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The following comes from Wallace Goddard’s series, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. To see the previous article in the series, click here.
I remember a father who became enraged with his son when the boy parked his bike in the wrong place in the garage. He grabbed him, shook him, and yelled at him. And then, to provide balance, he told his son he loved him.
I’m pretty sure the boy did not feel loved. I don’t think he felt guided and taught. I don’t think that he left the encounter resolved to be a more responsible boy. I think he felt hurt and humiliated. I think he felt demeaned. I suspect he left the encounter feeling alone and resentful.
We all get irritated and impatient with family members (and others) for various offenses. A child does not put away his clothes. A spouse neglects our needs. A neighbor hosts noisy parties. The opportunities for anger are limitless.
What do various expressions of anger have in common? They all say one thing: You are not following my rules for the universe.
We could argue that it is quite natural for us to get angry when someone does not do as they should. When a daughter does not clean her room or a son steals a cookie, it is quite natural to become indignant. As we threaten and berate them, we may feel like a crusader in a holy cause.
But anger is not effective. Anger does not motivate the kind of change we want.
Sure, we may get compliance. The girl may push clothes into the closet and the boy may hide his thievery. But we don’t win cooperation. We don’t change hearts. Quite the opposite. We injure hearts. We create distance and resentment. It sends a message that I value you only when you do things my way.
I think of the evening when our young son found the finger-paints while I was distracted and Nancy was at a meeting. He applied them vigorously to our new carpet, creating a breathtaking mural. When I discovered his creation, I could have reacted to the damage and inconvenience. I could have gotten angry, lectured him, and punished him.
I did not. Maybe because I love Andy so much and knew that he was not malicious, I commented: “Andy, what spectacular use of color!” Andy beamed.
Then I explained. “Do you see this paper in the fingerpaint box? Normally we paint on this special paper so that we can hang your work on the fridge and show it to grandma.” His eyes lit up: “Oh!”
“But when we paint on the carpet, people walk on it and it becomes a mess. Would you help me clean up the paint on the carpet then you can make a new work on the special paper?”
We cleaned up the carpet and Andy created a new work of art—this time on paper. He never painted on the carpet again.
I wish I could say that I was always this kind. Too many times I have blamed Nancy or lectured and punished the kids. I am sorry for it.
Research clearly shows that anger is bad for our health; it multiplies our health risks. It is also bad for our relationships; it hurts and insults the people who matter most to us. Anger also makes us into fools: it narrows our thinking and shuts off our compassion. Most of us don’t do our best work when our hearts and minds are shut down and our souls are guided by reptilian responses.
As a prominent researcher on anger exclaims: “Anger kills!”
Because we have automated our anger, we usually don’t recognize that anger is not a necessary reaction to any situation. It is the result of our interpretation. We may not recognize that we can actually forego anger. We can choose not to be mad. For example, we have forgiven careless words because they came from well-meaning friends. We let a person crowd into traffic because we felt gracious and maybe we liked them.
One of the hazards of our times is that we have so many ways of de-personalizing people. Instead of the neighbor next door with whom we grow and struggle, we experience many people as cartoon characters on TV or as anonymous enemies piloting hostile cars in traffic. It is easy to react against depersonalized people—strangers and enemies.
We all have triggers for our anger—little things that set us off. Someone treats us dismissively. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Someone cuts in line. Someone breaks a rule.
Let’s go back to the boy mis-parking his bike. When Dad sees his son park his bike in a forbidden spot, Dad narrowed in on one thing: the boy’s irresponsibility. He probably didn’t consider what else is happening in his son’s life. Maybe the boy was rushing to the house because he needed to go to the bathroom. Maybe the boy has just been hurt by teasing from his friends. Maybe the boy was just forgetful. But when we get angry, we see only one thing: the offence. We lose the broader view that might help us understand what else is happening in the other person’s life.
Instead of seeing a child who makes mistakes and faces struggles, we see an insurgent, a problem, a nuisance. We have neither understanding nor compassion for the offender.
The Lord is unequivocal about anger:
Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (3 Nephi 12:22)
Jesus taught that, what we do to each other, we do to him (Matthew 25:31-45). It is hard to imagine ourselves lecturing Jesus or cussing Him out. President Monson taught that we should “never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved” (October 2008, Finding Joy in the Journey).
What do we do to prevent anger from taking us hostage? A little reflection will tell you what works for you. Consider the following:
1. We can keep peace and compassion in our hearts. What helps you to push nagging discontent from your soul? What brings you peace?
2. We can recognize irritation as an invitation to set aside our agenda and enter the mind and heart of the person who is irritating us. How can you program yourself to react differently to irritation?
3. We can think how we would respond to Jesus. How can you see Jesus in every person?
4. We can pray for heavenly mercy. “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”
Find ways to reprogram your mind and heart so that anger has no place in your soul.
For an excellent book on dealing with our anger, see Redford and Virginia Williams’ Anger Kills: Seventeen Strategies for Controlling the Hostility That Can Harm Your Health.
For an LDS book on preventing and reducing anger with children, read my The Soft-Spoken Parent: 55 Strategies for Preventing Contention with Your Child.
For a general book on parenting and understanding, read Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child (Disclosure: I revised Haim’s book.).