Overcoming the Beast of Anger - Part 2
Fr. George Morelli · February 10, 2010
Fr. George continues his series with a look at cognitive distortions that lead to anger.
Last week I started a broadcast series on healing anger which is both deadly to us physically, psychologically and spiritually. Numerous studies have linked anger with physical disease, I have described it as a psychological cancer and it leads as we shall see to spiritual death. Last week I cited St. John the Evangelists words to us of Christ’s injunction: “If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” (1Jn 4: 20-21). To really emphasize this point I want to cite a verse from the Sunday Gospel of Forgiveness Sunday (Mt 6:14-15)+“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”+ Let us consider the last few Sunday Gospels: The Publicans words: ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ (Lk 18:14); the Prodigal Son’s words:
“But when he came to his senses, he said, … ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in you sight… (Lk 15: 17-18). What do these parables mean …. I am going to shock you: taken alone: nothing. Taken alone, all us can be like the righteous proud Pharisee and tell God how great we are. Taken alone, all of us should like the Prodigal, engage in riotous living get as much you know eat ‘drink and me merry’- ‘wine woman and song’ irrespective of the cost to others. Because no matter how ‘good’ we are, if one thing is missing all even good we do is meaningless before God: If forgiveness is missing, so is all else. St. Matthew tells us: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ (Mt 9:13). St Paul expands on this: he recounts: Recall the words of St John: “God is love … God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1Jn 4:8,11) Now recall the words of St Paul” “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1Cor 13:1). Summary: God is love, we have to love as God, without this all is but “empty noise.” St. Isaac of Syria understood the implications of this. God as judge is eclipsed by God as mercy: He tells us “Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality on the even scale …Mercy is sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness….It is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of the righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul.” St. Isaac goes on to day “As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. Let us reflect on this and at the end of the series come back to it again … anger is what separates us from God and our neighbor .. it is what prevents forgiveness and is what will ultimately lead to our invitation into hell … in imitation of our great Spiritual Fathers Sts Basil and John Chrysostom, who used the best science of their day in the Monastery hospitals they founded (of course along with the Holy Mysteries of the Church) – let us too, look to the best science of our day to understand and intervene in anger.
Cognitive psychological research has found support for seven cognitive distortions relating to anger and the other dysfunctional emotions:
• Selective Abstraction is focusing on one event to the exclusion of others. A mother , for example, pays attention to the “D” on her son’s report card while ignoring the “A’s” and “B’s.” This “D” now becomes the focus of anger.
• Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. For example, a parishioner says “Hello” to the Parish Priest in the Church Hall, the Priest doesn’t reply, the person concludes the Priest doesn’t like him or her and has a right to be angry.
• Personalization, an event occurs that an individual concludes is directed to them personally. A patron in a busy restaurant perceives the waiter is purposely not waiting on his or her table. The patron never entertains the waiter may be under stress attempting to serve other patron’s needs. The patron, concludes, they have a ‘right’ to be angry.
• Polarization is the tendency to see things in all or nothing terms. ‘Cynthia, Jack’s wife misses making dinner one evening, because he ‘categorizes’ events into polarities he views her as a “bad” wife. All the categories between the absolute categories of good and bad are missed. He has the right to be angry at a “bad” wife.
• Generalization is the tendency to see things in always or never categories. ‘Jack’ comes home late from work. His wife ‘Jill’ feels her husband will always be inconsiderate and never change. Not only is she angry at his lateness, but his future lateness as well.
• Demanding Expectations, the belief that there are laws or rules that must or have to be obeyed. A mother believes he son should not talk back because she is his “mother.” She has the “right” to be angry. (Note God gave us free will, He ‘asks’ us to obey His commandments. Like Christ, parents can ‘prefer and constructively work’ toward obedience from their children, but they have no guarantees their children will respect them.) Of spiritual help here is to reflect on the life of Our Lord. He was bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, crucified and died for our salvation. He Himself told us: No servant is greater than his master (Mat. 10:24)—-why would we expect to be treated any differently than Our Lord. It is a blessing if we are treated and honored, but we have no guarantee) A program of rewards for appropriate behavior and punishment, without anger, for inappropriate behavior would be constructive.
• Catastrophizing, the perception that something is more that 100% bad, terrible or awful In the example above, the mother feels that it is terrible, the end of the world, her son answered back, which of course triggers increasing anger.
After recognizing our recognizing and labeling the cognitive distortions , eliciting anger, clinicians aid patients in re-structuring them. There are three questions that lead to restructuring.: 1) Where is the evidence? 2) Is there any other way of looking at it?. 3) Is it as bad as it seems? Using the examples above some restructured interpretations might be: (Selective Abstraction): True, my son got a “D”, but he also received some A’s and B’s); (Arbitrary Inference): “Father didn’t say Hello, he may not like me, but maybe he has something on his mind and he didn’t even hear me.” (Personalization): “The waiter is so busy with other tables, maybe he doesn’t even see me.” (Polarization): “My wife, Jill missed dinner today, there are many other things that make up our relationship besides one dinner” (Generalization): “Let me talk to Jack about his work schedule and at least ask him to call me if he is going to be late” (Demanding Expectations). “I prefer that my son not talk back to me, let me praise him when he talks correctly and fine him a nickel whenever he talks back.”
In addition to the above restructuring questions the “mental ruler technique” (Burns, 1980) is particularly helpful in dealing with Catastrophizing. A situation in the example above a child ‘talking back’ to his/her parents is evaluated on a 0 to 100 scale, with 0 being the most pleasant thing you could picture happening to you. People infrequently have trouble imaging a very pleasant event (0). Sitting on a sun drenched tropical beach is a typical image. People frequently need help imaging a “graphic” worst event (100).
Use of an example such as the particularly horrifying death of a medical missionary in Southeast Asia several years ago can be of help. After starvation failed to kill this individual, his captors placed chopsticks in his ears and hammered then in, a little each day, until the chopsticks penetrated his brain and the missionary died. Using the “mental-ruler technique’ and the restructuring questions, it can be seen that the mother whose son answered back is surely not the same as chopsticks in the ears, in fact, it is probably no more that a 10 or 20 on the mental-ruler scale. Thus successful catastrophizing challenging and a more realistic evaluation. Instead of viewing this a “catastrophe” is now is viewed as a manageable problem to be solved.
These psychological techniques have to be applied rigorously and consistently. They should be used whenever we find ourselves starting to become angry. One helpful way is to excuse yourself and leave the room for a few minutes to collect our thoughts, making sure the psychological “restructuring and reinterpretation is also permeated by Our Lord’s teaching and His self-emptying life for us.