Dr. Michael Ballard featured on Church Chat
Dr. Michael Ballard was recently a guest on Dr. Angie Ward’s Church Matters Podcast: Church Chat. They discussed Anger and Anger Management and how it affects both those working in the church and everyday people. We have included the transcript for those who would prefer to read the information, but it’s very powerful insight into the anger work that Dr. Ballard does in his practice and highlights the value of counseling for issues you may have been taught to ignore.
This content originally appeared on the podcast Church Chat.
CHURCH MATTERS PODCAST
Episode 004 “Anger Management”
with Michael Ballard
AW: Welcome to Church Chat, the Church Matters Podcast. My guest today is Dr. Michael Ballard. Michael specializes in—well, he’s a therapist, but his work has focused on anger. I thought it would be good to have him on the show because our country is just angry. There’s anger in churches, in our country, in individuals. It just seems like it’s everywhere. Everybody is shouting at each other.
So, I wanted to hear from Michael and his perspective. If there’s anything we can do as Christians, as church leaders, and ministry leaders to help deal with this anger, what he’s learning, and to learn from him. So, Michael, welcome. Thanks for being on the show.
MB: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.
AW: Tell me just what you’re seeing. You’re a therapist in private practice. I know you teach at seminaries. You’re teaching future therapists as well, but you’re also involved as a church leader and church member. So, what are you seeing in our culture right now?
MB: I think the big thing is that there is a lot of anger, and it’s everywhere. I think there can be a misconception that anger’s only in small pockets and only in tattooed gang members who are committing crimes in the inner city when the reality is, I’m meeting with heads of moms’ groups. I’m meeting with pastors, and missionaries, and everybody across the board.
I have some of the people that you would never guess in a million years would have an anger problem. If you were to meet them and talk to them, they’re lovely people, polite, educated, and yet really struggling, controlling their anger.
AW: Where is this coming from? Is it coming from one certain specific thing or is it just more prevalent broadly? What do you feel like are the sources of this?
MB: I think at its root, anger comes from a perception of injustice. It’s feeling that there’s something wrong and that something is not the way it should be. Sometimes, I think that’s healthy, and it’s actually a really good thing when you see that there is an injustice in the world, there’s something that’s wrong that needs to be fixed, and I think that’s okay.
A lot of times, though, it’s more of a perceived injustice. “The world is not working the way that I want it to work. Because of that, I’m angry at you for getting in the way of my own personal kingdom in any way, shape, or form. Then, I’m angry about that.” But, it’s not really a moral or ethical wrong. It’s just a personal one.
AW: Can you give me an example of that type of individual anger where “you’re not interfering with my kingdom?”
MB: Sure. Well, I’m guilty of it all the time. It will be time to go run errands, and my boys are taking too long to get their shoes on and their coat on, or get their backpack ready. Or, you’re driving, and somebody is getting in your lane. Or, the car in front of you is going too slow. It’s all things that aren’t wrong. They’re not ethical wrong. They’re not something that’s morally a problem, but it’s not the way I want it. It’s not the way I would like to have things work out. So, I get frustrated and upset because of that, and I get angry.
AW: Where’s the line between unhelpful anger and helpful anger or even righteous anger like the Bible talks about?
MB: For me, it’s often a dividing line. Am I getting upset about something that has a greater moral good to the world? Or, am I getting upset about something that’s really just selfish? If I’m upset at the church, for instance, because there’s an injustice that’s actually going on at the church. Somebody’s used their power to abuse someone. I would say, “Okay. Right. That should be something I’m upset about.”
If I’m upset about human trafficking, that is a legitimate wrong in the world. If I’m angry at the church because I don’t like the way they’re decorating the church, or I don’t like the music selection, or I don’t like the way they’ve chosen to do something that’s my personal preference, there’s a division line. I think we get confused on that a lot. Am I mad for something that’s a greater good, or am I mad for something that’s just what I want?
AW: “Actually, the sanctuary or the church isn’t decorated the way that I want.” Being in church ministry, it seems to me that anger sometimes is related to fear, and it’s the stronger emotion. So, the fear underlying it is irrelevance, or lack of voice, or something. Is there a relationship that you see there?
MB: Absolutely. I think a lot of times we are afraid that something’s going to happen and lead to a future that we don’t like. Because of that, it’s very uncomfortable to stay in a fear status. It’s not natural. So, it’s a lot better to feel angry than it is to feel scared.
If I’m worried about something that’s going to happen in the future, “Well, why am I worried? Because you’re doing this to me, and you’re going to make this bad.” So, I shift from anxiety or fear to anger because it just feels better. It’s a lot more powerful a stance. I feel proactive. I feel like I’m doing something as opposed to just sitting around being scared about it.
AW: How do you start dealing with that? How do you work with people? First of all, individually, but then what suggestions do you have for a church leader, or me, as a general Christian with friends who may be angry? I see something on Facebook. Give some practical tips.
MB: Sure. The first step is acknowledging that it’s there. I would say 95% of the people who come in my office struggle with that right away. “Yes. I have an anger problem, but it’s because my kids don’t listen to me. If they would just listen to me, I would be fine.” I had a guy once say, “Yes. I have a road-rage problem, but that’s because nobody else knows how to drive.”
AW: [Amusement] Of course.
MB: “If they can all just figure out how to drive, I wouldn’t have an anger problem.” There’s that externalizing that takes place that’s so strong. So, you have to start in saying, “Okay. These things are true.” I’m not even debating if they are or not, but at the same time, you’re not going to get better if you spend your time blaming and saying, “The world around me is making me angry.” “Okay. Got it. What are you going to do about it? What’s your move on that?” Which people usually don’t like, but I think it also smacks of truth.
AW: Yeah. So, you kind of put it back on them and say, “Okay. What are you going to do about it?” What are some of the prevailing myths or false beliefs about anger that you see by Christians?
MB: I think probably the most common one is that anger is bad and that it should be eradicated completely, and that I should never be angry. If I’m a good Christian, and I go to church, and I read my Bible, then I’ll never get mad at anyone in any way, shape, or form. If I do, I should feel bad about that, and apologize, and be really sorry about it all the time.
What I say to people all the time is getting angry is not the problem. I don’t think that’s the issue at all. It’s what you do with your anger. That’s the concern. I get angry all the time. People come to me, and they say, “I want you to teach me how to never get angry again.” That’s not reality. That’s not life. I don’t even think that would be a good thing because there are things in life we should be angry at. It’s figuring out what shouldn’t we be angry at and then what should do about?
AW: Are there any other myths or false beliefs?
MB: I think there’s this idea that if I’m mad, I’m a bad person. It goes from my behavior to who I am individually. “I have an anger problem; therefore, there’s a problem with me.” Then it can get into a self-shaming piece of “God doesn’t love me, or I’m not worthy of love because of this anger,” which can obviously lead you down a dark road.
AW: You talked about anger as motivation and whether it’s an unjust—our own personal sense of injustice to us or unjust on larger moral issues. Speaking to those larger moral issues, can anger be an acceptable motivation? At what point do you get so caught up in the anger that—can you get so caught up that you’re not being productive, or it becomes rage, and you can’t see clearly? What’s your thought on that?
MB: Absolutely. Where I would start with that, I used to work with a man who was a professional boxer. He would tell me his favorite people to fight were people with anger problems because they would come in and they would just flail and not be in control of themselves. He could stand back, and make a quick punch, and they would be out.
It was such a good metaphor for me that when your anger’s too far, you are. You’re out of control. It’s not helpful. It’s not productive. I can be angry at a school board who makes a thing or a teacher who does something and handle it in a productive way, or I can be angry at my kid’s teacher, and go to the school, and slash tires. I haven’t solved the problem, and I’ve created a new problem for myself. That’s the piece that’s hard. It’s not the anger itself. It’s how high you turn the volume up.
AW: Good. Love that image. Yeah. As a Christian, I’m thinking about the passage in the scripture, “So far as it depends on you, live at peace with all men.” How does anger fit with that?
MB: I think it’s a very important passage for us to understand. In some sense, I think living at peace with all men; it actually is appropriate at all times to be angry. It seems counterintuitive, but if you do something that is wrong, it’s appropriate for me to come to you and say, “Hey. This is wrong. We’re a team. Let’s have a conversation about this.”
It would be inappropriate for me to say, “Well, I’m supposed to live at peace, so that means just feel free to do whatever you want, and I’ll just be your doormat here. Feel free to take advantage of me as much as you like.” But, if we swing the pendulum to the other side, if I’m out for you because you’ve done something wrong, and I want to punish you, or demean you, or defame your name in any way, now, I’m not actually trying to be productive. I’m not working towards peace. I’m just trying to hurt you and get my own, which I think that’s our tendency is to have that vengeance is what we want.
AW: That leads right into that questions about forgiveness. We want our retribution. We like to say, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay,” instead of God say, “He will repay.” Where does forgiveness fit in that entire mix with anger, and getting retribution, and justice?
MB: In my mind, it’s such an important essential element. It was actually kind of funny to me. I did my doctoral dissertation on this. I was shocked. The more I dug into research, nobody was studying this. Nobody had figured this out. When I made my proposal, “All right. Let’s have an anger group, but add an element of forgiveness to it.” Everybody thought this was like a crazy, radical idea that no one had thought of. In my mind, it was just common sense. It wasn’t this brilliant idea. It was like, “Take angry people. Help them forgive. They’ll be less angry people.”
MB: The academic community was like, “What a crazy idea.” And, it sounds like the Gospel to me.
MB: It didn’t sound that crazy to me. But, I think there’s this component of “I can get angry at something on a surface level and work through that.” But, a lot of times, I have deeper wounds, deeper hurts that I haven’t worked through. Because of that, if I have these underlying issues and I haven’t forgiven, I haven’t worked through them, I’m much more likely to get upset today about any number of things because I’m walking through a virtual minefield that I haven’t worked through.
AW: Yeah. That sounds like a lot of hard work though. Wouldn’t it just be easier to stay angry?
MB: Yes, and if I’m a little obnoxious, Christians can be really bad at forgiveness work because we feel like we’re supposed to forgive. So, we’ll just say, “Okay. I forgive you. Let’s move on.” But, that’s not really what forgiveness work is. Then we have this cheap surface level forgiveness, but we haven’t really worked through our anger.
It’s a great ironic place where somebody’s coming to me saying, “All right. I need to forgive. I’ve forgiven.” And I say, “No, no. You need to get angry first.” They’ll say, “Hold on. I thought you were supposed to tell me not to get angry.” I’ll say, “Well, you have to experience the anger to really get to a place where you can fully forgive to get to that place.” That can be really hard. Christians often don’t like that at all.
AW: Yeah. So explain, what is forgiveness? How would you define and explain forgiveness? If it’s not that, if it’s not just pretending like it never happened, I feel like that’s a common understanding of it. It’s like just “It’s all within me. I have to just ignore the feelings and that it ever happened.” What’s your understanding of forgiveness, and what it actually is, and what is forgiveness work?
MB: It’s a great question because when I first bring it up with people, it’s one of those words where I can talk to ten different people and use the word forgiveness, and they all have different definitions in their head of what that means. So, some people, they’ll say, “I don’t want to forgive because that means I’m saying that it’s okay what they did. “
Or, “That means I’m making excuses for them.” Or, “That means that they don’t have to suffer for what they did. It’s none of those things. It’s not this sense of “I’m condoning your behavior, or I’m excusing it, or I’m allowing it, or justifying it.” Instead what it’s saying is “I recognize the wrong. I’m going to choose not to hold it against you.”
It doesn’t mean—the other misconception here is that “If I’ve forgiven you, I have to always give you 100 chances over and over to continue to hurt me.” I’ll say sometimes, “Forgiveness doesn’t make you stupid just because you forgive someone.” I once loaned somebody a sum of money. They never paid me back. I’ve forgiven them for it. I’m not upset. I can hang out with them, spend time with them. That’s fine. But, if they ask me for money again, I’m not going to just keep giving them money because I know “Well, hold on. I can forgive you and not be upset with you, but I don’t have to just keep being a doormat…”
AW: The forgiveness work is then acknowledging it and feeling the anger. What else? Giving up at some point, it sounds like there’s a releasing.
MB: That is. The first part is really recalling the hurt and understanding exactly what happened. That’s one that people don’t like to do. Whether it was something that happened yesterday or 20 years ago, they want to rush past that really quickly. I say, “No, no, no. It’s important for us to really know: what are we forgiving?
If you have this global forgiveness like, “I want to forgive my dad for never being around.” That’s really hard. But, if you say, “My dad didn’t show up to my high school graduation.” Okay. Now, we can get down to business. So, you recall that specific hurt. Then from there, you have to an emotional attunement of “What was that like for you? What were the feelings?”
Again, it was like, “Well, it was hard, but that was a long time ago.” I go, “No, no, no. Stop. You have to really feel this if you’re going to get it all the way. If we’re going to clean this cut, we’ve got to get into it and not just slap a band-aid on it fast. So, you have that. For some people, that’s a quick process. Some people, just those two steps take a long time.
Then the shift has to come to empathizing with the offender. That’s the place of, again, not saying “Well, you know. Your dad wasn’t that bad for physically abusing you. What are you so upset about?” But, just taking a step back and saying, “Let’s try to take a minute and walk a mile in his shoes and think through, ‘Why did he do it?'”
The first response is usually “Because he was a terrible, horrible human being.” You go, “Okay. Let’s dig a little deeper.” There are reasons why people do what they do. When you can truly empathize with somebody, it’s really hard to hold a grudge, and it’s hard to continue to have that anger when you see their point of view and understand them.
AW: Yeah. We all come by our stuff honestly. There’s a reason. It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t necessarily justify it, but hopefully will help us get some empathy with that. What’s the difference, or is there a difference between forgiveness and like restoration in a relationship?
MB: Yeah, another good question. I like to put it on a scale, and we go 0 to 10. Ten is the place where we are fully reconciled to the point where we say, “I’m thankful we have this experience because now we have a stronger relationship because we will walk through it.”
- Zero is the point where I’m actively trying to hurt you.
- One might be “I have fantasies of hurting you, and I’d really like to in some way poison you, but I’m not actually doing it.” Then I say, “All right. You’re a one.” They’re like, “It doesn’t feel like progress, but it’s actually better than if I’m really poisoning you.” So, you have that.
- Five is the place where we’re neutral. Where I don’t have a positive or negative feeling towards you one way or the other. For a lot of people, that can be an end destination. I don’t believe every time you have to work all the way to a 10.
MB: There are situations where it wouldn’t be appropriate. I worked with a woman who had been raped. I would never suggest “You should get to know your rapist and become friends with him, hang out, and go to coffee with him.” That’s ridiculous. But, there was forgiveness work that she needed to do so that it wasn’t eating up at her and really causing her problems across the board of her life.
For her, she got eventually to a six, which was saying, “I’m never going to see this man again, but I hope he gets help, and I hope good things for him in his future.”
MB: That was a win for me.
AW: Yeah, huge. You talk about eating us up, what are the consequences in our own lives of not dealing with our anger? Whether it’s big, moral, or small, mad at your kids?
MB: I think the biggest piece is isolation. When you become angry, you push those away that you really care about. Oftentimes, what happens is you actually get angriest with the people who are closest to you. It’s a very common narrative for people to tell me they go to work, and they hold it together all day, and then they come home and yell at their family and scream, and lose it on the people they care most for.
What happens when you do that is you’re pushing those away and people who really have uncontrolled anger end up being very lonely people because rightfully so, people aren’t going to tolerate that. They’re not going to work through being blamed for something that’s not theirs: being yelled at, being screamed at. It doesn’t work, and that’s understandable.
I think the other piece for that is it’s really common to have guilt and shame. If you’re losing it with your kids, your friends, whoever, you then feel really bad about it afterwards. That can be a very heavy thing for a lot of people.”
AW: So, there’s a lot of emotional consequences, but I would guess there would be a lot of some physical as well: high blood pressure, stress. What have you seen in your practice, and then also as you’ve done research on this?
MB: The research is pretty astounding. It’s almost like this pill that hurts you in every way. Whether it’s high blood pressure, whether it’s problems with sleep, relational problems, emotional problems, to the point where there are actually studies that have shown people with significant anger problems have shorter lifespans and die faster from all causes, which is an amazing statement to me. They’re more likely to get into car accidents, have heart attacks, have strokes across the board. It’s not just that they’re in fist fights and losing their lives that way; it’s damaging them in every way.
AW: So, it really is eating them alive?
MB: Absolutely. The other thing is that most people have no idea what to do about it. It’s, “This is a really powerful force, and I was never trained or taught growing up what to do other than ‘Don’t get mad.’ or getting mad back, but I don’t know how to control it. I don’t know what to do about it.”
AW: You see people who are coming to you recognizing something in their life has been destroyed or something. What about the every-day person, every-day Christian, every-day congregant, and there’s some anger swirling about them, but how do we deal with that outside the therapist’s office?
MB: I think, first of all, it’s so common I would almost say universal in so many people. That’s saying, “Okay. Here’s what’s going on for me.” is really important and being able to set it aside and saying, “You know what? I do get mad about some things and having that image not be an issue to get in the way.”
There was a mom’s group that once invited me to come talk, and they said, “You know. Somebody on our team wants you to come talk, but we don’t know if it’s actually going to be helpful because we’re a bunch of suburban moms; so, none of us are really angry people.
After the talk, I have never had a line longer of people who wanted to talk to me and say, “I didn’t know that this was a safe conversation that I could have, but I get mad all the time. I always pretend like I don’t because it’s not a nice Christian mom-thing to say that you’re mad at your kids, or mad at your husband, or mad at God. They were almost universally saying “This is what’s going on.”
The first piece is just saying “Yeah. This is real. This is what’s going on. Let’s acknowledge it. Let’s admit it. Let’s be okay with it.” That’s a big step for a lot of people.
AW: What’s the most important thing that a pastor or ministry later can do, someone who is a leader in the church, to help with anger. There are so many facets to the issue and to the problem, but what’s the most important thing that they can start within their leadership?
MB: To me, it’s this balance of understanding that it’s far more common than we think. It’s a lot more hidden than we think. I met with a couple yesterday that’s in ministry that is involved in a domestic violence relationship. You would never guess. You could sit on a board with them. You could sit on a pew with them. You would never guess and that in my office it happens all the time.
MB: So, it’s incredibly common, and it’s still a problem. It’s a concern. I don’t want to go off saying, “Hey, everybody’s angry. What’s the big deal. Let’s just be okay with it.”
MB: No. It’s a scary thing. It’s a frightening thing. It’s a safe issue for a lot of families; for a lot of kids. So, there’s this piece of “This is out there. This is real. We need to address it.” We shouldn’t be judgmental because there’s already the stigma that Christians shouldn’t be angry. If we come out in saying “I’ve thought about this and anger is bad, so I don’t want you to be angry anymore. That’s going to lead people to hide it more.
MB: And, not share it, and not express what’s really happening in our homes. It’s this balance of “I don’t want to tell you you’re bad, but I also don’t want to go the other way and say, ‘Hey, it’s okay. Everybody gets mad from time-to-time. So, you hit your kids. What’s the big deal?'” No, no, no. This isn’t let’s address it. Let’s have some empathy and some caring concern, but also, let’s make sure we’re doing something about it.
AW: Yeah. I want to shift gears a little bit talking about anger, but in light of some of the Me Too and that type of thing, especially what’s happening in churches. There seems to be a lot of anger, probably I would say righteous anger and justice of abuse of power, and that type of thing.
When you see someone in your practice who’s been affected by that. What do you tell them? It’s institutional, Christian institution, very complex. What words do you have for those and somebody who might be listening for that?
MB: I think the first place is just real empathy because people have been hurt, and people have been wronged. That’s not okay. There is this sense of “I’m really sorry that you had this happen to you either personally, or you know somebody that had this happen to you. That’s a big deal.” You have to start there.
The next piece is “What are you going to do with it?” because if we bridge that earlier conversation “Vengeance is mine.” I think the tendency is to say “I was wronged, so, therefore, I am justified in wronging others however I want because I was wronged first.” That’s always a really big concern because anger in its natural tendency leads to escalation. To me, I say something meaner to you.
MB: You say something meaner to me, I push you. You push me; I punch you. We grow, and that’s how it’s going to happen. So, there events….of “Is my anger justified?” “Yes.” “Now, what am I going to do about it so that I’m not making the problem worse?”
AW: Wow. Yeah. What you said about it tending naturally toward escalation is so powerful.
AW: Yeah. What resources would you recommend besides time in your office for people who wouldn’t be able to do that? What resources are out there for just average Joe, Jane that might be helpful to work through this? This is where you can plug your book. I’d like you to.
MB: I will. Well, thank you. I wrote a book called Take Control of Your Anger which was basically formed out of me reading about 25 other books and trying to use them with my patients and being frustrated, feeling like this book got this part right, and this book got that part right. But they weren’t getting the whole picture. That was my hope is to create a very systematic method of Step 1, do this. Step 2, do this. Step 3, do this. Because, a lot of times, anger is very abstract and out there.
MB: And, that’s hard when you don’t know what to do when you’re lost. It’s almost like you need a Home Depot guy. “First, do this. Then, do this.”
MB: Okay. That’s the piece that I tried to bring to that. The other piece I would say in forgiveness work, there’s a man named Everett Worthington. He’s a mentor of mine who’s written a million books. But, Forgiving and Reconciling is probably the best that’s out there as far as “Okay. I’ve got a resentment. I’ve got a hurt towards somebody, maybe from a long time ago, and I need to work through it. I need to figure out what that is.”
The line I often use for people: “Not for the other person’s sake, but really for yours.” I do. I see people in my office who are upset about affairs that happened 30 years ago. You go, “Okay, it’s time to do forgiveness.” They say, “No, he doesn’t deserve my forgiveness.” I say, “Okay, I’m not saying he does, but you’re suffering now. Not him.”
AW: Yeah. It seems to me, I’ve read the book Hold Me Tight for marriage. It seems like they address some of that too in going back and just really acknowledging pain in the relationship.
MB: Absolutely. That’s a good one.
AW: Good. Well, we’ll put these resources definitely on the show notes. Those of you who are listening, make sure to look for that and download that along with the transcript. Michael, how can people find and follow you on the web or social media?
MB: Sure. I have a Twitter account that’s @mballardphd. Feel free to look at that or michaelballard.net.
AW: Great. We’ll definitely link to those as well on the show notes. You can find and follow him there. Michael, this is so helpful. I hope it is helpful to those who are listening working with our own anger and then also as ministry leaders, trying to help others to work through this. Thanks for, for lack of a better word, exploding this issue and explaining the importance of it, and the various aspects of it.
I was thinking, if you feel angry, it can feel so large. How do you get a handle on it, and where do you start? I think you’ve given some specifically like you said next steps instead of either “We’ll just deal with it or just ignore it.” and to really break it apart. I appreciate your work that you’re doing trying to raise awareness for this, what you’re doing in your own practice, and thanks so much for being on Church Chat.
MB: You’re very welcome. I hope this is beneficial to people, and I appreciate the work you’re doing as well.
AW: Thanks, Michael.