How my marriage revealed I was an angry person

Close up on a young man raising his fist
(Photo source: Dollar Photo Club)

I had my first personality test done when I was 16 years old. I’m aging myself, but this was before they were widely available on the Internet, so I had to go analog and meet with a real, in-person therapist.

Pastor Joel Silberman, a Christian therapist on Long Island, gave me a long, exhaustive test with lots of questions asking me how I would react in certain situations. When the results came back, I was pretty impressed with myself. The test showed some desirable traits: assertiveness, competitiveness, an outgoing personality, and a natural tendency towards leadership.

Everything sounded good. But Pastor Silberman eventually got into the nastier elements usually associated with my personality type (which wasn’t fun) and focused on one in particular, calling it the most “dangerous”: a fierce and angry temper.

The whole bit about the “angry temper” sounded foreign to me, but I pretended to know what he was talking about at the time. In fact, when I showed the test results to my parents, they were dumbfounded. “You never really get angry, David; that doesn’t sound like you,” they told me. With the benefit of hindsight, I can conclusively say that my parents and the 16-year-old version of me were wrong.

The reason this was such a mystery at 16 is because my anger never caused me to explode with rage. Instead, I would use my words to calmly cut people down. It was a subtler, quieter, and — ultimately — cruel emotional anger.

My anger really started surfacing in college when I  began publicly criticizing people for making comments that I decided were stupid. Cutting someone down with your words can be easy if you have no empathy: Just find something a person is insecure about, slip the knife in with a criticism, and then twist. I found that sarcasm was the easiest vehicle for a sharp insult, because it could eventually be explained as a joke, if need be.

I’m sure I had friends who tolerated this aspect of my personality over the years, but my wife was really the first person to call me out. One night we were getting ready to go out to dinner for our anniversary. An argument broke out and I immediately used my words to hurt her. I knew where she was vulnerable and I went for it. After I made a truly cruel comment (without even raising my voice) her eyes welled up with tears.

“You are saying that just because you want to hurt me,” she said.

It was true. I was angry and I wanted to inflict pain. When I saw how much I hurt her, I apologized. We hugged, made up, and actually had a wonderful dinner. However, I had a lot of trouble looking at myself in the mirror for the rest of the night. If I couldn’t control my temper around the person I loved most, how could I control it around anyone else? At that moment, I knew anger had made me its slave.

I became determined to purge myself of my temper, so I was able to identify three ways to replace my anger with temperance and rage with compassion.

Step 1: Support

You need a friend who is both familiar with your temper and bold enough to call you out on it. Most importantly, you have to accept that your friend is right. This is not easy, because when anger grows inside of us, we lose our ability to reason effectively.

Step 2: Study yourself

In his book, “The Celebration of Discipline,” Richard J. Foster outlines the various classical disciplines, and specifically mentions “study.”

“The principle task of study is a perception into the reality of a given situation, encounter, book, etc,” he writes. Study comes in four stages: Repetition, Concentration, Comprehension, and Reflection.

Foster says repetition is “a way of regularly channeling the mind in a specific direction, thus ingraining habits of thought.” When I feel myself losing my temper and I hear my wife saying, “Don’t be cruel with your words,” I have to caution myself against letting anger take hold of me. I have to literally fight against it. Like anything, this will only become a habit if you make a conscious effort towards catching yourself over and over again.

Concentration is our ability to focus our attention on what we are repeating, while comprehension allows us to draw insight from our actions. Finally, reflection is the real-application of what we learned through repetition, concentration, and comprehension. The discipline of study isn’t something we should only use in school or at work; we can study our own actions and learn from them, as well.

Step 3: Prayer

You may have heard of this last step before, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul talks about a “thorn” in his flesh that was given to him. Ultimately, Paul says that God elected not to remove the “thorn,” and instead says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It’s a beautiful moment for Christians, because it’s a reminder that God loves us unconditionally, in spite of our faults; if we weren’t broken people, we wouldn’t need his grace.

Ultimately, I learned that a fierce temper isn’t something you can just “purge” from yourself. It’s not a thorn in your side that you can just pull out and throw away. I am always going to have this weakness because it’s part of who I am, challenging me daily and making me stronger. However, in order to gain strength from this weakness, I have to depend on prayer and reflection on this truth:

I am weak and unable to pull this thorn out on my own.

I need the help of God and others to deal with this weakness.

Podhaskie is a legal writer who lives in New York City with this wife, Elizabeth.

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