by Karl Benzio, M.D.
A few years ago, one of the best soccer players in the world snapped during the biggest soccer match of his career – the World Cup Final. During a tie game in overtime, he got into an exchange with an opponent and suddenly head butted him. The referee saw his action and through him out of the game, which put his team at great disadvantage and eventually cost them the championship.
Uncontrolled rage is a problem in sports, but it can result in more serious consequences than fines or penalties. Just open your newspaper or watch television newscasts. Unchecked anger inflicts destruction and results in wounds that last for years. Road rage, rape, murder, hate crimes, wars, genocide, divorce, and lawsuits are all too common in our society and world. They’re demonstrations of the many ways individuals and organizations display uncontrolled anger. These extremes don’t take into account the less severe, but still significantly damaging tantrums, we all have with others in the privacy of our one-on-one relationships.
I was interviewed on radio about “Intermittent Explosive Disorder.” This is the psychiatric diagnosis given to someone with a pattern of these extreme-anger episodes. We discussed rage-related issues, including the following questions:
- What is anger?
- Why is it destructive to others and myself?
- Can it be useful?
- What can I do about it?
Simply put, anger is an emotion, and our emotions are a gift from God. He made us in His image, and He is an emotional being. I believe God is perfect, yet in the Bible we see God get angry and jealous in response to the Israelites’ behavior. So if God is perfect, yet gets angry, how can anger be bad?
Emotions: A Good Warning System
From reviewing the Bible and being a psychiatrist (psychological and medical training), I’ve learned that our feelings play several roles. While enjoyment of good things feels most satisfying, their most important role is to act as our warning system.
For example, if we were walking through the jungle and saw a tiger, we’d feel nervous, frightened, or anxious. These emotions warn us that something is wrong or that potential danger or conflict is near. This warning then prompt, energize, and motivate us to take appropriate action. If we had no warning, we’d continue to walk merrily through the jungle, and the tiger would enjoy us for dinner.
In a more practical scenario, let’s say my teenage daughter, Dominique, says to me, “Daddy I am so angry with you!” My typical response might be “What? You have no right to be angry with me! I work hard to feed and clothe you, and you should be grateful.” The better response would be “Dominique, I’m glad you trust me enough to tell me you’re angry—that’s your emotions warning you of a problem. If I’m the problem…if I’m doing something wrong, I want to fix it; if you’re doing something wrong, you probably want to fix it, too. And if we’re just on different pages, then let’s both work on it.”
In these scenarios, emotions (anger, hurt, disappointment, etc.) gave warning of an underlying problem beneath the emotions. In the jungle, fear warned us to move away from the tiger (the tiger was the problem, not the fear). In my daughter’s case it may have been my behavior or her perception of my behavior that was at the root of her anger.
When viewed as the healthy warning system emotions were designed to be, even emotions we view as negative can be used productively and beneficially in our relationships. The common question is “How do my negative feelings get me in so much trouble if they are such ‘good’ things?”
Our feelings are great assets when we utilize them as our warning system. We run into significant problems, however, when we allow our feelings to move from being a healthy warning system to becoming our decision making system (or to significantly influence it).
Feelings often lead to knee-jerk, short-sighted, and ill advised decisions, such as punching the boss, yelling at and belittling a child’s honest mistakes, ignoring a spouse, giving a loved one the silent treatment, taking something from work, avoiding a confrontation, not auditioning for a part, participating in sexual activity outside of marriage, quitting a job abruptly without a good backup plan, impulse buying or eating, and the list could go on. Emotions clearly fueled the previously mentioned soccer player’s decision to head-butt his opponent in the World Cup.
Despite this recent episode in soccer, typical professional sports behaviors can illustrate how emotions don’t have to rule our decision-making processes. Athletes who stay cool, composed, and calm under pressure most often succeed. They control their emotions and remain steady, relying on reason (not emotion) to determine what they’ll do next. We’ve all seen what when athletes don’t control their emotions or allow their emotions to unduly influence their decision-making process, they tend to choke.
If you think it’s impossible to control your emotions, think again. Can you remember a time when you were arguing or fuming or crying or venting your frustration, and then the telephone or cell phone rang? If you answered the phone, chances are your contained your emotions enough to answer politely with little indication of your previous emotional state. Reason overruled your emotions; you contained your emotions to do what needed to be done.
It IS possible to reign in your emotions; and probably far more possible than you think. So don’t let your emotions be your decision-maker. Instead, be thankful when negative feelings arise: they’re like a warning sign that says “Bridge Out.” Heeding the sign can be a real life saver.
Always ask yourself, “Am I making this decision based on the facts/ data or based on my feelings?” If you are not sure; ask someone else not emotionally involved in the situation for their view or wait 24 hours (or cool off for an hour if you are dealing with your kids!).