Emotional Sobriety: Anger

Jim B.

Anger and resentment are the main subjects of our 4th Step inventory in the Big Book. As an emotion, anger arises from a perception that one has been intentionally wronged. It responds to an act (or omission) that we see or construe as unjust or unfair, an offense or injury against us or a person or thing important to us. The Big Book lists some basic concerns as our self-esteem, pocketbooks, ambitions, and personal relations (p. 65). The 12&12 sums them up as our concerns for “sex, security, and society” (S4, p. 50).

Anger motivates the aggrieved person to redress the perceived injustice and punish the offender. As such, anger is, in principle, morally necessary. Whether a specific instance of anger is morally right or justified, or morally wrong or unjustified, depends on whether the response fits the offense.

Anger goes wrong when our perception is wrong: we see an offense where there is none, or we see a greater offense than there actually is, or we see offensive intent where none exists or the offender is not morally responsible or culpable, or what we perceive to be the offender is not in fact the offender.

Anger goes wrong also when our concern is wrong. Concerns go wrong when they are excessive, morally or spiritually disordered, misguided or misdirected, or pursued at the expense of others. If we suffer from an excessive desire for respect, for instance, we will see signs of disrespect everywhere and our ire will be frequently aroused. If we are too concerned with being right, we may tend to engage in what the 12&12 describes as “quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven argument” (S10, p.91) when people don't agree with us.

Because of our spiritual disease, our perceptions and concerns are often likely to be selfish and self-centered and hence our anger defective. That is, our anger tends to be of the self-righteous variety, often driven by pride of self, a hurt ego being its most common cause. In our warped sense of justice, we are prone to take offense too quickly, too often, too intensely, and for too long. In the latter case, this issues in a smoldering resentment that disposes us to still more anger.

Our inventory of anger and resentment is designed to reveal their cause in distorted perceptions and concerns and in the character defects that lie behind them. Its purpose is to foster a spiritual awakening that transforms those perceptions and concerns and enables us to surrender those defects of character and replace them with their countervailing traits in the virtues. Among these are such traits as humility, acceptance, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.

This is how we can become progressively free from emotions that in the past drove us to the bottle and in sobriety can still mar our recovery and sabotage our relationships. 
[Image: Jim B., first self-declared atheist to join AA and the most contentious member of the group at the time; was so viciously anti-God that he was threatened with expulsion, at which point he appealed to the 3rd Tradition; claims credit for the Big Book’s use of the phrase “God as we understood Him”; ironically, the 12&12 recounts how, his militant atheism notwithstanding, it was only after reading a Gideon Bible in a hotel room that he stopped relapsing and stayed sober for good; author of  “The Vicious Cycle” in Big Book.  For audio of his story and Q&A  about it, please click on links. For talk by him, click on Jim B.: AA Pioneer. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]   

Bill W."So, nowadays, if anyone talks of me so as to hurt, I first ask myself if there is any truth at all in what they say. If there is none, I try to remember that I too have had my periods of speaking bitterly of others; that hurtful gossip is but a symptom of our remaining emotional illness; and consequently that I must never be angry at the unreasonableness of sick people." – Bill W.

Big Book"Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick." – Big Book   

12&12"What we must recognize is that we exult in some of our defects. Self-righteous anger can be very enjoyable. In a perverse way we can actually take satisfaction from the fact that many people annoy us; it brings a comfortable feeling of superiority." – 12&12 

Life Recovery Bible"A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger." – Proverbs 15:1
"Love . . . is not easily angered." – 1 Corinthians 13:4 

"Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.” – Socrates  

"There are two things a person should never be angry at: what they can help, and what they cannot." – Plato 

Aristotle "Anybody can become angry—that is easy—but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody's power and is not easy." – Aristotle 

"Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad." – Euripides 

"Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it." – Seneca  

"Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him." – Epictetus

Marcus Aurelius
"The best answer to anger is silence." – Marcus Aurelius

"You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger." – Buddha  

Thomas Aquinas
"Anger regards two objects, viz., the retribution that it seeks, and the person on whom it seeks retribution." – Thomas Aquinas  

Martin Luther"Those speak foolishly who ascribe their anger or their impatience to such as offend them or to tribulation. Tribulation does not make people impatient, but proves that they are impatient. So everyone may learn from tribulation how his heart is constituted." – Martin Luther  

William Shakespeare
"Thou hast not half the power to do me harm, as I have to be hurt." – William Shakespeare  

Thomas Jefferson
"When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” – Thomas Jefferson  

Benjamin Franklin
"Anger is never without a reason, but seldom a good one." – Benjamin Franklin  

St. Francis de Sales
"There was never an angry man that thought his anger unjust." – St. Francis de Sales  

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness." – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Mark Twain
"Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured." – Mark Twain 

Friedrich Nietzsche
"Nothing on earth consumes a man more completely than the passion of resentment." – Friedrich Nietzsche 

Rainer Maria Rilke
"If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow." – Rainer Maria Rilke  

Gordon B. Hinckley"So many of us make a great fuss of matters of small consequence. We are so easily offended. Happy is the man who can brush aside the offending remarks of another and go on his way." – Gordon B. Hinckley  

Abraham J. Heschel
"In a controversy, the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves." – Abraham J. Heschel  

Arthur Schopenhauer
"Hatred is an affair of the heart; contempt that of the head." – Arthur Schopenhauer  

Robert Quillen
"Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance." – Robert Quillen 

John Ruskin
"He that would be angry and sin not, must not be angry with anything but sin." – John Ruskin  

"Don’t do something permanently stupid because you’re temporarily upset." – Anonymous 

Tim Keller
"You cannot stay angry at somebody unless you feel superior to them." – Tim Keller  

"I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to." – Anonymous 

Latin Proverb
Revenge is a confession of pain." – Latin Proverb 

"Never say mean words out of anger. Your anger will pass. But your mean words can scar a person for life. So use kind words or be silent." – Anonymous  

Henry Fairlie"[Wrath] is the love of justice perverted into the desire for revenge and for the injury of someone else; justice is the proclaimed motive for every manifestation of Wrath.” – Henry Fairlie 

"Anger is one letter short of danger." – Anonymous 

"When you are angry, be silent." – Anonymous 

"A bitter heart eats its owner." – Bantu Proverb 

"Anger is a feeling that makes your mouth work faster than your mind." – Anonymous 

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung"When wrath becomes a habit, we learn to see the world through angry eyes: laden with an excessive sense of our own entitlements, we let anger direct reason’s vision and judgment, rather than the other way around.” – Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices  

Daily Reflections
Suddenly I saw that I could do something about my anger. I could fix me, instead of trying to fix them." – A.A.'s Daily Reflections 

"Live and let live warns against resentment; tells us to avoid construing other people’s actions as intentional injuries to us." – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon  

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "Just for today I will let go of my resentments. Today, if I am wronged, I will practice forgiveness, knowing that I need forgiveness myself." – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts  

PTP123"As we take inventory and examine our resentments, issuing from hurts real or imagined, we begin to see the exact nature of these resentments in the character defects that lie behind and trigger them." – PTP123  

PTP4"Our first goal on making an inventory of our resentments in Step 4 is to let go of the anger we feel toward the people, places, and things that have hurt us in the past.” – PTP4  

Emotional Sobriety: Anger - Thomas a Kempis

For PTP123 passages on anger and resentment, see pp. 29, 77, 168, 211. For PTP4 passages, see Chapter 8: Anger and Resentment, pp. 121–145. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on 164andmore.com and search for anger and for resentment. On this site, see Appendix 3: Common Manifestations of Self: Defective Emotions – Anger.  See also Watch Your Mouth: Cursing in Meetings.      

Additional Resources

  1. Meditations for 03/09, 04/15, 08/27, 08/28, and 09/11 in One Day at a Time in Al-Anon 
  2. Meditation for 12/06 in Al-Anon's Courage to Change
  3. Meditation for 03/11, 04/27, and 09/9 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts 
  4. "Anger: Holy Emotion or Hellish Passion?," chapter in Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung 
  5. The Mission, 1986 movie with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. Two cases of anger, both ostensibly aroused by injustice, but each driven by entirely different concerns and desires. A 3- rather than 5-star film, yet instructive and entertaining. See DeYoung’s insightful analysis in book chapter noted above 

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