My dad was, by and large, a jovial good-natured and spiritually-minded man. He loved to tell jokes and was forever on the alert for missionary opportunities. But at home he was a volcano. He knew nothing about anger management or emotional clearing or open expression of feelings.
From my current perspective, I would say he stuffed and denied his feelings and let them build up for months instead of dealing with them. Because he never talked about anything personal I can only guess at what was going on inside him. But his anger and frustration clearly created so much internal pressure that eventually something that should have been a minor annoyance would cause Vesuvius to erupt.
The darkness that came into our home when he exploded terrified me, no matter who was the target. Fortunately, it was a rare occurrence and only three times in all my growing up years was his anger directed at me. Yet in those traumatic moments I lost my sense of personal safety, and I made faulty conclusions that I struggle with to this day, such as “Keeping others happy and staying out of trouble must be my first priority. To have someone angry with me is one of the worst things that can happen. All anger is bad, dark, frightening, wrong. I must never, ever allow myself to be angry.”
I was in my forties before I was able to put those faulty beliefs into words or connect them with the experiences that precipitated them.
I Can’t Jump from Kindergarten to College
No one can avoid a certain amount of negative programming from the past; it’s how we choose to deal with it that counts. I can be angry that my baggage clutters up my present landscape. However, anger at myself for being where I am in life is futile fighting against the step-by-step maturation process that God put in place.
When I’m in kindergarten emotionally, I have to go through all the grades of learning before I can rise to college level emotions. And that’s okay. I can’t just snap my fingers and be and feel differently. I have to learn line upon line, precept upon precept. I have to grow and progress at my own rate – and so does everyone else.
This is a critical point for me. I’ve learned that no change happens at a deep level until I can accept myself and what I truly feel at the level I am right now. Rejection and anger toward myself and my current level of maturity do nothing but keep my defenses up. I spend all my energy justifying, defending – or self-persecuting and loathing. I shut myself off from God’s help and reject the very healing that would help me graduate to a higher level of response. All those negative thoughts clearly come from the adversary; when I pay attention to his lies, instead of to the Spirit of Truth, I invite more anger.
Staring Down the Dragons
As a middle-aged woman I finally began challenging the conclusions that had kept me stuck in people pleasing and emotional dishonesty for so long. Ironically, I discovered that labeling anger as “bad,” as something to suppress or deny had created the very thing I was trying to avoid – a reservoir of unexpressed, unresolved anger.
I came to understand in my head that my childhood conclusions about anger were false – that anger is part of being human, and that denying and stuffing it causes more problem than admitting it. I learned healthy ways to deal with anger and how to get the understanding from my head into my heart. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.”
Satan is quick to exploit unresolved anger. Feeling anger is not a sin, but allowing it to stay, simmer, boil over in unrighteous actions can be.
An insightful friend, Peggy McFarland, who has had a great impact for good in my life, wrote:
One big problem with anger is the way we have been trained to feel about it. We get angry for reasons. Rather than trying to suppress, judge, blame, and deny my anger, what if I embraced it and said, “Okay self, what are you trying to tell me? What do I need to learn?”
I don’t feel anger unless my desires and my beliefs and choices aren’t lining up. For example, I was absolutely feeling rage about my relationship with my husband one morning. So I prayed and pondered about it. What was my anger telling me? It was helping me learn that in the past, I have not taken responsibility for my own happiness and needs. That I should stop expecting my needs to be met by my husband and stop being passive about things I feel strongly about. That I don’t always need to defer to his opinions, be a follower. That I don’t need to be afraid to lead when that’s what I’m given the strength and insight to do.
I could not have come to that understanding if my focus had been beating myself up for being angry, which is my first programmed instinct. So the worst thing I can do is feel bad that I am angry. That shame shuts down the flow of light and truth. I’ve learned that my feelings are sacred – many times they are my spirit’s voice. I need to honor them, including my anger.
I’m not talking about giving in to rage and abuse. But anger wouldn’t simmer and become rage that boils over in abuse if feelings were honored early on and resolved. I believe that the Lord wants me to clearly and honestly express my feelings and acknowledge them, not be afraid of them. Once I get to the bottom of the truth, I am in a position for Him to lift me up
I’m learning what to do to restore my flow of light and love from the Lord. When I come to a place of self-acceptance my defenses are lowered and the negative can be released to make way for the positive that God is always wiling to give.
Looking Beneath the Anger
Many times I’ve thought, “That makes me so mad!” when the truth was, “That hurts my feelings!” or, “That opens an old wound and brings up pain I don’t know how to deal with,” or, “That invites me to learn something that is painful for me to learn.”
Anger is a secondary emotion, the tip of the iceberg; underneath is deep emotional pain that often signals the need to change actions, patterns, or false beliefs. What if, instead of responding with my own anger, I saw an angry person as a heartbroken child in need of comfort? What if, when I’m the one feeling anger, I could say to myself, “I’m so sorry you are hurting. What can I do to help you identify and ease the pain?” “What can I do to help you learn what is here for you to learn or change what you need to change?”
My friend’s words, “I don’t feel anger unless my desires and my beliefs and choices aren’t lining up,” resonate with me.
Much of my anger comes from the pain of actions incongruent with my spirit self – or being perceived in ways painfully different from my real self.
The other day I suddenly found myself feeling so incongruent in some dysfunctional interchange that I simply couldn’t bear it. I felt like a Helen Keller child – wanting to kick and scream in frustration as Helen often did until she was given the priceless gift of a way to clearly communicate.
There is great pain in not being able to honestly communicate, in not feeling “known.” In Psalm 142, verse 4, we read, “I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.” I suspect that a lot of anger in the world stems from the pain of such feelings.
Exploders and Stuffers
When pain surfaces as anger people tend to either explode or stuff. There is a payoff to explosive anger. People tend to pay attention to it! Expressing the anger instead of the pain that causes it can give a feeling of counterfeit power.
One woman confided in me, saying, “I haven’t been able to let go of my tendency to explode when I’m frustrated. When I throw a fit, everyone is suddenly silent and pays attention to me. I go from feeling totally helpless to feeling that I have some power in the situation. It feels like my anger helps me get people to do what I want.”
But at what price? She readily admits that her explosive anger strains relationships and leaves her feeling bad about herself.
Unexpressed anger, anger stuffed or turned against the self, can lead quickly to depression – and in the long run cause serious health problems. That’s been my pattern. Obviously, neither pattern is healthy.
Is There An Alternative?
What if, instead of exploding or stuffing, I could be honest with self and others about what I really feel, what I really think, who I really am? To accept that I am an imperfect mortal who will inevitably makes mistakes – to remember that the inevitability of our mistakes is what Jesus’ mission was all about. To ask Him to heal me from the perfectionistic programming I’ve accepted in the past that tells me it is never okay to make a mistake, never okay to feel anger or upset or anything negative.
Imagine the difference in the response if I say “I feel frustrated and hurt and helpless right now. Can you help me work through this?” compared with the response of an angry explosion or sulky withdrawal.
It takes courage to look at the pain under the anger and deal with it. It takes courage to honestly express it. It takes courage to examine my beliefs and reframe and cull out the false ones.
False Traditions of the Fathers
I create my life based upon what I believe. (See D&C 123 “creeds riveted to hearts.”) False beliefs are often the root cause of anger. I know a person whose false beliefs about God keep him constantly angry at Him. Even the belief that it is wrong to feel anger can create more anger.
Sometimes I’ve felt angry that I have been lied to by the media and the precepts of men mingled with scriptures. I’ve felt anger that the emotional dishonesty and dysfunctional behaviors of uncounted generations of people before me were passed on to me.
For example, one of the unspoken beliefs passed down in our family was, “It’s better to sweep things under the carpet than to talk openly. Saying what you really feel just makes things worse.” Once that false belief was firmly entrenched, I attracted people who shared this belief – people who, when I made an effort to honestly bring up a problem would reinforce it – being upset with me instead of willing to engage in open discussion.
Another false tradition (or maybe it’s just a human tendency) is to shut my ears and eyes (and heart) to anything that doesn’t validate my false beliefs. The most dramatic example I can think of to illustrate how this works is a suicide note written by a teenager named Julie. She was dearly loved by friends and family, but wrote: “I am such a mess. Nobody could possible love me. Everyone would be better off without me.” With these false beliefs firmly in place, she had dismissed all evidence to the contrary – was unable to see it, hear it, feel it.
Resisting What Is
For whatever reason, Julie resisted the positive reality that she was loved and valuable. Another source of anger is resistance to negative reality – resistance to the evil and adversity so rampant in the world. One time I wrote:
Who’s in Charge Here, Anyway?
I sit whimpering in the capsule of my tiny understanding
And angrily tell God he isn’t running His world right.
I tell him, “Little children shouldn’t suffer,
People should be nice to each other, and
Things should turn out as I plan.”
Before I climbed into my capsule,
I naively believed that life was good.
God whispers, “Life is good, my child,
I am in charge; life isn’t dark …
Adversity is not scourge, but ark.”
Trusting God to run His world, believing His purposes are unfolding, and knowing that His truth will eventually triumph can create a paradigm shift. I’ve recognized that underneath my personal anger at the suffering in the world is pain based on the false belief that I should be able to righteously (and quickly!) alleviate it, and when I can’t, I have failed. Relief comes through willingness to see things as they are, as they were and as they are to come (D&C 93:24) as part of God’s plan.
It is not part of His plan for me to do more or change more than His Spirit and grace enables me to do or change. He wants me to see the truth about all that, to relinquish the false beliefs that make me miserable.
The Savior Will Help Us Heal from the Anger of False Beliefs
I have found that my greatest need is to continually ask the Savior to help me apply truth in a personal way that can dispel false beliefs – especially those that create anger.
I am not a victim. I have God-given agency that makes me, instead, an agent. I can choose to learn different beliefs and heal from false ones. I find the need to ask him day by day to help me discern what is true and what isn’t, to reveal to me any belief systems that keep me from feeling connected to Him.
An email friend named Annette sent me a powerful story about how the Lord helped her overcome her anger about the death of her parents. With her permission I want to share it here:
I was asked to give a talk in church about how “living the gospel brings forth the blessings of heaven.” I said I would do it. It seemed like an easy topic until the time came closer and I thought deeply about it. The more I pondered it, the more upset I felt.
I decided in anger it was all a lie. My parents had been obedient, lived the gospel, served in the Church, followed the Word of Wisdom, and were dead. My mom died of cancer, my dad of a heart attack – when our family still needed them badly! My husband’s non-Mormon parents and relatives had not lived the gospel, ate lots of meat, frosted flakes, and ice cream daily, and were very much alive. I hated my husband’s family for being alive and the Lord for making mine dead (and I said lots of angry things to Him I wouldn’t want repeated).
The Saturday night before I was to give my talk, I went to bed crying. I told my family they would have to call the bishop in the morning and tell him I was sick, because I would not go and say things I didn’t believe. The truth of the matter was the only kind of “sickness” I had was of my soul.
As I lay in bed I thought of the lie I had asked my family to tell in the morning. I had nothing to say, no talk written, but knew that to let the bishop down was one more wrong besides all the things I had said at the Lord in my anger. I finally told my daughter I would give a talk tomorrow. I would write something in the morning. I gave it all to the Lord and finally went to sleep, not knowing what tomorrow would bring.
As I slept that night, somewhere in those hours, peace came to my soul, a peace I can’t explain. It was healing, soothing and I knew the blessings of heaven had nothing to do with how long a person is allowed to live. I woke up filled with joy and wrote my talk in about two hours; the words just fell on the page. Later that morning I taught my ward family what I had learned – that the blessings of heaven were peace, the peace that surpasseth all understanding, which I had received in the night.
As I now think about what I was given, I feel there was even more to my answer. I had always thought that someone came to me in my dreams that night and explained to me the situation and I finally accepted my parents’ deaths. However I now think differently. I believe it was the power of the Atonement that brought me my peace.
It has been ten years and my anger has never returned. I now understand better the miracle that happened because I finally decided to do as I had been asked and turned the matter completely over to the Lord, trusting him “no matter what.” I have learned that He can do the impossible, reach down inside and take what seems hopeless away. He has the power to heal us of anger and bless us with the gift of forgiveness, even if the anger has been directed at Him. How grateful I am that He still loves me. I shudder at the bitterness that could have filled my soul to this day if I had not turned it over to Him.
Many Problems, One Solution
How amazing that the answer, even to deep anger, is trusting the Lord and turning it over to Him.
When I am angry or discouraged I am almost always forgetting to focus on the Lord’s great plan of love and mercy. I am short-sighted and thinking only of my current pain. My greatest desire for all of us is that we will follow the pattern in Annette’s story – admit our anger and turn it over to the Lord, decide to do what is right in spite of our anger, and then find rest through the Spirit. That is the pattern Nephi showed us in 2 Nephi 4. Only the Spirit can dispel wrong beliefs and help us know the truth of all things.
The Value of Having to Look
The truth makes me free, but that freedom may not come all at once. Sometimes seeing truth makes me feel let down and disillusioned before it makes me free – usually when I have resisted seeing my part of it.
Sometimes it is good to acknowledge the anger I have at others for making my life more difficult because of their own false beliefs and how they trigger mine. Then I can ask myself, is it their job to make my life easy? What would I learn from “easy?” And who am I to say that someone else’s rate of progress should be more rapid than it is?
I acknowledge that the reason some of the problems of others make me angry is that they mirror my own weaknesses and it is painful to see them. But if I didn’t see, how could I confess, and ask the Lord to help me overcome? Would it be good not to have to look? Perhaps the highest value of relationships is the having to look. People who stay disconnected from others can also stay unaware of their weaknesses. Relationships challenge us to do something about them. Relationships constantly invite us to look.
Each weakness (our own or someone else’s) causes friction. I can reframe how I look at that. I can see that friction and struggle are learning opportunities instead of signs of failure. They are opportunities for new understanding. My family members have a way of bringing me face to face with the very areas that I most need to repent of or improve in. That can make me angry. But each conflict or confrontation is really an opportunity to assess, to confess, to express willingness to the Lord to have him reach into my heart and do some cleanup and reconstruction.
What if I use anger, my own or someone else’s, as a reminder to pray? What if I see it as a reminder to immediately say in my mind, “Dear Father, please help and comfort this person whose spirit is agitated. Ease his pain. Help me be a source of compassion and encouragement to him. Please help me see the truth of my own pain and to feel Thy compassion for me in this moment.”
How much would such a prayer increase my chances of giving a “soft answer”? “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Whew! How true. When I have reacted to anger with my own anger, my “grievous words” have been like fuel on the fire. But a soft answer, an answer that shows compassion for the pain that inevitably triggers anger, is like cool, soothing rain on the fire of wrath, and usually extinguishes the flames.
I’m grateful for the gift of relationships that continue to make me look. My relationship with the Lord is the most effective in making me look.
“And If Men Come Unto Me I Will Show Unto Them Their Weakness”
What does the Lord himself do when I humbly come to Him? He too “makes me look.” He shows me my weakness. Of course, coming to the Lord and having Him unveil my weakness (see Ether 12:27) is very different from being hammered on by someone else.
When He shows me my weakness He also shows me His love, His encouragement, His humor. He shows me that I have unlimited potential and worth.
He is perfect and whole and shows me from His perspective of all-knowing, not from a position of weakness himself. My friend Peggy said of the way the Lord interacts with us, “Although He is perfect, part of His perfection is to be meek and lowly. He doesn’t flaunt his all-knowingness. He meets us eye to eye, face to face – not, ‘I’m up here, you’re down there.’ He meets us where we are in tender and personal ways, as a brother and a counselor and a friend. He uses those very words in the scriptures.”
I am still working at accepting the reality of my mortality (which includes getting angry on occasion). Here’s an important thing I’m learning: False beliefs make me miserable (one of Satan’s goals – see 2 Nephi 2: 18, 27). They also attract negative situations into my life.
On the other hand, true beliefs – truth confirmed by the Spirit, even if they cause pain to begin with – edify, encourage me to feel better about myself and my life, and help me act in ways that support my highest nature. Only being willing to see and speak and act on the truth can free me from the flaxen cords with which the devil is trying to bind me.
The Truth Indeed Makes Us Free
As I am ready, the Lord helps me recognize and release my own anger to the healing balm of truth. He blesses me with the gift of a higher understanding that reframes or “gives birth” to new ways of looking at – and feeling about – past and current situations.
It gives one cause to ponder that one of the last talks President Gordon B. Hinckley gave in this life (in the priesthood session of the October 2007 conference) was on the subject of anger. I highly recommend a study of that talk. How we deal with anger in our lives is important!
I mentioned my dad and his anger problem at the beginning of this chapter. Dad was a man of integrity. He loved the truths of the gospel. I am certain that in the atmosphere of perfect light and love in the Spirit World he has been embracing the truth about his anger.
I am certain he has now looked at the truth of the pain that anger caused and the truth that can heal it. I hope he is now free of it, and can somehow influence me for good in my own quest to achieve the freedom found only in truth.