Have you ever noticed that during the day we go through a whole range of emotions?
In a picture book about emotions that I like, the little character wakes up feeling happy, he bounces up and down on his bed, then he feels sad. He’s excited when he’s going to the park – he pushes his mum through the door because he can’t there fast enough. He is filled with burning jealousy when his little brother goes on the swings first, and then a violent explosion of sheer uncontrolled anger when his mother tells him it’s time to leave…
Today I want to explore that emotion.
It may not be something you think about much. But in Islam, there are three emotional states that are particularly destructive, not just to us individually but to our families and our communities. These are arrogance, jealousy and anger.
When you live in a household with other people, you not only experience the ups and downs of your own day, but have to deal with the ups and downs of the other people in the house. Of these, often young children can exhibit the most emotions. And one of these is having a bit of a temper.
Because they haven’t yet learned to control their emotions, children are a good example of how someone’s mood can change in a second. If you have younger siblings or cousins, you might have witnessed how a perfectly good day can turn to chaos in a moment, simply because the way the toothpaste has been put on their toothbrush or the way their hair has been tied, or the shape of their fried egg, can cause them to go from calm and cheerful into a raging bull within a split second.
In a moment, they might grab the nearest thing they can, scrunch it up, snap it, hurl it, tear it, smash it, break it… they express their feelings through an uncontrollable physical urge to destroy something beyond repair. If it’s their hair, they might rip out the hairband, if it is something not drawn how they wanted it, they will scribble over it or tear it to pieces. Quite simply, something has not fulfilled her expectations.
What is anger?
Anger is usually an expression of frustration. Of powerlessness. Or being treated unfairly. It is often when you did not get something you expected, or wanted, or felt you deserved. Or when you feel provoked by someone’s attitude towards you.
Anger is an emotion that surges inside us, floods us. You can feel your pulse racing, heart thumping, voice rising and beginning to break with the emotion that is starts gushing out. At its worst, some people feel the only way to expel it is through a violent physical response. To someone whose anger is not as violent as that, they may shout. To someone who expresses it less, it could be through their clenched jaw and clenched fists.
When the anger is inside us, we need to be more careful about whether we allow it drive us and dictate our behaviour, or whether we manage it more wisely.
Think about the last time you were angry… What triggered it?
There will probably be a pattern in the kind of things that make you angry. There will be certain situations in your day or week that trigger your anger… It could be when you feel you have been unjustly accused of something; it could be that someone has disagreed with your opinion; it may be that you have tried to suppress it and suppress it, and then eventually it has become too much and your reaction is magnified.
We also pick up triggers from our family. You may have grown up thinking that it’s always okay to act out your anger aggressively or violently, and so you didn’t learn how to understand and manage your angry feelings. This could mean you have angry outbursts whenever you don’t like the way someone is behaving, or whenever you are in a situation you don’t like. You may have been brought up to believe that you shouldn’t complain, and may have been punished for expressing anger as a child. This could mean that you tend to suppress your anger and it becomes a long-term problem, where you react inappropriately to new situations you’re not comfortable with.
You may have witnessed your parents’ or other adults’ anger when it was out of control, and learned to think of anger as something that is destructive and terrifying. This could mean that you now feel afraid of your own anger and don’t feel safe expressing your feelings when something makes you angry. Those feelings might then surface at another unconnected time, which may feel hard to explain.
How do you feel after an episode of anger?
You might feel guilty. You might feel embarrassed that your reaction was an overreaction. You might have said something you wouldn’t have said otherwise and then regret. You might even lose a friendship or ruin a relationship because of it.
Angry = Stupid. While you are angry, your brain is literally at its stupidest. Your rational part of the brain shuts down. Because anger is a primitive. It is a means of survival. Your body is flooded with a stress hormone. Your adrenaline rises. Your heart starts beating. You may feel warm. You may have a tremor. Your breathing changes and your voice rises. It is fight or flight.
It is not that it is wrong to experience anger – there are situations when we should feel angry. It is a basic emotion that we have, to protect ourselves. Particularly when there is injustice, anger propels us into action. Feeling anger is natural. But the problem with anger is that when we are angry we lose control.
Islam is about being in control of yourself. Being in control of your body, your intellect and your emotions. The moment you lose control over any of those aspects you run into problems. If you lose control over your body, you harm it – it could be obesity because you can’t control what you eat, it could be any number of harms caused by alcohol or drugs, because they cloud your judgment, and the emotion that could lead you to:
Damage a relationship
Say hurtful words
Take the wrong decision
Or, in the most extreme scenario, be the underlying emotion in a murder
We need to guard ourselves against anger because it is a potentially huge threat to us.
When you get into an argument and two people are angry the situation only gets worse. Anger is the fiery quality of the devil rather than coolness of the angels.
The Prophet* taught us strategies to manage anger and cool a temper. He said: ‘Whoever controls his anger at the time when he has the means to act upon it, Allah will fill his heart with contentment on the Day of Resurrection.’ [Reported by al-Tabaraani]
The first is to recognise it. Be aware of the scenarios that make you feel cross and annoyed. Then you can preempt them and nip your reaction to them before you lose it. When you feel yourself beginning to get angry, ask God for help.
The second is to stay silent once you’ve realised you’re angry. If you can manage to gain enough insight to not verbalise the thoughts that are bursting from you, you can say them in a more constructive way later. The Prophet* said: ‘If any of you becomes angry, let him keep silent.’ [Musnad Ahmad: Volume 1, 329]
The third is to regain your composure. This is by changing your physical position. ‘If any of you becomes angry and he is standing, let him sit down, so his anger will go away; if it does not go away, let him lie down.’ [narrated by Abu Dharr]
The fourth is leaving the room. Walking away and distancing yourself from the situation that is creating the anger.
And fifth is to cool yourself down physically with water. In Islam the Prophet* taught us that just as fire is extinguished by water, anger is quenched by water too.
These techniques buy you time to recollect your thoughts so that it is not your emotion controlling you – so you recover your rational perspective.
So next time you feel angry, you can change your position – notice that you are feeling annoyed, try and slow down your breathing, bring down your heart rate, and move away from the thing that is causing your anger. Walk away. If you can, splash yourself with cold water. Then when you have calmed down, think about the best way of communicating what you want.
If you have something important to say, shouting is not helpful. It may make the angry person feel better, but it doesn’t achieve very much. In order to be effective, you need to have the right words, the right tone of voice and the right time. So there is no point saying the wrong words, or right words if you shouted them, or said right words with the right tone if the other person was not in the mood to listen.
To cope with anger, we need better communication. The ability to articulate what is bothering us. Often we just need someone to acknowledge what we are feeling. If we can convey it to the other person clearly, then they have a chance to respond to it – either by correcting our understanding, or acknowledging the problem, or by altering their actions.
There is no excuse for behaving badly. Islam is about being in control and being kind at all times. It is about being polite and courteous at all times. So next time you feel angry, take a step back and reflect on what you are feeling and why you are feeling it. It is not healthy to squash your emotions, but it is healthy to know what you are feeling and why you are feeling it.
*peace be upon him
Written by Ayesha Khan in 2018