This week we begin wrapping up the series on the “10 commandments” of sound character development. But before we venture into some new territory, I’d like to revisit briefly and slightly expand upon an important issue raised in last week’s post (see: Impulse Control and Will-Training: The Art of Self-Management), namely how a person can achieve a healthy level of discipline over his or her will. In last week’s post, I mentioned how important it is for folks to not only “exercise” their will for the purposes of strengthening it but also to exercise it rightly and be reinforced for making the tough but healthier choices in life in order to become better self-managed. But for many, even all of this is not enough. That’s why for hundreds of years various formal systems of guidance have developed that offer a person a set of principles and ideas from which to operate. And as they say in programs using the 12-step model of recovery (recovery, that is, from behavior out of control), one way to help ensure our emotional and behavioral stability is to “turn over” our wills (i.e., knowingly and willingly subordinate those wills) to a “higher power” or guidance authority. Such systems work for a lot of folks, especially neurotic folks. But character-impaired individuals, especially narcissists and the various aggressive personality types, have a very big problem with this. Folks with inflated egos can’t even imagine an entity or guiding principle bigger, better, wiser, stronger, or in any way superior to them, let alone allow themselves to believe they would do well to heed such an entity’s guidance. And all of the aggressive personality types define their very identity by their determination to submit to no one or no thing. So the notion of subordinating their will in any shape or form is anathema to them. So while these folks might outwardly claim allegiance to a religious or other type of guidance system, in their hearts, they serve no higher power. In my work over the years with the most severely disturbed individuals, focusing on the single issue of recognizing a higher authority and subordinating one’s will to it has proven to be the key to making any meaningful transformations of character. And as you might imagine, such work is difficult and not particularly prone to success. Nonetheless, with enough ardent focus on this key issue, even some of the most seriously impaired characters have made significant changes in their lives.
Now we come to a discussion of perhaps one of the most misunderstood of all human emotions: anger. Too many of us have been taught to see anger as a bad thing in itself. But anger is one of two very important emotions rooted deeply in the limbic systems of our brains. The other emotion, of course, is fear. And we’ve been endowed with both of these emotions for some very good reasons. They both help us survive and prosper. But when it comes to emotional health, it’s always a case of balance. Inordinate or excessive fear can sometimes disadvantage or even paralyze us. But fear can also be our savior, like when our best chance for survival in a bad situation is to run or when we become so apprehensive about doing something that might in the end do us harm that we don’t allow ourselves to do it. In fact, one of the things that creates all sorts of problems for the more seriously disturbed characters, especially the aggressive personalities, is the fact that they’re often constitutionally lacking in the capacity for adaptive fearfulness (for more on this see: Personality & Character Disorders Pt 6: Narcissists & Aggressives). This can lead them to be daring and adventurous, which sometimes can work to their advantage. But they’re also prone to let themselves do what would give most of us responsible sorts some pause, and quite often it’s their failure to give pause that gets them into trouble and causes trouble for others.
Anger, like fear, can either work for us or against us. That’s why we have to learn to manage it. The emotion itself rarely causes any problems (there are exceptions, such as chronic anger and its impact on cardiovascular health). But how the emotion is expressed is an entirely different matter. And to really appreciate how to express anger properly, you have to first understand its purpose. We were given this emotion for a darned good reason. Anger is there to get us charged-up and ready to take action to redress an injustice or remove a threat to our well-being. But the kind of action we take when we’re angry is where all the trouble can come in. Our anger might prompt us to fight (although it’s important to remember also that certain personalities aggress even when they’re not angry and for more on this one might want to see: Understanding Predatory Aggressors), but why and how we allow ourselves to fight makes a big difference. In Character Disturbance, I advise:
You have the right to look out for your welfare. But you also have an obligation to consider the welfare of others. Still, some things in life really do have to be fought for, so it’s important to know when and how to fight. When you must fight, fight fairly. Above all, fight constructively and for a truly just cause. Don’t strive simply to win, injure or gain advantage over someone else. Expend your aggressive energy in a manner that builds instead of destroys. Take care to respect the rights, needs, and boundaries of those with whom you might struggle. most especially, appreciate when it’s in your best interest as well as the interest of others to back-down, back-off, concede, or capitulate. Managing your aggressive urges thoughtfully and effectively is the task of a lifetime. yet it is a task that , when well done – perhaps more than any other task in your life – defines your character. (p.143)
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you’re angry about something someone said or did or you want to rectify an injustice is to take affirmative action in your own interest as opposed to focusing attention or venting on the perceived source of your anger. It’s always best to invest your energy where you have power, and you always have power to take action. Just think for a moment about the example of John Walsh, who was understandably outraged after his young son Adam fell prey to a child predator. I’m sure most would agree he had a right to be angry. But he channeled his anger into a relentless crusade and a host of enterprises, all of which have helped to protect and rescue countless other children. This helped him not only to heal, but also to find support in and with others. So, the next time you’re angry, ponder for a moment or two what your inner voice is telling you is wrong with the situation in which you find yourself and what action you probably need to take to make things better. Don’t just let your anger rip, and don’t “stuff” it either. Respect and try to understand it. Then, when you take action, you’ll be more likely to direct your energies in the right direction. Remember, there’s always something you can do to better a situation. The secret is in focusing not on the source of your frustration but on any small step you can take to better care for and empower yourself.
As I have mentioned before in In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and several blog posts, anger is rarely a problem in itself, but rather aggression. The unhealthiest among us are unscrupulous and undisciplined, destructive fighters. But there are many occasions in life when it’s simply necessary to fight. And the healthiest personalities (i.e. “assertive” personalities) have learned how to fight for their legitimate needs fairly, constructively, and with sufficient discipline and caution to avoid needlessly harming others. That’s what assertion is all about (for more on this, see: Aggressive and Assertive Behavior). And many times, we owe it to our old pal anger that we’ve been prompted to take assertive action.