Controlling Your Anger So It Doesn’t Control You

Chaya Katz, St. Paul, Minnesota
Anger / Essays 2019

“Don’t cry over spilled milk”

Control yourself from overreacting to life’s everyday pressures. Easier said than done. With the daily grind, issues can get bottled up inside of us and explode over the tiniest trigger. How can you help tame those intense emotions? Does Chassidus have practical guidelines for us to maintain control in high intensity situations? What about the regular, everyday stressors like being on time in the morning, getting dinner on the table, interpersonal relationships and succeeding in school or at work?

Psychology today offers a full range of solutions to help deal with anger management problems. Solutions include physical activity, talking to a mentor and so on(1). In this essay, I will contrast the modern approaches with the Chassidic approach. I will also emphasize how Chassidus offers a more deep and profound inner transformation to help deal with this problem. The solution I am suggesting is called the “PET” method which I developed based on Chassidic philosophy. The main sources for these ideas are Tanya (Iggeret Hakodesh, Epistle 25), Rambam (Hilchos De’os, Chapter 2) and a Maamer by our Rebbe entitled “Velo Yikaneif Od Morecha” from Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5711.

The PET Method

I call this the PET Method because you are essentially training your Animal Soul (Nefesh HaBehamis)(2) to become a tame pet.

1) PERSPECTIVE-Change your perspective
2) EXTREME-Go to the opposite extreme
3) TIME-Take some time alone to contemplate

Change your Perspective

The Alter Rebbe(3), explains a passage from the Zohar(4) which is quoted by the Rambam(5). “Kol haKo’es ke’Ilu oved avoda zara”. Essentially, this means that an angry person is considered an idolater. Why? Because you should believe that all situations come from G-d. Therefore, a seemingly upsetting scenario, even if perpetuated by a fellow, is orchestrated by G-d. One who does not believe this (or who frequently forgets this in a fit of anger) is denying that G-d is running the world. This is what idolaters believe as well.

This can be learned from the way King David reacted to Shimi when he cursed him(6). He said, “G-d told him to curse”. Yet, it does not say anywhere that Shimi was a prophet or that G-d commanded him to curse King David. This teaches us that no person, not even a heathen, is able to do anything without G-d giving him the power to do so. G-d powers all creations, including idolatry and matters that are contrary to His will(7). Therefore, when someone wrongs his fellow, it is because G-d willed that this should happen. G-d used this fellow as a messenger by giving him the energy to do so. (Note: This does not absolve the fellow of wrongdoing. He is guilty for hurting his fellow since he has free choice. He did not have to be the messenger. G-d could find another way for this to happen.)

This perspective shift can help curb angry reactions to people who hurt or anger you. Remember that everything G-d does is for the good. In simpler terms, right now, it might seem bad, hurtful or plain annoying, but believe that the outcome of this situation will be positive(8). This will help you lead a calmer and happier life. It’s all about perspective(9).

One of the more common techniques for dealing with anger is talking it out with a mentor or therapist(10). A mentor might be able to help you find a solution to a problem you are facing. Moreover, many times, just discussing an issue can help relieve the pressure, even if a solution is not found. This
is indeed correct and Chassidus takes it a step further. Having a Mashpia (mentor) is based on a Mishna in Pirkei Avos(11) “Asei lecha rav”. On many occasions, the Rebbe made it his personal request that we should all have a Mashpia(12). However, it is important to remember that a mentor does not always provide a solution. He/she can help you change your perspective when you are subjectively involved(13). A paradigm shift can remove the issue altogether.

For example, if I am angry at my friend who shamed me in public, a therapist or mentor might tell me how to approach this fellow and tell him calmly that I feel hurt. A Mashpia can help me realize that, based on Chassidus , there is no reason for me to be upset at all. This was meant to happen to me and G-d used him as a messenger. Once I let that idea sink in, I can feel calmer and tell myself, “For whatever good reason, this was meant to be. I will accept it and not try to take revenge on my fellow. I also know that he will get any necessary consequence from G-d since everyone has free choice.” This is a much deeper and inner transformation.

What about triggers that are not done by another person? For example, if your car won’t start when you are late to work? Again, remembering that this is orchestrated by G-d can help you relax in any situation. It’s always easy to blame another person or circumstance for our behavior. However, reminding yourself daily that G-d is in charge can help you relax and do your best to be in a calm and collected mood.

Daily Meditation: I cannot control how other people behave or the situations I am in, I can only control how I react by remembering that G-d orchestrated this for a reason.

The Opposite Extreme

Sometimes a person with a more angry nature needs a more rigorous “training” to help deal with the issue. This is based on the Rambam.

In Hilchos De’os(14), the Rambam discusses different character traits that people may have. When it comes to anger, he cautions about the negative effects of this character trait. Anger is only appropriate when it is used in a loving manner to correct someone for a wrongdoing. The Rambam emphasizes that when this type of anger is necessary, one should present an angry front, yet inwardly be calm(15).

If you are a person who is quick to get angry, the only remedy is for you to go to the opposite extreme, i.e. be completely calm(16). How? By training yourself to be completely unreactive to any situation for a given amount of time (depending on the severity of your anger issue). In other words, whenever there is a potential trigger, just let it slide and let go. Do not react at all. The repetition of this behaviour will create a calmer personality. Once you feel that you are a more relaxed individual, you can go to the middle path: reacting appropriately to stressful circumstances.

This is different from other modern day approaches to anger management. One method is deep breathing to help let go of the pain. Another is making sure to stay healthy by eating proper meals, getting enough sleep, and exercising(17). It is important to note that physical health is very important to your spiritual well-being(18). You need your body to be healthy so you can serve G-d in the best possible manner. However, in order to train yourself to be calm and react appropriately to life’s stressors, the Rambam’s approach of staying completely calm is the most transformative.

For example, I’m running late in the morning because my alarm did not go off, all my matching socks are in the laundry, and my cell phone is broken. As I’m about to leave, I find out that I was rejected from a job application. During the “training” phase, the appropriate response would be no reaction at all. I inform my supervisor that I will be late, quietly look for a different pair of socks, and make myself a reminder to call the company to fix my cell phone when I am more relaxed. I remind myself that any job I get is determined by G-d. I just remain completely unresponsive-yet deal with the issue at hand.

Daily Meditation: I will train myself to be temporarily unreactive to any stressful situations. This will help
turn me into a calmer person.

Time To Contemplate

It says in the Mishna(19) that one who pretends to do or be something negative will not die until he experiences it. For example, a rich man who begs for alms will eventually become poor. The Rebbe explains that this can be said of positive behaviours as well(20). If you pretend to be calm, G-d will make sure that this will indeed become your nature. The Rebbe elaborates more on this idea in a Chol Hamoed Sukkos Maamer(21). He explains that when you behave in a manner that is not really your essence, this can cause you to develop that personality. In the case of anger management, repetitiously remaining calm and shifting your perspective will make you a more relaxed individual. Don’t worry if it feels fake. Just like the rich man who begs for alms, G-d will make sure this becomes a part of who you are!

One more modern approach to anger management is praying and showing gratitude(22). It is suggested to take time daily to focus on being thankful for what you have and request from G-d anything you may need. As Jews, we do this daily when we thank G-d for all the good we are blessed with and ask Him for anything we feel we are missing. It is called Tefila-Davening. Make sure you have an allotted time to pray every day so you can stay focused on your goals.

Another final contemplation; the Rebbe writes in a letter to a Chassid with anger issues, “You should memorize the first part of Chapter 41 of Tanya up to page 112 ‘…before the king’ ”(23). This chapter discusses how G-d is always watching your behavior. Constantly repeating it will help you internalize the message. Everything you do is being watched by an “Eye that sees and an ear that hears”(24).

Daily Meditation: Take 5 minutes daily (preferably in the morning) to contemplate on the steps of the PET Method and how you will implement them. This will make it more natural for you.

The Esrog

Let me conclude with a story. A poor, pious Jew once spent his last pennies to purchase a beautiful Esrog for the holiday of Sukkot. Alas, when he returned home with this treasured item, his wife was infuriated. “This is what you spend our hard-earned money on?! When we don’t have bread to put on the table?” In her fit of anger, she bit off the Pitom, rendering the Esrog Possul, unfit for use. The husband, upon seeing that his dream of having a beautiful Esrog was shattered, calmly stated, “I guess G-d did not see me worthy of having such a nice-looking Esrog.” His extreme self-control was noted when the Baal Shem Tov gave him special attention among his elite Chassidim. “Since the Akeidat Yitzchak-Binding of Isaac, such an extreme sacrifice has never been seen!(25)”

This pious Jew exercised self-control even in a very extreme situation. What kept him grounded? “G-d did not see me worthy of having a beautiful Esrog”

Remember Who is in control and it will help you stay in control.

1 by Diane Roberts Stoler Ed. D.
2 The Nefesh HaBehamis-Animal Soul is our inner drive for worldly pleasures and survival. It is not necessarily a bad inclination, it is more concerned with materialistic pursuits and will use any method to achieve its goal. For more information on this, see Tanya Chapters 6-8.
3 In Iggeres Hakodesh, Epistle 25
4 Zohar I, 27b; III, 179a
5 Hilchos De’os 2:3
6 Shmuel II 16:10
7 He does so in a backwards way, but gives them life force nevertheless. Tanya, Chapter 6
8 Sichos In English, The Chassidic Approach to Joy, Chapter 2 At-All-times.htm
9 A perfect example of proper perspective is Joseph. He was sold into slavery by his own brothers, falsely accused and languished in prison for over 10 years. Yet, Yosef told his brothers, “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.” Genesis 50:19-20
10 by Diane Roberts Stoler Ed. D.
11 Ethics of Our Fathers 1:6
12 Sichos in English, Volume 33, 3rd Night of Sukkos, 5747 (1986)
13 Farbrengen from Purim 5747, March 15 1987 (Living Torah-Disc 36, Program 142)
14 Rambam, Hilchos De’os 2:2-3
15 Rambam, Hilchos De’os 2:3
16 Rambam, Hilchos De’os 2:3
17 by Diane Roberts Stoler Ed. D.
18 Hayom Yom, 28 Shevat-Tackling Life Tasks, p.116
19 Peah Perek 8, Mishna 9
20 Sicha 13 Tammuz, 5711-1951
21 Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos 1961, p. 22-23
22 by Diane Roberts Stoler Ed. D.
23 Igros Kodesh, Vol. XV, p. 270
24 Ethics of Our Fathers 2:6
25 Sefer Hasichot 5696, p. 148