Dealing With Anger

Linda didn’t get mad, she got sad. And that turned out to be important later when, as a psychologist, I found myself meeting with couples who would sometimes yell at each other, not only at home, but right in front of me in my office.

I remember one of our first arguments, and the first real “shocker” of being married. It was sometime in our first two months of marriage. My new bride’s back had been hurting for several days. We had gone to my mother’s house for the weekend and were making up the bed. I was between the wall and the bed in an upright, but slightly cramped position trying to help get the fitted sheet around the mattress.

As we smoothed the bottom sheet, I put a hand to my aching spine and said, “My back is killing me.” At that, she flopped down on the sheets and began to cry. I was stunned. Now, I grew up with a four-foot-ten-inch single-parent mom who was a brick. I think I saw her cry maybe three times in all my childhood years, so this tearful reaction from my bride was new and very disconcerting to me. I didn’t know why she was sad, but I was pretty sure it must have been something I said or did.

After a slight hesitation, I thought maybe I could just softly lay the top sheet over her and continue making the bed. I felt that would be preferable to just leaving the room and letting her cry. (After all, young husbands have some sensitivity.) As I finished making the bed, I decided to lie down beside her and wait for her to talk. When she did, she said, “Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry?”

“I am really sorry,” I said, mustering as much sincerity as I could.

After a long pause, I said, “What did I do?” “You made fun of my sore back,” she replied.

It dawned on me that putting my hands on my back and saying what I did to her had come across as a mocking gesture regarding her complaints. “Uh, my back really was sore,” I replied. “With my legs to the wall like that, bending over to fit the sheet was awkward, and it really did hurt.” Suddenly her eyebrows rose to a peak, and she held my face in her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I thought you were making fun of me.”

Mad vs. Sad

I learned the difference between sad and mad. I was slowly learning that girls were sure different than boys. At least this girl was. But it was good for me. If she was angry, she wasn’t showing it the same way I did. Like my brothers and I did, I mean. There were no physical blows. And that got me thinking.

Why is it that some people get angry while others don’t? What is it about anger that some choose it as the first reaction while others don’t make that choice? Haven’t anger and contention been common human problems from the very beginning? As Cain made spiritual and temporal comparisons between himself and his brother Abel, he found himself wanting and became jealous and angry. The consequences were disastrous.

Temper and anger cause a great deal of pain among members of the human family. As a child, I have memories of my parents arguing. I often tried to physically step between them and distract them. Burned into my memory is a particular argument they had. I think I was five years old at the time. I don’t remember the topic of their argument, but I do remember that I yelled out, “Then the workers wouldn’t be able to work!” While I can’t connect my outburst to the argument between them, for some reason I remember the words I used and my plaintive attempt to upstage their violent conversations. I think that those early experiences with my parents’ verbal assaults resulted in a lifetime of intense desire to end contentious anger, especially in the home.

Anger is often at the heart of domestic disputes that range from minor tiffs to full-blown verbal and physical assaults. We can be hurt deeply by anger, and we can hurt with anger. It seems that anger can be used as a verbal blunt instrument, as a mechanism to manipulate another’s behavior, or as a weapon of mass destruction!

Anger is an outward sign of inward turmoil. If we resolved the inner concern, outward anger would be greatly reduced or eliminated. Why would anyone use rage against a member of his or her own household? How can we resolve the inner issues that cause so much outward hostility?

If we understand the huge difference between feelings and emotions, understanding why some of us choose anger will become more clear.

Feelings

Feelings come to humans automatically. We experience them routinely. We can’t really control them or their onset. They are a part of everyday life and come to us as a result of things and events that happen to us. Here are some examples:

Shock: Imagine your spouse throws a glass of water at you. It’s totally unexpected. You are surprised and shocked. You don’t choose to feel shocked, it just happens. Your feeling just happens, and it’s unpredictable.

Embarrassment: Suppose you are sharing a romantic kiss with your spouse at a work party and a co-worker opens the door to the office you’re in. You feel the blood rush to your head and you feel embarrassed, even though you’re married. The feeling just happened.

Worry: If your spouse doesn’t arrive home at the time you expect, you worry. If his arrival is delayed, your level of worry may increase. Where could he be? Why isn’t he here? You can imagine all kinds of things that could have gone wrong and you can worry yourself sick.

We all have feelings. Feelings are the stuff of which life is made. Feelings are wonderful; they make us know we’re alive. We also find ourselves interested in other people’s feelings. We relate to them, because of our own experiences. We compare our experiences and feelings with theirs to see if we are “normal.”

Emotions

Emotions differ from feelings. Emotions come out of us, whereas feelings can be retained. Emotion is what we generate within ourselves when we feel something. We can talk about feelings, but with emotions, we actually emote them. Emotions can be displayed verbally or nonverbally, and unlike feelings that come to us unpredictably, we decide what emotion, if any, we will display publicly. This example will illustrate the point.

Imagine going out to your car in the parking lot and finding the driver’s side door smashed. Imagine the feeling that would automatically generate inside you. You look around and see a rusty, old, 1980 Camaro burning rubber at the far end of the parking lot. The driver appears to be a teenage boy with a girlfriend next to him. He is laughing and turning tire-screeching doughnuts just for fun! It’s suddenly clear to you what happened. This kid was doing stunts with the car, trying to impress his girlfriend, and ran into your car and then had the gall to leave the scene without a note.

His car stalls, and you start marching toward him. He looks up and sees you coming, and you perceive a frightened, desperate look in his eyes. He keeps trying to start the engine, but it won’t start. As you walk faster toward him, you are sure you see his eyes widening.

As you near the stalled car, however, you realize someone is calling loudly to you. “Excuse me, sir—is that your car?” You turn toward the individual, a well-dressed man who seems strangely familiar. “I have to apologize to you,” he says. “I carelessly backed my car into yours.” You then notice the man is your new neighbor.

You look back at the teenager trying to start his car. He didn’t smash your car, after all. It was your neighbor. What happens now to the “emotions” that you were going to level at the young driver? What do you do? How do you handle it now that you see the mix-up? Do you say the same thing to your neighbor that you were about to say to the young man in the Camaro? No doubt your attitude and voice would change immediately.

Miscommunication

I remember an interchange with my wife when our oldest daughter was about nine years old. I gave our daughter some instructions, and later I thought I heard my wife contradict what I had told her. It hurt me. I felt it immediately. As I thought about it, my pride called for a reaction, an emotional reaction.

So, I raised my voice and "hurt back," so to speak. (That's how emotion works. If we are not Christ like in character, we may emote to get even.) My wife cried and headed out the door for a walk. I was left wondering. Some psychologist I was! Why couldn't I use all that training, which I used to help others, in my own situation?

When she returned (thankfully, she did) we went into the bedroom, reclined on the bed, and talked for a long time. (I seem to talk better while I am looking at the ceiling in the master bedroom.) My anger died down (meaning I decided not to be angry anymore) and we were able to discuss what happened and how we both felt. I felt stupid and sincerely apologized to her. That discussion paved the way for a lengthy talk about what he had both experienced.

It is important to understand that it is you and I who decide to become angry. We decide what emotion to emote. It doesn't "just happen" like feelings do. We interpret a specific situation, and then we decide what emotion we are going to display.

display, and we can do it rather quickly. We can decide to be angry, or we can decide not to be angry. We have the capacity to make the choice.

Jealousy is an example of an emotion that we choose. If I arrive home and find my wife hugging a tall, dark, and handsome stranger in our driveway, I will have immediate feelings. When I discover that this is her long-lost cousin from Milwaukee, I likely will not mention my initial feeling to her. If this is our new neighbor, I may choose to emote jealousy. But I decide to be jealous.

Hate and rage are emotional decisions we make. We must consciously decide to hate something (stoplights) or someone (a robber). I can’t make you hate me; I can’t make you angry; I can’t make you jealous. I may shock, embarrass, hurt, frustrate, or worry you, but I cannot make or force you to be angry, jealous, or hateful.

Greg and Melissa at Their Wit’s End

As a last resort, Greg and Melissa came to talk with me about their troubled marriage (most counselors see people at the “end of their rope,” who “have had the last straw,” or who are “at their wit’s end”). Greg’s temper seemed to be the root of the couple’s struggles. His moodiness and lightning-quick temper alienated Melissa and the children.

They were both miserable. As we counseled together, I learned he assumed that he had little control over his angry outbursts. They just seemed so natural. “That’s just me,” he rationalized. But the more we talked about how feelings came to him, the more he came to realize that he was in charge of the emotions he could display. He could decide on his response.

Make a different choice

We started out with a simple proposition: “Shout ‘stop!’ in your mind,” I suggested to him, “when you feel yourself emoting anger. Make a different choice. Think about the feeling that first influences you to choose anger as a response.” If you can stop a habitual choice of anger midstream, you can more easily see how you are affecting yourself and others. Often we simply fuel more anger from our initial feelings. Understanding the relationship between feelings and emotions will help us make better choices—not unlike the earlier example of the neighbor and the teenage driver.

“When was your last anger episode?” I asked him. He complained about a “back-seat driver” comment Melissa made just as they were driving to our appointment. As he talked about the incident, he really got into it. It was creating negative feelings again just thinking about and describing what she said.

The three of us looked at this episode in slow motion. “What feeing caused you to choose anger?” I asked him. My question caused them both to think back to the incident. I went through a list of feelings with him:

“Were you shocked by what she said?”

“No.”

“Frustrated?”

 “No.”

“Worried?”

 “No. Well, maybe I was hurt,” he finally blurted out. “She asked me if I saw this kid on the bike. Of course I saw the boy. Does she think I’m an idiot?”

“So if you felt hurt or stupid because of what she said,” I repeated, “what if you had talked to her about the feelings you were feeling rather than immediately choosing to show your anger? In fact, let’s try it right here, right now. Let’s say you’re in the car and Melissa has just made her comment about the child on the bike to you. What could you say that would not be a knee-jerk reaction of anger? Give it a try.”

He hesitated. “I don’t know…” he trailed off.

“You said she thinks you’re an idiot,” I reminded him. “What if you just said something like, ‘When you ask me a question like you did about the child on the bike, it makes me feel dumb.’ Try saying that to Melissa.” So he did. And he didn’t sound mad when he said it.

“And how would you have reacted to his saying it that way?” I asked Melissa. “I would have liked it. And, now I can see what he means,” she said.

“What difference does it make in your relationship to talk about how you feel rather that just getting angry about something?” I asked them both. It was obvious that anger had become rather automatic and habitual to them, and they really weren’t thinking about what feelings prompted the negative response. Greg and Melissa were Latter-day Saints, so I reached for my scriptures and turned to D&C 121:43 and commented that as Latter-day Saints we want to emote love rather than chastise another or choose anger. The Lord counseled: “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.”

When we are covenant partners in marriage, the Lord expects us to show forth “an increase of love” after any negative incident or misunderstanding. Furthermore, betimes is an old English word that means “promptly,” which suggests the Lord would have us reprove quickly so that the one being chastened or corrected or advised will make the connection between the incident and the correction. Sharpness may not only mean “strongly” but “with clarity,” as one would focus a pair of binoculars or a camera lens. If we express positive feelings encompassed by love, then anger will either dissipate or we will not choose it as an appropriate response because we’ve already dealt with our initial feelings.

Eliminating Anger

Eliminating anger is, of course, the ideal solution. Anger is not an acceptable response for those who are mature disciples of Christ. Recall that he chastised the more righteous Nephites because of the contention and anger they were emoting among themselves.

Sometimes we grow up in homes where temper and anger are frequently displayed, and we tend to model our parents’ relationship. However, as we come to understand the purposes of marriage and family life in the eternal scheme of things, we realize that to make angry judgments about or to those we say we love is unacceptable.

As spouses, we are learning from each other how to relate to each other in healthy ways. Marriage is a new adventure for us. We’ve never done this before in all eternity, and we want our marriage to last past this mortal life. Also, we are parenting the very children of Heavenly Father, and He is concerned about how we are treating His children. He entrusts them to us so that we may learn together how to develop healthy relationships.

Choosing to Control Our Anger

The Lord’s remedy for anger does not stop at merely avoiding anger. We are invited to return good for evil. Resisting the urge to emote in negative ways entitles us to greater freedom from anger. We cannot control the events and circumstances that naturally create feelings in our hearts. Negative feelings may come in ways that cannot always be anticipated, but emotion is a different matter. We can choose which emotions to display. We can choose to respond as men and women of God, or we can return evil for evil, as does the natural man.

It is possible to control, if not eliminate anger. Take control of your emotions rather than suffering (or causing others to suffer) because of your inability to master the feeling/emotion connection. Manifest love and kindness when you talk about your feelings. Work on controlling and eliminating temper—especially in your home. If you can gain mastery over your temper, your chances for living “happily ever after” will greatly improve, and you will more closely approach the life required of a celestial candidate.

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