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The Keys to Life

Overcoming Anger - Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Relative to all the other difficult traits, anger is by far the hardest to correct. A raging temper distorts the rational mind and immediately shuts down the gates of sound judgment. What is the secret to overcoming anger?

Overcoming Anger - Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Relative to all the other difficult traits, anger is by far the hardest to correct. A raging temper distorts the rational mind and immediately shuts down the gates of sound judgment. Once this occurs, the angry person cannot control himself and may instinctively act in a harmful or destructive way. However, anyone who truly wishes to change his ways and go from being a temperamental complainer to a peaceful and calm individual can certainly transform his behavior and become a totally new person (with the knowledge that he will have to make a mental and practical effort). This change will undoubtedly lead to a more structured and gratifying life. He will be welcomed by all his friends and they will enjoy his company. Most importantly, his improved character will make him a more wholesome individual.

There are two stages involved in the process of correcting one’s anger. The first is theoretical study. This study will enrich the person’s knowledge about the severity of anger and its damaging factors, to the extent where he absolutely despises this evil trait and wishes to get rid of it. He will also learn what the correct and healthy outlook is on disappointments, frustrations, and difficulties arising throughout life that make him angry, and practical tips on how to deal with this emotion when it erupts.

The second stage is the implementation of these teachings into the daily challenges of life, while remaining mindful of the fact that many failures will be encountered before reaching the desired goal. However, if the person is consistent, he will eventually attain his objective and go from being the angry type, to a person who is sensible and balanced, conducting himself peacefully and with proper judgment in any given situation.

We will begin with a number of theoretical ideas designed for the person who wishes to work on his anger. These must be consistently reviewed and ultimately mastered. First, he must think about the harmful effects anger has on his body and soul. As we know, when a person becomes angry, certain physiological processes are initiated in his body that are oftentimes irreversible and can sometimes lead to death. The immune system is also affected when a person becomes angry. The cells of his body have a harder time dealing with the health challenges they encounter. A person who takes life’s difficulties and disappointments with ease, meets every situation with a smile and even jokes about his troubles. This attitude helps the damaged cells regenerate, and thus allows his immunity to thrive.

Regarding the health hazards associated with anger, our sages have said in the Talmud, “Whoever becomes angry has all sorts of Gehinnom controlling him.”[1] This means that he will suffer both in this world and in the World to Come.

Moreover, when a person is angry, he may potentially hurt his loved ones, as he is unaware of the extent of his terrible actions. This makes all efforts to talk to him and calm him down futile—even if the person trying to appease him is a respectable individual in his eyes. After all, he is so senseless and irrational at that moment, he may even forget his Creator—as the Talmud says, “To the angry man, even the Divine Presence is not important.”[2] As it says, “The wicked man, in the pride of his countenance, says, ‘He will not avenge.’ All his schemes are: ‘There is no Divine Judge.’”[3] As a side point, we learn from this verse that a person who reaches such intense levels of anger receives the harsh title, “evil.”

The sages also teach us that anger injures a person’s memory and IQ. It is brought down that anger causes a person to forget his studies and thus increases foolishness, as it says, “Do not be hastily upset, for anger lingers in the bosom of fools.”[5] It is also written, “The fool broadcasts his foolishness.”[6] From here we can see that the mind of a person who is inclined toward anger is not structured as well as the mind of the peaceful individual; he tends to jump to false conclusions, even when he is calm. The sages have learned from the wisest of all men that an angry person stumbles upon many sins, until he is faced with the inescapable truth that “his sins outnumber his merits,”[7] as it is written, “A man of anger will incite strife, and a man of wrath is full of offense.”[8]

In the writings of the mystics it says that an angry person loses a certain dimension from his original soul, and misses out on the opportunity to gain a spiritual awareness that he may have otherwise been privileged to receive if not for his emotional outbreak. He may even miss out on his life partner because of his temper. The following are the words of the Arizal in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, recorded by his distinguished student Rav Chaim Vital:

See here, it can happen that a certain person will have a pure and high soul, and when he comes to rage/anger then the nefesh will leave him and instead, a lower, coarser nefesh will enter. And since this aspect stands as follows then it’s also possible that another aspect is drawn from this because since till now a certain woman [his real partner] was given to him [a man] and since his nefesh was replaced, so his nefesh is given to another man, who [another man who received the nefesh from the first man] will take her as his wife.[9]

A person who reflects upon these matters will immediately understand that the hot-tempered individual hurts himself more than he hurts those around him. He may believe that the consequences of his actions are only damaging to those he directs his anger at, but the fact is that he is the greatest victim in these situations.

It comes as no surprise then that according to research, people who are severely ill tend to carry unresolved resentments in their hearts. A person who is angry for a long time and is unwilling to try and forgive may be certain that he is hurting the person who has offended him, but what he fails to realize is that he is the one who is mostly affected by these resentments, as they physically and mentally gnaw at him and damage him the most.

Awareness of the dangers that anger poses has the power to avert the person from it and cause him to hate this terrible trait. In doing so, he will develop a strong desire to remove it from himself and uproot it completely from his behavior patterns. Then, once he attains that desire, he should begin selecting the proper approach with which to handle the various situations that provoke his anger. This will allow him to counteract the reasons for his outbursts, even before they occur.

In order to transform an angry person into a cool and collected individual who handles every situation with the correct balance, one must internalize three principles concerning the various hang-ups and complexes that lead to anger.

1.  First, he should reflect upon the principle that “a person cannot stub his finger down here on earth without it being decreed from above.”[17] I cannot receive even the smallest hardship if it isn’t initiated by the heavens—and if so, there’s no point in being angry with the person who upsets me, as he is likened to the “stick” that is being used by the One above in order to hit me with. So is it rational to become angry at a stick? After all, it was decreed that I would endure this hardship. I’m the one who must introspect and figure out for myself what it is that I must correct, so hardships like this one stop happening. And if that’s the case, why should I be angry.

2.  Secondly, he must think about the following: What am I, and what is my life? So what if people say things that I don’t like, or fail to fulfill my wishes—who do I think I am, anyway? What gives me the right to think that I deserve honor and glory? What makes me think that I am worthy enough to have all my wishes granted by others? Why does it upset me and hurt my ego when I don’t get my way? Maybe I should consider lowering my pride, and stop expecting and demanding things of others? Then the person should closely examine the following Mishnah:

Know where you came from and where you are going…where have you come from? From a putrid drop. And where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots.[19]

The more he distances himself from arrogance and from the false notion that people are supposed to do everything he wishes and only say what he likes to hear, the easier it will become for him to avoid anger. 

3.  In addition, he should internalize the idea that earthly matters such as, money, honor, and possessions are all fleeting. Therefore, he should not feel badly about disappointments concerning things that are temporary and imaginary, and he should not be angry with the person who caused these disappointments. After all, there’s no real loss here that justifies anger. In the words of the Pele Yoetz, “Honor, shame, and all other matters of this world are insignificant and deceptive.”[21]

Since these matters are temporary and the soul is eternal, he should definitely not let these momentary issues ruin the integrity of his soul and allow his anger to damage it forever—especially when he remembers that the only reason these things exist in the world is for the purpose of challenging him with temporary tests of honor, money, and other worldly matters. This awareness will help him build and shape his eternal character. Therefore, he should strongly withstand these tests in order to achieve his spiritual goal and avoid becoming angry.

Even after internalizing these three points, the person working toward correcting his anger may find himself becoming angry against his will. This may be a hard pill for him to swallow, as he was confident that he would never again have such an extreme outbreak. But he must remember that this is the nature of spiritual work, as it says, “The righteous man may fall seven times but he will rise.”[22] He may fall, but he is still referred to as “righteous” because he does not lose hope and picks himself up time after time. He certainly does everything he can to avoid the fall, but if it happens, he takes it as a lesson for the next time he is placed in a similar predicament. He understands what he needs to protect himself from and beware of so he does not fall again, until he reaches the desired perfection.

Correcting the trait of anger poses certain challenges, as it is different than other spiritual endeavors. While the correction of other traits involves ups and downs leading to eventual stabilization, anger contains a unique element that makes it more difficult to repair. As we know, the main problem with anger is the sudden burst of emotion that comes along with it. This sudden outburst does not offer the person much time to think about the various ways in which he can deal with the situation. Therefore, in this difficult battle against the emotion of anger, we must adopt certain tactics that will help the warrior win the war, as it says, “Through strategies you can wage war.”[23]

Here are a number strategies and practical tips on overcoming anger.

Perform an Action 

Resolve to perform some consistent action before initiating any expression of anger. For example, put on a shirt designated for this purpose, pour a drink into a glass and take a sip, or fold a towel in another room. The purpose of these actions is to give yourself some time to introspect. This is powerful because initially, when a person begins to work on his anger, he knows that he cannot possibly convince himself to gain composure during a fit of anger. He knows it won’t help and he’ll still become angry. However, if he says to himself, “I will get angry, but only after I perform the action that I’ve committed to doing,” it will be easier for him to reflect upon the situation at hand. It will give him a chance to reconsider the necessity for the anger by affording him the time to recollect all that he has learned about the harmful effects of anger. This will increase the chances for the current outburst to be lessened or even eliminated.

Look Away

Whenever anger is aroused in your heart toward someone, look away from him.[24] The more you look at him, the angrier you will become, especially if he continues doing whatever it is that’s making you angry. Some recommend raising the eyebrows and wrinkling the forehead when feeling angry. This action accelerates relaxation and even eliminates anger completely—it’s worth a try.

Give Yourself a Fine

Make a decision that if a severe episode of anger gets the better of you again, you would give yourself a fine that you can afford to pay but will still be unpleasant for you. For example, deny yourself a certain food that you normally eat and love; give a certain amount of money to charity; wear an old garment or an article of clothing that you do not like; or any other reasonable punishment. If it becomes apparent that a certain punishment is ineffective, move on to something more deterring, provided that it is something feasible for you to do and not something that will discourage you or make you depressed.

Get Used to Speaking Calmly

Repeat the following: “Whatever will be, will be. I will not raise my voice at anyone, no matter what. And even if I sense that terrible rage is about to erupt, I will continue speaking softly (or at the very least, I will keep quiet and talk to myself about the best way to deal with the situation).”

Regarding the importance of speaking softly as a way to flee from anger, the Ramban says the following, in his famous letter to his son: “Always practice speaking calmly to every person, at every moment—that is how you will be saved from anger, which is a terrible trait that incites people to sin.”

Gather Information, Write It Down, and Review

This tip applies to all spiritual acquisitions that a person wants to acquire, especially the correction of the trait of anger. The very effort involved in gathering information and writing it down helps organize our thoughts and carries them into our consciousness. Once the person reviews the information that he has collected, he will feel like he truly identifies with the words that he has written.

Here’s what the Pele Yoetz says on this matter:

If a person only knew the severity the Talmud and the Zohar place on anger, his hairs would stand on end. And because of its severity, the person who is hot-tempered by nature and desires life must strengthen and hedge himself against falling into the abyss. And the great hedge will be the writings that he will write down from the teachings of the sages in the Talmud and the Zohar, and it will be remembered before him, and he will review it every day so that he will become fearful and frightened and return from his negative ways.[27]

If You Must Get Angry, Resolve the Matter ASAP!

One of the actions that help in overcoming anger is training yourself to relax, resolve the matter quickly, ask forgiveness, and mitigate the situation immediately. After all, a person who pushes himself to calm down right after failing the test of anger, and apologizes to the person he lashed out on without worrying about his own pride, will be more composed when facing anger-provoking challenges in the future. This will ensure that his path toward overcoming the urge of anger will be made easier, so that ultimately he will never lose his temper again.

We will conclude with the wonderful advice of the Rambam about how to use anger in the proper way when necessary—as an external façade. Once applied, this method helps in areas of problem solving, proper emotional balance, and in overcoming anger in the most authentic way.

Express Anger Only through the Face

As we know, the main obstacle that stands before the person who wishes to correct his hot-tempered ways is the occasional need to deal with issues whose solutions call for the expression of anger. This is his dilemma: “I do not want to be angry. But if I do not express anger in certain situations, like with my kids, my husband, my wife, my employees, my neighbors, etc., the matter will never be resolved. In that case, how can I refrain from anger completely? After all, under certain circumstances, anger is appropriate.”

The following is the Rambam’s wonderful advice taken from Sefer HaMada. We will provide the full excerpt quoted directly from his book, as the information contained in his teachings is so significant and valuable:[28]

Anger is also an exceptionally bad quality. It is fitting and proper that one moves away from it and adopts the opposite extreme. He should school himself not to become angry even when it is fitting to be angry. If he should wish to arouse fear in his children and household—or within the community, if he is a communal leader—and wishes to be angry at them to motivate them to return to the proper path, he should present an angry front to them to punish them, but he should be inwardly calm. He should be like one who acts out the part of an angry man in his wrath, but is not truly angry.

The early sages said, “Anyone who becomes angry is like one who worships idols.”[29] They also said, “Whenever one becomes angry, if he is a wise man, his wisdom leaves him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him. The life of the irate is not true life.”[30]

Therefore, they have directed that one should distance himself from anger and accustom himself not to feel any reaction, even to things which provoke anger. This is the good path. This is the way of the righteous: They accept humiliation, but do not humiliate others; they listen when they are shamed, but they do not answer; they do this with love and are joyous in their sufferings. Of them it states, “And those who love Him are like the sun when it comes out in its strength.”[31]

This means that a person should use the external façade of anger to draw attention to the severity of the matter, so that the people he’s addressing will act properly. But on the inside, he should be calm and relaxed and he should achieve that peacefulness by means of the teachings stated above. However, one must be careful and not allow his outwardly angry face to arouse his internal anger. But it is possible for every sensible person to work toward disciplining himself in this area until he reaches a perfect balance between his outer appearance and his inner, absolute peacefulness. By doing this, he will achieve his goal—to resolve the problem that calls for anger, without truly being angry. When the outer expression of anger is driven by composed judgment as opposed to reckless rage, he will always use the proper measure and evaluate the purpose of the matter without displaying the kind of extreme indignation seen by many.

Anyone who has an innate pull toward anger, and works to overcome this difficult quality, will receive a greater reward than a person who is inherently calm. As it says, “The reward is determined according to the level of difficulty.”[32] The real king is he who is able to control his emotions. As it says, “He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and a master of his passions [is better] than a conqueror of a city.”[33]

Notes and Sources

[1] Nedarim 22a.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tehillim 10:4.

[4] Shabbat 105b.

[5] Kohelet 7:9.

[6] Mishlei 12:23.

[7] Nedarim 22a.

[8] Mishlei 29:22.

[9] Shaar HaGilgulim, Introduction 5.

[10] Yeshayahu 2:22.

[11] Iyov 18:4.

[12] Yeshayahu 2:22.

[13] In the allegorical level of the Torah, when the punctuation is changed, the words take on a different meaning. That is why the Torah scroll is not punctuated, as traditionally, there are seventy facets to the Torah.

[14] Zohar, Parshat Tetzaveh 182a. The English translation of parts of this Zohar are from Chabad.org.

[15] Shaar Ruach HaKodesh 10b. Refer to original source for further reading regarding the additional harm that can be done to a person’s good deeds as a result of his anger.

[16] Refer to the Zohar, Parshat Tetzaveh (p. 186b); see the conversation between Rebbe Yossi and Rebbe Yehudah regarding this matter.

[17] Chullin 7b.

[18] Yoma 38b.

[19] Avot 3a.

[20] Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9, halachah 1; Bamidbar Rabbah, Parsha 21b.

[21] Pele Yoetz, “Anger.”

[22] Mishlei 24:16.

[23] Mishlei 24:6.

[24] Refer to Orchot Tzaddikim, Gate of Anger, and Pele Yoetz, “Anger.”

[25] Iyov 26:7.

[26] Pele Yoetz, “Anger.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 2:3. The English translation is from Chabad.org.

[29] Shabbat 105b.

[30] Pesachim 66b.

[31] Shoftim 5:31.

[32] Avot 5:23.

[33] Mishlei 16:32. Also, refer to Orchot Tzaddikim, Gate of Anger.

Adapted from "The Keys to Life" by Rabbi Zamir Cohen