Monday, April 28, 2008

Slow to Anger

I think the fourth Sunday lessons are different in every ward so I don't know if any of you had this lesson yesterday, but our RS lesson left me with a lot of unspoken thoughts so I thought I'd put them up here and see what you guys think.

Our lesson was President Hinckley's talk "Slow to Anger." As you all may have gathered managing my anger is the central drama of my life. I've spent time in therapy. I've spent time reading. I've spent time praying. I've spent time exercising. All as attempts to manage my anger. The good news is that after four years of effort I've made progress. But I still struggle with explosions that frighten my children and leave me depressed and guilty. Suffice it to say, when I found out the subject of yesterday's lesson I started to get nervous.

I'm glad President Hinckley addressed the topic because I think it is something most people struggle with a lot of the time. Other people's struggles may not be as intense as mine, but I do believe that most women (especially mommies) find anger to be a problem in their lives. So I wasn't upset that the Prophet chose to talk about it. I was nervous because I wasn't sure how all these women--who like to appear pulled together most of the time--would address a subject that is so personal. Ironically, after the teacher said something to the effect of anger simply being a manifestation of the natural man and a sin that we need to shy away from, I was so distraught I ended up missing most of the lesson (so I guess I really don't know what the other women said. These are just my perceptions and they may be incorrect!).

See, here's the disconnect for me: when most of us talk about the "natural man" we mean things that are carnal, sensual, or devilish--and my anger doesn't feel like any of those things. It feels like hunger or fatigue; a kneejerk thing that my body does without me controlling it. Also, as for it simply being a sin that we can pray away or just avoid (as if it were tobacco or alcohol or pornography) that just isn't true. Anger is an amoral impulse. It is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Feeling angry is part of the emotional spectrum, as is the shame that our culture heaps on top of it. But we don't have to feel bad about feeling anger. It's how we choose to process our anger that amounts to a good or a poor choice. It took me a lot of therapy to understand those ideas and it was disconcerting to me to have a church lesson tell me the ideas that have given me sanity were wrong. I'm sure the teacher didn't mean to, but she set off a lot of alarms and destructive thought patterns in my brain.

After chatting with my husband about it over lunch (our kids were totally bored and confused), I came to the conclusion that most of the women in that room haven't felt the anger that I have felt or they are in serious denial. It also occurred to me that I was so keyed up about the issue because the way they were talking about it made me feel excluded, like I wasn't good enough to be in that room and part of that group of women. I had to remind myself that just because I struggle it doesn't mean I'm not a good LDS woman. After all, it is only through the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ that any of us are saved. It's important that I try, but my efforts will always fall short and it is His love and sacrifice that I must rely on.

Thankfully the lesson wasn't a total bust and a few of the women made some insightful comments that I thought were helpful. I figured I'd share them here and add a few of my own tips. I hope you all will chime in too because I know you guys are a lot smarter than me! Here are the tips:

1. Anger is usually a cover for some other emotion (ie fear, embarrassment, a feeling of lack of control, unmet expectations, etc.) If you can look past the anger to what it is covering the anger usually processes faster.

2. You are not responsible for your first thought--it simply is. However, you are responsible for your second thought and any actions you take. Give yourself space to think before you act.

3. Anger, like all of our emotions, creates a physical reaction. Become aware of the physical symptoms of your anger and relieve them. Whether that means taking a deep breath or relaxing your shoulders or getting a drink of water to release a tense gut, make sure you address the physical aspects. The anger won't go away until you do.

4. This isn't really a tip, but I want to recommend a book,She's Gonna Blow: Real Help for Moms Dealing with Anger by Julie Barnhill. This book has been the only place I have found a realistic discussion of anger and trying to live a Christ-like life. Her candor and faith lifted me up during one of my darkest, angriest depressions. It is worth reading.

Be sure to post your tips!


Sarah said...

Thank you for posting your ideas and thoughts. I will have to pick up a copy of that book.

Coffinberry said...

Oh, dear... The subject of "anger" came up earlier this semester in our son's seminary class (he attends -- when he chooses to get up -- seminary across town, rather than with his school classmates, an artifact from having been assigned to 4 different wards over the years of living in the same house). The class was preparing to study the story of Samson, and the teacher ahead of time asked parents to comment on their experiences with Anger as teens and as adults. Here is my response to that question (and if you want to see the whole 4 p. document the teacher compiled, send me an e-mail).

Dear Brother X,

I have hesitated to answer, because you have hit on a very touchy subject for me. My teenage years were filled with anger—in retrospect, sometimes appropriate anger—about which I could do nothing. My anger (mostly at God for letting certain things happen, but also about an abusive home situation) had nowhere to go, and so it went inward instead, and it took decades to repair the damage. Of course, that information is not for sharing with the kids. I hope that you distinguish for the youth between losing one’s temper (which is wrong, and which, after many years, I am finally making serious progress on) and the basic emotional neuro-chemical response felt as “mad,” which is triggered by sensing injustice, unfairness, unkindness, and maltreatment. We should respond to those situations with appropriate emotion and vigor. But when these feelings are bottled up, often because of mistaken beliefs that we should somehow tolerate bad treatment/behavior, or that doing something will make for trouble, or that “If I were righteous, this wouldn’t be happening” (or its insidious counterpart: “if others knew what really goes on, they’d think less of me”), the bubbling poison within has to burst out somewhere, and too often it is in ill-temper.

Another pair of problems I see with this line of discussion is that if a child has only seen one kind of behavior at home, but another kind is talked about at church, is that on the one hand, the child has nothing with which to understand what is being said (how do you know what anger is, in the first place, if most every human interaction experienced is characterized by ill temper?), and, on the other hand, after a lesson like this, sensing that something is amiss, the child is expected to make changes in situ, as if all of the problem were his or her fault. Clearly, I am projecting my own experience as a teenager on your classroom; had I had such a lesson (but of course, I did not; home study seminary is not the same animal at all) I would have acted happy and light in class, answering questions brightly, but inside dying because here was one more way I wasn’t pleasing God, but there was nothing to be done about it.

Here are some observations you can use, with my name (I use one or more of these daily, depending on the circumstances):

Be aware that anger can sometimes masquerade as sadness (just because you aren’t yelling at or beating up on someone doesn’t mean you’re not angry);

Know your hormonal cycles (!!!), and prepare or plan ahead to avoid stress (or at least to recognize it isn’t the situation or the people, just the hormones) when you have a short trigger;

If your parents are people you can trust, tell them if you’re having troubles (if not, talk to a grown-up you do trust… and if you feel like you still need help, keep trying with someone else);

Take a deep breath;

Take a walk, swing in a swing, ride your bike—just get outside and get some sunshine, fresh air, and exercise;

Dig in the garden;

Think of 5 things you’re grateful for;

Tell your journal all about it;

Or, write down what’s bugging you on a piece of paper, and put it away to think about later;

Do something for someone else;

Just do something else for a little while (it may be time to put whatever it is away for now and start again tomorrow);

Make something creative (art, music, recipe, etc.);

Think over what you have eaten that day: too much junk or too little sugar (or water) can make you grouchy—get a drink of water, or a piece of fruit, and see if it helps (and on Fast Sunday, don’t be afraid to say, “I think I need a nap”);

Are you overwhelmed? Figure out which things you can do, which things you can get help with (or delegate to someone else) and which things you’ll have to say no to. It can be a good and righteous thing to learn to say no.

See if your surroundings are in disorder—if so, tidy up a moment to get it back to where you can tolerate it again (it doesn’t have to be clean, just tolerable for you);

Check to see if the music you’re listening to (the book you’re reading, movie you’re watching, game you’re playing) is contributing to the feeling—if so, try an experiment: turn it off, put it down, stop it.

Play a musical instrument loudly, or with great emotion;

Sing a song (especially one that helps you remember WHO you are and WHY you’re here);

If it comes on while interacting with someone else, try switching to a whisper, or better yet, start singing what you say (like opera) (because, chances are, merely walking away because you’re mad means that the problem will come back again, later and bottled up, maybe unexpectedly—figure out a way to work it out now);

Figure out why you’re feeling the way you do—what happened just before you felt that way? (it might not be what you thought)
Remember, sometimes it is a good and right thing to be angry (the question then is, “what are you going to do about it?”);

Stop and pray, asking for a hint to understand what is going on, and what you can do about it;

Finally, and most important, the Savior is able to bear all our weaknesses, our disappointments, and our sorrows—they do not make Him hate you or think less of you, nor does it mean you don’t qualify for the blessings of His atonement. With Him, take just one day at a time, and you will come out ok.

--Love, Coffinberry

Charlotte said...

Very interesting discussion. I liked all your tips coffinberry - esp. the one about checking in with your hormones:) I think my anger manifests in a more inward way - IBS, anyone? - but all the tips are helpful all the same.

Thanks guys!

Kelly said...

My belief is that anger is a valid and necessary emotion that nearly compels you to act. The hard part for me is making sure that the action I take is a wise one -- hard to do when you are feeling that anger. It's easier to blow up than think. So sometimes I just have to check out for a while, until I can act with my head and not my emotions.

Just this Saturday, I got really angry with my kids. Like coffinberry said, I had a few triggers too many that morning (took my kids shopping for something boring and not child-centered -- a recipe for bad behavior, then went home and nagged them about stuff and felt like they weren't listening, then one claimed to have not heard a word I said, even though the others heard it, then they were right in my way while I was making lunch, etc....) By the end of lunchtime let's just say I was feeling grumpy and snapping at everybody and I finally decided to go take a nap. Things were so much better when I got up.

Sometimes my anger is simply a signpost that something I just did is unwise, or something somebody else did requires action or correction. But I find I can't act while I'm angry or I will regret it. I have to recognize it, then nap or put it away in my subconscious for awhile, then face it when I can think clearly and am not so distraught.

But, yeah, walking away from a personal confrontation is hard and has irritated a few people. Sorry, but I regret doing that far less than saying something I'll hate myself for saying years later.

Laura said...

Good tips guys! I feel better knowing that you guys have spent a lot of time working on this too :)
Coffinberry--I can't believe you have been in four different wards! That's gotta be hard on your kids. And thanks for sharing your insights. They seem to me to be precious wisdom gained through difficult experiences. Those are my favorite kind of tips!

Sarah--let me know what you think of that book. I loved it!

Charlotte--with your IBS does your anger change to anxiety or do they just always accompany one another?

Heathie said...

I find that my anger issues are something new for me; maybe I had more outlets as a teenager, so it didn't surface as much, maybe it's just a new thing that came with all the hormones the babies brought... I don't know.
But I feel like a lot of my anger is rooted in feeling out of control (having expectations for my kids, not seeing them met, and not being able to do anything about it). I find the "terrible twos" so frustrating!
I don't really have any tips yet, but I plan on trying out the ones you and Coffinberry mentioned. I'll have to check out that book, too.

Laura said...

Hey Heather! My children brought about new depths of anger for me too. I never knew I could be so scorchingly angry before I had little ones. I hope some of the tips help. When it comes to the babies, for me, I find I need time away from all of them every day. I try to get at least 30 minutes, but even 5-10 minutes will do in a pinch. Sometimes I just walk outside to our mailbox just for the luxury of not hearing them! Little breaks help so much.