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Managing Anger
and Fear:
In an Angry and Frightened World

by Gary Egeberg

September 11 did not cause anger and fear to be expressed for the first time. But the events of that day have caused another explosion, it seems. The challenging emotions of anger and fear are boiling, both in our culture and in our hearts.

Will there be further terrorist attacks—possibly involving nuclear or biological weapons? How should we regard angry mobs burning the U.S. flag while shouting anti-American slogans? On the home front, will our school, workplace or neighborhood be the site of a random shooting spree?

You and I have our own struggles with anger and fear, whether it is in response to terrorism or random acts of violence or simply in dealing with the inevitable conflicts that accompany our daily interactions with others. In short, anger and fear seem to be winning out over peace and trust.

Jesus— vision of peace and justice can seem an elusive dream that grows dimmer each year. Yet because we are Catholic and live in a culture that calls itself Christian, we hear the call to be visionary dreamers, to be people of faith, hope and love. We hear it even—and perhaps especially—when the raging waters of anger and fear threaten to sweep us all away.

The prophet Isaiah has words of comfort that touch our times: —Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you— (Isaiah 43:1-2).

This Youth Update hopes to strengthen your understanding of anger and fear and the ways they—re linked and to explore how these feelings can help you. It also suggests four ways to defuse their destructive power.

Emotions That Challenge

Anger and fear are two of the most challenging emotions that teens, as well as adults, must face in a positive, healthy and constructive manner during peaceful times. In times of heightened national insecurity, the challenge is still greater. Together with feelings such as guilt, hatred, jealousy and sadness, anger and fear are considered by many to be —negative— or —bad— emotions or feelings.

If you believe that anger and fear are indeed —bad— or —negative,— you might feel that you are bad or that something is wrong with you each time you experience them. This may tempt you to stuff them or get rid of them as soon as they surface in your life rather than accept and befriend them.

You will also be prone to feeling guilty when anger and fear get the best of you. When you —go off— in anger, especially, you may try even harder to stuff or get rid of these troublesome feelings.

Around and around you go: Stuffed or rejected anger or fear leads to mistakes in handling. Perhaps you blow up at someone (anger) or refuse to take a healthy risk (fear). Then you feel lousy about yourself. This causes you to deny your feelings once again and the circle repeats itself.

Though anger and fear challenge you, trouble you and often involve pain, they are neither negative nor bad in and of themselves. They are simply part of your complex humanity with a bad reputation, because of the circle I just described—one of destructive handling.

If you can begin to view these two powerful emotions as natural, normal and potentially good rather than as negative, abnormal and always bad, you have a much better chance of managing them, rather than allowing them to manage or dominate you. The challenge for all of us—teens and adults—is to discover and practice healthy coping skills, so that unchecked anger and unchallenged fear do not lead us astray from the courageous—and compassionate—way of life modeled for us by Jesus Christ.

Anger Is Scary

Anger, your own or someone else—s, is uncomfortable. Other people usually don—t want to be around you when your anger is excessive or constant. It figures, since you usually don—t want to be around other people whose anger is extra-large or extra-long, do you?

Anger scares us all. Your own—or someone else—s—anger can come on suddenly and/or with unsettling intensity. You may be having a perfectly fine day. Then someone—many times it—s a family member— can say or do something and you end up —losing it.—

Or you might say or do something that results in someone else —going ballistic.— You (or they) might yell or scream or swear or slam a door and stomp off in a huff. Or you (or they) might use the silent treatment, sarcasm or put-downs as a way of unleashing angry feelings. Afterward, when the storm has passed, you are left with guilt, shame, remorse or embarrassment.

Anger, by its nature, is always going to be wild and powerful. Anger serves a very good purpose in your life, for it is often a response to injustice or hurt, whether real or imagined.

So when another person treats you unfairly or with a lack of respect or if you believe someone has, anger is a normal, self-protective response. Not to feel angry in the face of mistreatment is to invite more of the same.

Oddly enough, many people have trouble with anger that isn—t expressed often enough. For instance, you might frequently feel angry, but you may fail to deal with and release your anger energy in a direct manner. You let irritations and other little things that cause you to feel angry build up to the breaking point rather than addressing them as they occur.

You—re setting yourself up for an explosion or rage attack. Often, it—s some little thing that causes you to —go off— on someone else, like the straw that broke the camel—s back.

When you have reached the —rage stage— or boiling point, your words and actions can become violent and out of control. You might say things you don—t mean or break things or even try to hurt someone physically—maybe even yourself.

If, however, you can deal with your anger as you feel it—or shortly thereafter—then it does not have to reach the rage stage. My wife and I have a loose —48-hour rule— in which we try to address conflicts, problems, unkind comments to each other within a couple of days.

Keep in mind that anger is often a mask for fear. Anger leaves you feeling much less vulnerable than fear. In order to avoid the discomfort of vulnerability, you may sometimes appear angry when, underneath the anger, you are really afraid.

Kevin, a high-school senior, quite unknowingly uses anger as a self-protective mask for his underlying fear. He nearly always presents an angry image to others, which results in people keeping their distance from him.

Underneath his anger is a fear of being abandoned by anyone he really cares about. This fear may very well be linked to the fact that his mother died of cancer when he was seven.

Fear Hides

Fear, in contrast to anger, is more of a hidden emotion. When people are angry, you can usually tell just by looking at them. It is more difficult to detect visible signs of fear.

Anger is usually about something that happened in the past, whether the event occurred just a moment ago or months or years back. Fear, on the other hand, is nearly always about the future.

Sarah, who is 17, experimented with alcohol for the first time at a party last weekend. Her fears are not about the drinking, which is in the past, but about her parents— reaction, should they find out about it. This is in the uncertain future.

Fears can be healthy, as in the example of Sarah. Her fears are telling her that there are negative consequences, such as a loss of driving privileges, should she continue to drink in the future. In this case, fear is like a wise advisor or coach.

Fears can also be unhealthy. You probably know people who never take a healthy risk in order to have a happier, fuller life.

Steve has always wanted to try out for a part in a play, but his excessive fears have prevented him from taking such a risk. In this case, fear can be like an overprotective parent who wants to—but can—t—spare Steve the pain of possible rejection.

Fear often walks a fine line between being helpful and crippling. Perhaps we can view fears as being in a parade or progression from unhealthy to healthy. Initially, a fear might be unhealthy and extreme, only to become more healthy and moderate as you face it and deal with it creatively over the course of time.

Collective Fears

Our nation—s responses to September 11 are good examples of how we as a people experienced the full range of healthy and unhealthy fears. Right after the attacks, our country, quite understandably, was gripped with overwhelming fear. Citizens of Middle Eastern descent, who had lived relaxed and normal lives prior to the attacks, became, overnight, among the people who were feared the most.

Fear led to anger. Mixed together in large amounts, these emotions can be a destructive mix.

On the news, you saw some Americans dealing with their anger and fear by shooting at pictures of Osama bin Laden at local rifle ranges. At the other end of the spectrum, we saw reports of some of our fellow Americans, who were just as angry and just as afraid, urging our government not to retaliate with violence.

The media reported small numbers of Americans who reacted in unhealthy and destructive ways by attacking innocent Arab Americans. Other reports featured stories of compassionate and brave Americans who stood up for and befriended their grieving or fearful neighbors. All of us deal with anger and fear in a variety of ways, some of which are much more healthy and constructive than others.

Management Skills

Let—s look at the skills professional people use to deal with emotion. If the manager of a particular business wants her employees to be productive and happy, she needs to develop a number of skills and traits, including these four: 1) she needs to accept and value her employees as a team and as individuals; 2) she needs to be firm yet gentle; 3) she needs to be a good listener so that employees— concerns and ideas are respected and honored; and 4) she needs to be the decision-maker.

You and I need these same four qualities in order to manage our emotions, particularly the challenging, painful and upsetting emotions of anger and fear.

1. Accept and value your feelings. Most of us have probably rejected our feelings of anger and fear as powerfully as people in Jesus— time despised tax collectors and lepers. Jesus himself always accepted people as they were.

By valuing each person, Jesus empowered those persons to make positive changes, to become whole, healthy people. You can do this with your powerful emotions.

2. Be firm yet gentle with your feelings. Because anger and fear can be a bit wild and extreme, we need to be like the best of parents, coaches and teachers: firm yet gentle. You are firm when you choose not to act in destructive ways and choose not to allow fear to prevent you from taking risks that will help you grow.

You also should be gentle rather than —beat up on yourself.— Tell yourself: O.K., I just lost my temper. I can—t undo what I just said or did, but I can forgive myself, apologize, make amends and try to do better next time. Or I—ve let my fears run wild this past week and have suffered because of it. I will be kind and gentle to myself as I step out again in faith.

3. Listen to your feelings and allow them to teach you. Your anger and fear simply want the basic courtesy of being listened to, acknowledged and taken seriously, just as you want others to listen to, acknowledge and take you seriously when you are sharing something important. When you feel angry (or afraid), you might simply sit down and ask, —What is my anger (or fear) trying to tell me?— If you do this, you may learn what you need to do.

For instance, —Hey, you were mistreated by X and that—s not O.K. Go talk to him about his behavior. Tell him how you would like to be treated in the future so that I, anger, can move on—and out—of you.—

4. Take charge of your feelings so that anger and fear do not inspire decisions they are unqualified to make alone. You don—t want your emotions to run the show of your life, to dominate you, especially when you—re upset. In my opinion, seven key aspects (including feelings) make up a whole person. Each part has a role to play in your healing and wholeness.

These aspects of your humanity can help you deal with all your painful emotions. You can call upon your faith and turn to God as a source of forgiveness and support. You can use your intelligence to help you think through situations, so that anger and fear do not have the final —mis-managerial— say.

You can exercise as a way of decreasing your anger and coping with fear. You can take action, even just a small step such as sharing your concerns with another person. This is particularly helpful in overcoming the paralysis of fear.

You can call upon your heart and take courage, for it does take great heart and profound courage to live as people of faith in such uncertain times. —Be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord,— we pray in Psalm 27. This prayer can affect your attitude toward life, turning negativity and hopelessness into a positive and hopeful view.

Anger and fear are alive in our world. As followers of Jesus, your goal is not to rid yourself of these two feelings, but to learn to live with and integrate them. As you act in ways that help this happen, you are participating in your own healing and wholeness as well as that of our society, our nation and, indeed, the whole world.

Gary Egeberg is a former religion teacher and the author of several books, including My Feelings Are Like Wild Animals! How Do I Tame Them? He currently works as a Catholic chaplain in a California prison, where his duties include helping inmates work through their feelings of anger and fear.

Bruce A. Hengstler (15), April J. Ruppert (18), Kimberly Yahl (15) and Ryan M. Yahl (18), from St. John Parish in Fryburg, Ohio, took time to review this issue on a Sunday morning after Mass. Ann Limbert, parish director of religious education, gathered the group.

Q.

How do you know when you need to talk to another person about your anger or fear?

A.

Sometimes you just know inside that you need to talk to someone else. Other times you may sense that you can deal with it by yourself, perhaps with the help of prayer. If you are feeling particularly upset or if your anger or fear keeps coming back, it's a big clue that you need to talk to someone else—a friend, counselor, teacher, parent or priest. Keep in mind the wisdom of the old saying, "Troubles shared are troubles divided."

Q.

Politicians have said, "If we live in fear, the terrorists have won." What can we do instead?

A.

The Bible, in the First Letter of John (4:18), says, "Perfect love drives out fear." I think that we who call ourselves Christian must continue to pray for the courage to walk in the paths of love, especially when the prospects of terrorism frighten us. As you spend the energy God gives you each day loving God, yourself and others, fear will not be able to dominate. The more you live in love, the less fear will be able to live in you

Q.

When we are angry at an institution such as a school, the Church or our government, what—if anything—can we do?

A.

Anger is often about injustice or unfairness. When an institution has been unjust or unfair in your eyes, write or call. Express your concern or complaint. Concerned individuals can make an impact on institutions, although the bigger an institution, the harder it seems to make big changes fast enough to please those who have been hurt by them. If you state your concern, you know in your heart that you didn't simply allow the injustice to go on unnoticed. That's more than many people do! You can also organize others to join you in your campaign.

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