Revisiting the 8th “Commandment” of Character
Last week, we took a break from discussing the “8th commandment” to take note of our blessings. But there’s much more to say about leaning to discipline our aggressive instincts. To be of good character we have achieve solid mastery over those instincts. And that also means we have to learn how to manage our anger. Most folks know anger and aggression are related. But we’ve been somewhat mislead by popular “anger management” models about just how they’re related.
Anger is a widely misunderstood emotion. Some have maligned it as an evil in itself. But it’s one of our most basic emotions. Nature put it there for good reason. Our brain’s lymbic system is designed to have us become enraged or fearful in response to certain events. It’s part of our innate “fight-flight” survival mechanism. And specific physiological processes both precede and accompany these primal responses. We become riled to mobilize ourselves into action to remove a threat to our welfare. But just as being too frequently or intensely anxious can be problematic, being chronically or excessively angry can also cause trouble.
Adam Sandler made a movie called Anger Management. The movie’s lead character has a problem. He represses his emotions, especially his anger. This causes him trouble in his relationships. He is inordinately deferential to his abusive boss. He is also overly inhibited with his girlfriend. And this is all because he has mounds of pent-up anger he fears to release. Having suppressed it so long he’s even become unaware of just how full of rage he is. So his girlfriend arranges for an avant-garde therapist to wake him up to his problem. The therapist puts him in increasingly provocative situations and pushes him to the point he finally releases his pent-up rage. Then, he and the therapist get to work on teaching him to better “own” and discipline his angry feelings.
The movie is a slapstick comedy. But it points out how destructive to relationships it is when someone inappropriately manages their angry feelings. Anger management programs are almost everywhere these days. And most of them operate on established principles of cognitive-behavioral psychology. How we perceive events and think about things heavily influences not only how we feel but also how we respond. If I thinksomeone did something to purposely insult me, I’m likely to respond in a particular way. I’d respond much differently if I believed the person did something without malice but to which, for some reason, I took offense. So most programs encourage participants to challenge and change the ways they typically interpret various events in their lives.
Anger and Aggression
The programs I referenced earlier presuppose that anger precipitates aggression. And while that’s indeed sometimes true, things can also go the other way around. I’ve written extensively before about the various aggressive personalities. (Read the series beginning with Aggressive Personalities Pt. 1.) These are the folks who fight tenaciously and unscrupulously for the things they want. They aren’t typically driven by anger but rather by pure desire. And they’re frequently already in the aggressive mode of behavior long before they ever become angry. Generally speaking, when aggressive personalities become angry, it’s because they’ve encountered some resistance or have been denied something they’ve been fighting for.
Sometimes, when aggressive personalities brandish rage, they do so as more of a tactic to intimidate others into giving them what they want. And because they’re using a tactic as opposed to genuinely expressing an emotion, they don’t respond all that well to typical anger management interventions. They don’t need to learn to manage their angry feelings all that much. Rather, it’s their overly aggressive interpersonal style that needs attention and modification.
To observe and master the 8th commandment properly, we have to learn to manage both our anger and our aggression. And that’s a big part of achieving the kind of self-control we need to be a person of good character. I’ll have more to say about this in next week’s concluding article on the “8th Commandment.”
Character Matters will be a live broadcast this coming Sunday at 7 pm Eastern (6pm Central) so I can take phone calls.
Lean much more about aggressive personalities and the essential “commandments” of sound character in my book Character Disturbance. And look for my upcoming book: The Ten Commandments of Character in the coming months.