Young People Ask . . .
How Can I Control My Temper?
“I have a terrible temper. I get angry, and before I know it, I’m saying horrible things to people I really like. I try to ignore little resentments, but they build up anyway. After I blow up, I feel guilty.”—A teenage girl.
NO DOUBT about it, controlling your temper can be a real struggle. Little wonder, then, that some in the mental health field have claimed it is good to let your temper loose once in a while. This supposedly ‘increases your self-esteem’ and ‘clears the air’ in your relationships with others. Why, some even say that holding anger in is bad for your health!
The Bible, however, says: “Let all malicious bitterness and anger and wrath and screaming and abusive speech be taken away from you.” (Ephesians 4:31) Which advice, then, is best? Is it even possible to control one’s temper when there is strong provocation?
Your Temper—A Caveman Instinct?
At the heart of many anger theories is belief in the theory of evolution. Some believe that anger is a holdover from our caveman ancestors, an uncontrollable instinct. Says Carol Tavris in her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion: “Darwin’s theories represent a crucial pivot point in Western thought: for once the belief that we can control anger—indeed, must control it—bowed to the belief that we cannot control it, it was then only a short jump to the current conviction that we should not control it.”
‘Express your anger,’ some thus advise. ‘Go ahead and blow off steam.’ But has such advice proved worth while? For one thing, evidence against the theory of evolution continues to mount. And Tavris and others challenge the ‘let it all out’ view of anger. “I notice that the people who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry,” observes Tavris. “I observe a lot of hurt feelings among the recipients of rage.”
The book Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family reports similarly on a study of over a thousand married couples. The authors discovered that letting out anger was far from calming. On the contrary, verbal aggression often led to physical aggression! The reason? Anger feeds on itself. Such research thus confirms what the Bible writer said centuries ago: “An enraged man stirs up contention, but one that is slow to anger quiets down quarreling.”—Proverbs 15:18; compare 29:22.
‘Be Wrathful, Yet Do Not Sin’
Anger is thus not some uncontrollable animal instinct. It can and must be controlled. Does this mean, though, that we can somehow be immune to provocation—devoid of feelings and emotions? No, for at Ephesians 4:26 the Bible acknowledges that at times we will rightfully feel angry: “Be wrathful, and yet do not sin.”
Notice, however, that the Bible condemns, not anger, but letting anger take control of one’s actions! “Anyone disposed to rage has many a transgression,” says Proverbs 29:22. So rather than nurturing rage, “get the mastery over it.” (Compare Genesis 4:7.) For example, imagine yourself in a situation that just makes your blood boil. How can you ‘keep calm to the last’? (Proverbs 29:11) You might first try the age-old advice to ‘count to ten’—or to whatever number it takes for you to settle down.
An article in ’Teen magazine further recommends: “Use up some of that anger energy by taking a long walk . . . You may want to do the activity you find most relaxing, whether that be listening to music, taking a hot bath or watching a movie.” Better yet, call on Jehovah God in prayer, asking for his help in remaining calm. “And the peace of God that excels all thought will guard your hearts and your mental powers.” (Philippians 4:7) In addition, try reading the Bible or Bible-based publications, such as this journal and its companion The Watchtower.
‘Slowing Down Anger’
Proverbs 19:11 says: “The insight of a man certainly slows down his anger.” (Compare Proverbs 14:29.) Insight is the act or power of seeing into a situation, having all the facts of a matter before taking action. By exercising insight, you may find that there is little reason for you to take offense in the first place.
For example, imagine that your friends are late picking you up for a movie. You begin thinking about all the other times this has happened to you. The more you think, the more irritated you become! When they finally arrive, what will you do? Give them a piece of your mind—or find out what happened that made them so late? Likely there is a good reason. Having insight may thus prevent a temper explosion.
Insight could also include taking the time to weigh the consequences of angry retaliation. Consider a Bible account involving King David. When a man named Nabal snubbed David’s kindness, David impulsively planned retaliation—murder! Nabal’s wife, Abigail, however, implored David to consider the consequences of shedding innocent blood. David halted in his tracks. “Blessed be your sensibleness,” said David to Abigail, “and blessed be you who have restrained me this day from entering into bloodguilt.”—1 Samuel 25:2-33.
Considering the consequences of an angry outburst could similarly protect you from needlessly escalating a disagreement with someone in authority, such as a teacher or an employer. “If the spirit of a ruler should mount up against you, do not leave your own place, for calmness itself allays great sins,” said Solomon. (Ecclesiastes 10:4) And even where retaliation is aimed at a peer, remember that the Bible says: “Do not say: ‘Just as he did to me, so I am going to do to him.’”—Proverbs 24:29.
Another way to slow down anger is to watch what you feed your mind. Many television shows are violence packed. True, many think that TV and movie violence affects only those already inclined that way. One research team, however, claims that “all viewers tend to be affected.”—How to Live With—And Without—Anger, by Albert Ellis.
The Bible further counsels at Proverbs 22:24, 25: “Do not have companionship with anyone given to anger; and with a man having fits of rage you must not enter in, that you may not get familiar with his paths and certainly take a snare for your soul.” Do you enjoy the company of those “given to anger”? Then do not be surprised if you have trouble controlling your temper. The book How to Live With—And Without—Anger thus encourages finding “good models in your own life . . . people who feel determined to overcome life’s unniceties and who actively keep working at doing so. Talk to these people. Try to learn from them how they manage to keep reasonably cool in the face of life’s annoyances.”
Anger From Within
Simply calming oneself down, however, may not keep the anger at bay for long. Professor of psychology Richard Lazarus writes: “An emotion does not have to be aroused by something in the outside world. It can be created by a person’s thoughts.” For example, one young woman admits that her anger many times is due to dwelling on things that get her upset about a person. “My mind races with every detail, and I find myself getting angrier and angrier. Inside I become nervous and tense. It messes up my whole day. I feel depressed.”
Discussing an anger-producing event later with a friend can likewise have the effect of making rage rise up again. At times the best thing to do is get to the very source of the irritation and try to correct matters. Has someone offended you? If you cannot simply forget the matter, approach that person and try to straighten out the matter. (Compare Matthew 5:23-26.) Often it turns out that a simple misunderstanding has occurred.
Provocations may abound. Yet, with insight you can keep such matters in perspective. You can learn to turn destructive feelings into productive actions. Yes, you can control your temper!
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Do you leave the company of those given to anger?