As a therapist, the most rewarding aspect of my work is helping to heal relationships. We all have the need to feel connected, to feel loved and accepted, and to give our support and affection to others. Sadly sweetness can turn to bitterness in our friendships, families, work partnerships, and romantic relationships. We sometimes wonder how it all went wrong and how to fix it. We know that contention is not of God (3 Nephi 11:29)
In my personal life and with my clients I have found that five simple steps can drastically improve our ability to fight less and connect more, provided we apply them consistently enough to form a habit. These five steps are comprised of techniques I learned performing group therapy while at Auburn University, as well as my own insights. Both are influenced by Dr. Susan Johnson’s technique of emotionally-focused therapy. Readers will note their compatibility with the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Step One: Recognize Your Body’s Signs of Anger. All of us get angry, and sometimes our anger gets out of hand. We say and do things that we later regret or we shut down and push others away; neither of these helps us to get the closeness we want. Our bodies actually warn us that this is about to happen with signs like accelerated heart rate, feeling “hot” (Exodus 32:19) shallow breathing, clenched fists and jaws, and more. How does your body let you know that you’re angry? Pay attention, because that’s your cue to move to Step Two.
Step Two: Stop and Calm Down. Get some exercise. Listen to music that calms you. Take a hot shower. Meditate. Especially effective is taking slow, deep breaths; this will increase blood flow and oxygen to your brain, helping you to think more clearly. Most importantly, pray fervently and sincerely for your anger to dissipate, as Nephi did (2 Nephi 4:27-31).
Step Three: Identify the Vulnerable Emotion Underneath the Anger. All anger is actually a vulnerable emotion in disguise. If someone insults you, under your anger is hurt. If your teen walks in three hours past curfew, under your anger is fear and worry. If someone publicly chastens you, under your anger is embarrassment. Instead of just recognizing the anger, calm down and ask yourself what you’re really feeling.
Step Four: Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes. When I’m upset I’m 100% certain that I’m right and the other person is wrong. It’s only after I calm down (Step Two) that I can start to see things from their point of view. Often I realize that I’ve made mistakes that need correcting and apologizing for. It’s important to realize that everyone’s behavior makes sense to them, so if I think someone’s being an idiot, irrational, or a jerk, it often means I’m not trying hard enough to understand their perspective. Even if I disagree with, and can’t condone, the other person’s words or behavior, I can always relate to the emotions they’re experiencing. Remember the words of the hymn: “Who am I to judge another when I walk imperfectly. In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see. Who am I to judge another? Lord, I would follow thee” (Hymns # 220).
Step Five: Calmly Express Steps Four and Three. Tell the other person what you imagine their experience to be like without claiming to know what they’re going through. “I imagine that feels like…” or “If it were me, I would feel…” are good ways to start. As they see that you’re trying to understand their experience, they often calm down and share more. Listen to understand, not to refute or add your two cents. Then, trust them with your vulnerable emotion instead of manipulating them with anger; letting someone know that you’re hurt, scared, sad or embarrassed often draws them near, while expressing anger always pushes them away or makes them fight back. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
I know from my own experience that these steps are true principles. I’ve seen them work in my marriage and in the marriages and family relationships of my clients. Practicing them tends to increase mutual understanding, dissipate the spirit of contention, and invite the Spirit of the Lord.
Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in couples’ therapy and singles’ guidance (www.jdeckertherapy.com). He also writes Hollywood film reviews from a LDS perspective at www.mormonmovieguy.com. Jonathan’s book, 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families, is now available for pre-order and will be released on September 10, 2013.