The Emotional Dimension of Recovery - Part Four

The Role of Anger in Recovery 

Beyond the emotionally tumultuous days of the first few weeks of sobriety, people in addiction recovery then move into a second phase of early recovery.  As their mind and body begin to function on a more normal basis, a new crop of emotions begin to surface.  Once of the first, and most important of these is anger. 

  1. Emotions are not moral

    It is a mistake to classify some feeling as "good" and others as "bad".  There is nothing moral about them.  Emotions are God-given; the Bible even says that He has them - including anger.   There moral dynamic with emotions is involved in how we express them - how we act upon them - than whether we have them or not.  James says, "Be angry but do not sin." (James 1:19-20)   Feelings are simply signals, usually with a physiological response, that can actually tell us more about how we perceive a given situation than pure unassisted logic. 

    For people in recovery from an addiction, emotional understanding and freedom is essential if they are to grow, to feel good about their lives, and to really experience happiness.  If I don't fully understand the emotional signals I am experiencing in my life, I'll never truly know what's inside of me and what makes me "tick." Conversely, the inability to manage feelings in a healthy manner is a major reason that many fall back into using alcohol and drugs.  When sobriety becomes too painful and confusing, using mind-altering substances can seem like the only option.
     
  2. The formation of emotional responses

    Although our emotions are important indicators of how an individual actually perceives a given situation, they are often coming from an incorrect perception. One of the objectives of spiritual and emotional growth is getting one's feelings get more in line with reality.   When you get right down to it, all of our feelings have evolved from many past experiences, usually in our childhood.  This is especially applicable to anger.   In most dysfunctional families, children are told that heavy emotions, like anger, are "bad" and they learn to feel ashamed about their anger.  In homes that are filled with rage and violence, they learn to fear anger, which to them always seems destructive.  Some learn to use anger and threats of violence to control others.   To complicate things further, to survive on the streets homeless addict cannot entrust their true selves to others, so they have a must harder time trusting, which they must have in order to attain emotional recovery.
     
  3. The purpose of anger

    If the emotion of anger is from God, then there must be a divine purpose for it.  I believe there are three.  The first is that anger reactions are basically a kind of emotional trip-wire, a survival mechanism that is God-given.  We react in anger to perceived threats, real or imagined.  Anger protects us from harm and loss.  Secondly, anger is designed to help us maintain healthy boundaries. Anger alerts us to threats to privacy needs, physical space needs, protection needs, and comfort needs.   And finally, anger is given by God to spur us on to action.  The physiological responses that accompany anger include increased blood pressure, muscle clenching, and a flood of adrenaline, positioning our bodies in an "attack mode."  
     
  4. Healthy boundaries: the key to understanding anger

    When it comes to anger, there are basically two types of people:  "stuffers" and "blowers."   In most cases, neither of these anger management styles is better then others.  But the extremes we see among homeless addicts is destructive. The "stuffers" have learned to handle their feelings, especially the difficult (or heavy) ones like anger, by pushing them deep inside and forgetting about them -- denying them completely.  One the other hand, the extreme "blowers" have unusually strong anger reactions - everyone knows that they are mad.  They may even assault others, either verbally or physically.  For both, healthy anger management comes down to understanding, developing and maintaining healthy boundaries.  

    In dysfunctional family systems, the personal borders between the various members are blurred.  People cannot sort out "whose stuff is whose."  This condition is at the very heart of the disorder we call "codependency."  Instead of "Dad drinks because he is an alcoholic", he drinks because mom does not keep the house clean or because the kids are not well behaved. Abused children, whose boundary have been violated violently then to live with messages like, "I'm not allowed to tell you to get out of my stuff." "I don't have a right to be angry when you hurt me."   They become extreme "stuffers" whose biggest need is to understand that anger is OK.  They need to come to believe that personal boundaries are not only all right; there are essential. In other words, they need to adjust their boundaries outward.   Extreme "blowers" with destructive anger must learn to adjust their boundaries inward.  They become less hostile and defensive as they understand the deep-seated fears and attitudes that are at the root of their rage.  Often, some instruction in anger/stress management techniques is helpful.

    Two helpful books on this topic are  Boundaries by Henry Cloud & John Townsend (Zondervan) and Boundary Power by Mike O'neil (Sonlight Publications) Both are available from: http://RecoveryBooks.com
     
  5. How staff members can help residents understand and manage anger

    Self-revelation is probably the essential tool in the addict's efforts toward emotional health.  All residents in recovery programs, whether they say it or not, are hoping that somehow they will be loved and that someone will truly care about them.  No matter how weird and crazy they behave, most could actually wear a button that says, and "I need to know that you love me. Am I OK?"  Most have their entire lives with the internal message that say that they're not OK.   Few of us know what it's like to walk around with years of accumulated toxic emotional junk inside.  Addicts live their lives with a suppressed accumulation of regret, remorse, anger, pain and guilt deep inside. 

    Staff members need to help residents gain a sense that that it is all right to reveal what is within them, no matter how ugly.  Within groups settings and in one-on-one counseling sessions, there must be a consistent message that saying "No feeling is rejected in this place."  We will deal with them, confront you on your incorrect perceptions, teach new ways to deal with anger - but we will never reject you for being real, honest, and vulnerable.

 Scriptures Related to Anger and Resentment

 James 1:19-20                                     Proverbs 19:11

Proverbs 20:22                                    Leviticus 19:18

Psalm 37:8-11                                     Proverbs 15:1

Matthew 5:21-26                                1 Peter 3:8-18

Proverbs 22:24

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Copyright 1996-2012 by Michael Liimatta. All Rights Reserved.
Mr. Liimatta is the past President of Christians in Recovery® 
and currently serves on its Advisory Counsel. He is a Social Entrepreneur, Consultant 
to Nonprofit Organizations with OneAccord, Chief Academic Officer at 
City Vision College and has been involved with 
drug and alcohol counseling and recovery education for 30 years.
Visit his web site

This series originally appeared in RESCUE Magazine, published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, September 2000, November 2000, January 2001, and March 2001 issues.