourself as you re-engage these life-giving activities. Allow the enjoyment of them you once knew to thaw. If you pressure yourself and feel guilty that thawing is necessary, you will feed the anger that has stagnated your grief.

What Have I Started Doing?

These are choices you probably noticed yourself making. At first, you were likely concerned about what you were doing, and your conscience felt guilty. When this happens, we often weigh our guilt against our pain and conclude that the guilt is the lesser problem, so we give ourselves a pass.

  • Escape/Numbing Choices
    • Have you begun to use drugs or alcohol to mask your pain?
    • Have you over-engaged work or escaped through pornography to avoid your pain?
  • Active-Defiant Choices
    • Have you increased high risk choices?
    • Have you pushed away people or responsibilities?
  • Neglectful-Defiant Choices
    • Have you stopped doing basic chores, going to work, or paying bills?
    • Have you stopped basic self-care or personal hygiene?

If you had two diagnoses, cancer and a heart attack, it would be wise to treat the heart attack first. The imminence of the threat would make this obvious. But, if after surgery for the heart attack, you refused to get treatment for cancer, that would be foolish. This is the logic we want to bring to bear here. By way of parallel, the life you preserved by the bypass is being eaten away by the cancer.

If you gave yourself a pass on these destructive choices initially because of your pain, it would be foolish to continue to do so. These choices are a cancer eating away at your quality of life. The same anger that railed against the initial painful events that disrupted your life should also want to change these choices.

By reversing these choices, you are showing that you care about the life that was disrupted by the pain that prompted your anger. Allowing yourself to care again is a part of healthy grief. When we lose a loved one, it is natural in our grief to wonder if it’s worth getting close to others. But, in healthy grief, we conclude the answer is “Yes, it is,” and our life is better because of it. That is what we’re after here.

What Do I Respond to Differently?

These are choices you may not feel like you’re doing. Our reactions often feel like they are happening to us more than they are coming from us. To the degree that the painful event that prompted this journey was traumatic, that may be true and would be a reason to consider engaging counseling.[1] Either way, the ultimate goal is to begin to regain control over our reactions.

  • People
    • Are there specific individuals that prompt you towards unhealthy or immoral choices?
    • Are there groups of people or people in certain roles that prompt you towards unhealthy or immoral choices?
  • Places
    • Are there specific locations that prompt you towards unhealthy or immoral choices?
    • Are there types of atmospheres (i.e., quiet places, chaotic place, etc.) that prompt you towards unhealthy or immoral choices?
  • Activities
    • Are there specific activities that prompt you towards unhealthy or immoral choices?
    • Are there types of requests that prompt you towards unhealthy or immoral choices?

Reactions, by definition, require forethought to change. In the absence of forethought and preparation, reactions “just happen.” If you’re reaction to seeing a roach is to hyperventilate, then without forethought that is what you likely to continue to do. But if you mentally prepare for the occasion and practice good breathing exercises, you can maintain your composure and squash the vile intruder.

That is what we’re after here. We want to be sympathetic towards our reaction. It is prompted by a painful experience. But we also want to be intentional towards our reaction. It is detracting from our quality of life. You don’t have to be harsh with yourself in order to prepare for a healthier response to the reactions you listed above.

We want to be sympathetic towards our reaction. It is prompted by a painful experience. But we also want to be intentional towards our reaction. It is detracting from our quality of life. Click To Tweet

The variety in our possible reactions is too great to be as concrete as we would like at this point. But, if we return to our example of the roach and hyperventilating, we identify a basis strategy.

  1. Identify the prompt for our reaction – roach.
  2. Name the types of reactions we have to the prompt – change in breathing pattern.
  3. Identify approaches that mitigate these reactions – breathing exercises.
  4. Mentally rehearse engaging the prompt with healthier responses.
  5. Give yourself grace to grow in your response over time.

Choosing to Grieve

Oh, that we could simply choose to grief, as if it were as simple as starting a dishwasher and allowing the necessary quantity of time to pass. Grief is not that simple. But, as we have seen in this reflection, our choices do impact our freedom to grieve.

Another parallel example, we cannot simply choose to sleep. But the choices we make impact the ease with which we fall asleep. What we have tried to do in this reflection is strategically identify the pivotal choices, context of choices, and alternative choices that help get our grief unstuck from the anger phase.

Questions for Reflection

  1. How did the example of the teenager unhealthily grieving the loss of a parent help you see defensiveness you may have regarding your anger with God and how it expresses itself?
  2. Which of the three questions reveal the “shield of anger” over your grief are the most profitable choices for you to think through and begin to change?

[1] To learn more about trauma and the post traumatic experience, consider this resource www.bradhambrick.com/ptsd. For guidance on finding a counselor near you, consider this article www.bradhambrick.com/findacounselor.