In our series on anger thus far, we have discussed how anger, itself, is not always a bad thing, as well as some of the deeper root causes of anger in our lives. In this third installment of the series, unsurprisingly, I’m turning my attention to the vital role that our thought life plays in perpetuating anger in us.
To listen to the podcast version of this post, click here.
It’s unsurprising because if you’ve been around here for any length of time, you know the quality of our thoughts is an oft talked about theme. It’s simply undeniable that emotions, behaviors, and beliefs all begin with a thought. It’s really powerful to consider.
For a very simple example, I have been trying to drink more water. This is something that doesn’t come easy to me but that I know is so good for my health…so I keep trying! One of the big irritations with drinking more water is the accompanying need to go to the restroom so much more. It’s disruptive and it gets on my nerves. (<<<See?? That sounds a little bit like anger….) Well, as I’ve been pondering this topic, I decided to force myself to think this thought: It’s great that I’m using the restroom more because it means that my body is cleansing itself more and flushing out toxins and other harmful things. I kid you not, when I thought this, my emotion shifted from slightly-annoyed to appreciative. Wow. It’s a little bit of a silly example, but it was a little crazy that I actually perceived a slight emotional shift when I made myself frame the situation in a more positive light. Our thoughts have such tremendous power in shaping our emotions.
Before I full-scale launch into this topic, I want to take a moment to note a few exceptions. Since we learned that an anger response gives us information that something is going on, sometimes that indicates that there is something happening, physically, that we need to be aware of. I don’t think I could honestly say that we can always control our more negative emotions when they are triggered by something physical.
Anyone who has ever been around young children knows that if a child is uncharacteristically cranky, they are probably hungry, tired or sick. It’s really just a fact of life. And though I wish it were not the case, this often happens to adults, as well! When we are more easily triggered, sometimes it’s because our bodies are in a state of irritation for one reason or another. We would be foolish to ignore it. This doesn’t necessarily justify your becoming “hangry;” as adults, we should have developed more control over our emotions than a small child. However, it does mean that we need to tend to our bodies and make accommodations when they are needed. And give ourselves and others grace!
Another exception that I don’t feel qualified to explore too deeply is depression or other diagnosed mental conditions. Though I don’t believe it’s always the case, I do think that sometimes these conditions are rooted in our physiology more than our psychology. We’ve got some levels off, or some past trauma is being manifested in some sort of sickness. Perhaps our genetics have a proclivity toward mental illness. These things are real and not necessarily cured by adjusting our thoughts.
I do think it’s worth noting that training our thoughts in a godly direction will always be a help. I just believe that in the few exceptions listed above and some I’ve probably missed, other intervention may also be necessary.
Your Thoughts Create Your Emotional Life
It’s taken me way too long to come to the conclusion that our thought life is in large part what creates our reality. It certainly is in the driver’s seat of our emotions. There is also the indivisible connection between our hearts and our minds and why the Lord must change our hearts for lasting transformation. But that is a discussion for another day.
In this post, I want to explore the power of our thoughts to take us toward anger or away from anger. I still can’t decide if we have any control of an initial, provoked response of anger to a person or a situation. But I do believe we have control in what immediately follows that stimulus…and this is often where we drop the ball and act out sinfully due to our anger.
One of my very favorite scriptures in the Bible is 2 Corinthians 10:5:
We take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ.
It’s not a favorite because I’m completely successful at what it says, yet! It’s a favorite because it gives me hope, that through Jesus, I really can control my thoughts and in turn, not allow my emotions to get out of control.
In the case of trying to drink more water, I channeled my thoughts away from the irritation it was causing me. I purposed to think of it in a more positive light. It changed my emotion in the moment, and I believe, will change my behaviors long term, if I keep it up. There are so many applications for this idea!
- when that person cuts you off while driving, instead of thinking how rude they were, you think of how they must be in a hurry to get some place and didn’t specifically mean to offend you;
- when you spill your coffee in the morning, instead of thinking of how frustrating it was and how clumsy you are, you think about how it’s really not that big of a deal and that you can give yourself grace for simple mistakes;
- when someone online posts something that offends you, instead of thinking about how wrong and/or stupid they seem to be, you instead remind yourself to respect the life experiences that make people different and that, he or she is also completely loved by God…
The examples could go on and on. The point is to capture the thought and move it away from anger, annoyance, irritation, resentment or any number of negative emotional cousins of anger.
If we find ourselves in a constant state of low grade irritability, we need to take inventory of our thoughts. Have we created a habit of thinking about a situation that bothers us or a person that annoys us? Do we dwell on past wrongs or hurts? If so, instead of allowing our thoughts to run toward anger, we need to intentionally move them away.
An Important Side Note
By way of further explanation, I have to say that we cannot think ridiculous, unauthentic thoughts. What I mean is that, when that person cuts you off, it would be wild and false to think to yourself, wow, I love that person! They are the best! Thank you for cutting me off! It allowed me to practice patience! That is (obviously) pie-in-the-sky and detached from reality. And…weird. When you replace the anger thought, you need to have another, real thought to put in it’s place. Thinking that the other person is in a hurry and not trying to purposely make you have a bad day is an authentic, but directed, thought.
Think on These Things
We know Philippians 4:8 and that we are supposed to guide our thought toward the good, true, and lovely. Even when we have deep wounds that we are still healing from that might be causing our anger, I believe that it’s truly how we decide to think about these hurts that will either allow them to have control over us and keep us angry, or set us free from them. From the smallest irritation to the deepest tragedy, with God’s help, we can plant seed thoughts of peace and understanding rather than anger.
How can you practice this in your own life?