As the Covid-19 crisis drags on and the isolation restrictions take their emotional toll, how to deal with increased irritability and anger is one of the of the most commonly asked questions by many cooped-up couples and families.
This concern is not surprising or difficult to understand since we humans are creatures of habit and the virus has significantly disrupted our daily routines. When sudden, unexpected and radical changes are imposed on and severely restrict our living conditions, our sense-of-normal is thrown off and we experience an emotional shock. This shock stresses our ability to respond reasonably to new challenges and as a result, tempers can flare even the best of families.
For me, both as a pastoral counselor and a psychotherapist, The Bible is filled with stories which can help us in times such as these. The Old Testament book of Job offers some especially valuable guidance. Although , now, most of us are not suffering to the extent that Job did, we still can learn a lot from his example. So, if you will forgive the mini-sermon, here is a biblical lesson that I believe has immense psychological value. Consider the story of Job:
Job, probably the oldest book in the Old Testament, relates the story of a man named Job who was a faithful and upright servant of God. The story goes that one day, for whatever reason, God and Satan were debating the limits of a man’s ( please excuse the patriarchal bias) faith. God pointed to Job as a faithful man whose faith could not be swayed. Satan disagreed and said that, if he were stressed enough, Job would abandon his faith and curse God. Strangely enough, God agrees to a trial and allows Satan to test Job by repeatedly inflicting various hardships and physical ailments upon him .
Although the image of Job is popularly associated with the notion of being calm and accepting in the midst of adversity (as in the expression, ” having the patience of Job”) , the actual text reveals, that although Job was patient and accepting, at first ( 1:20 …“the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”) , as the trials and tribulations continued, and his pain and anguish increased, he was not particularly patient or accepting at all. He complained loudly . In fact , he became quite angry ! (Job 3.1-4 “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night which said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness!”)
What is remarkable about Job’s anger is how it is expressed and where it is directed . Unlike most of us when we get mad, Job did not externalize or displace his frustrations onto others or God. He did not become verbally abusive or name-call nor did he blame or make excuses. What he did in perfect I-statement form, was to talk about his experience and his pain and what he wanted.
Likewise, in demonstrating a model for a healthy expression of anger, Job did not swing to the other extreme and blame himself. While not blaming God, he maintains his innocence and notes that, while not perfect, he believed that severity of his ordeal was unjust and that he did not deserve to suffer as much as he did. Indeed, in blaming neither God nor himself , Job exposes the mystery of evil and suffering. (Job 19. 24-26 “Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were graven in the rock for ever! 25 For I know that my redeemer (vindicator)] lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; 26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from[d] my flesh I shall see God.”)
At the end of the story, when God speaks to Job’s false friends who wanted him to lie and falsely confess sins that he did not commit, he rebukes them and says, to Eli′phaz the Te′manite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42.7) In speaking as he did, God not only praised Job’s behavior but he affirmed the dignity and right of humans to honestly express their feelings, including anger without either recrimination or self-blame in the midst of personal tragedy. (Sadly, from a mental health point of view, the lesson that we are entitled to express our negative feelings including anger, is an important but difficult lesson for many to hear since a common belief in our culture is that anger is bad and should not be expressed.)
Applying this illustrative story to our situation, here are the key points to remember about Job’s model for dealing with anger and frustrations while living in cramped quarters and restricted circumstances:
— Don’t try to hold in or suppress your feelings. Those feelings are legitimate and you have a right to express them. Anger is a legitimate feeling. What is important is HOW you express. Anytime but especially when living in close quarters, it is important to be considerate and respectful of the other folks with whom you live.
— Be Respectful of Others. When you express your feelings, imagine how you sound to others. Talk about your own experience and what you want. Don’t blame or attack others. In the wake of disappointment or frustrating circumstances which are beyond your control, it is difficult to be calm and rational.
— If Overwhelmed , stop talking and leave the room. If you become overwhelmed , recognize that you are “losing it” and realize that trying to talk when you are really upset is often not helpful or productive. You may need to hit the reset button and calm down first. Removing yourself from others, taking a walk, writing in a journal or doing some meditation or breathing exercises will help restore your experience to a calmer place.
Likewise, for those who are around someone who has become agitated, it is important not to attempt to talk to or “calm them down”. Don’t engage until they have returned to a reasonable frame of mind.
— Don’t Blame Yourself. Remember that it is important not to blame yourself . Blaming and find fault is not a helpful reaction. It is just as important not to abuse yourself as it is to not abuse others. When you unnecessarily blame yourself, what you are doing is directing your anger inward. Introflected anger is emotionally unhealthy and creates depressed feelings and an irritable and hopeless outlook. Sometimes things happen that are just not fair but are really, at base , no one’s fault.
While we don’t know the full psychological impact of prolonged sheltering-in-place or for how long this practice will be necessary , we do know that, if these tips are followed and managing and expressing angry feelings constructively are practiced, getting along during these trying times will go more smoothly and with less conflict. Until this scourge eases, please take extra care and be safe .
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC 4 17 2020
Image attribution and acknowledgment :job-by-bonnat.jpg