How to Turn Your Anger Into Healthy, Holy Action

Should Christians get angry? And when they do, how should they handle it?

Attempting to answer those questions on a recent episode of the More2Life radio show, Bill Donaghy, senior lecturer at the Theology of the Body Institute, pointed to a scene near the climax of the Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace.

Two Jedi knights are battling the evil Sith Lord, Darth Maul. Their lightsaber battle rages through a power plant until a “laser gate” suddenly closes, separating the two sides. As they wait for the gate to open, the Sith warrior paces back and forth like a caged animal, twirling his double-bladed lightsaber and glaring angrily at the Jedi. One of the Jedi reacts very differently, though: he falls to his knees and closes his eyes in a kind of prayer.

The scene illustrates two very different ways of handling anger, Donaghy told Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, and points to a key Christian insight about anger. Feeling anger isn’t sinful: “Be angry, but do not sin,” St. Paul told the early Christians (Ephesians 4:26).

Instead, it is what we do with our anger that matters.

Anger vs. Wrath

“Anger is meant to be a gift that calls our attention to an injustice and motivates us to act in proportionate, appropriate, and productive ways so that we can heal whatever that injustice might be,” Dr. Popcak said.

Anger that is appropriately channeled into setting things right—“righteous anger”—is better than unreasonable patience with evil, St. John Chrysostom, a doctor of the Church, once said: “He who is not angry when he has good reason to be, sins. Unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices.”

Wrath, on the other hand, is sinful. Wrath is “anger that is inappropriate, disproportionate, and unproductive,” Dr. Popcak said. While righteous anger aims to restore and heal, wrath seeks to destroy.

If anger is a gift from God—a signal that something is wrong that needs to be put right—then how do we handle this powerful emotion in a way that serves the good? Here are a few tips.

 

Don’t React; Instead, Step Back

The key to handling anger well is to avoid being reactive. Instead of launching into a hasty response fueled by the chemicals flooding your brain, pause, step back, and consider what is really driving your anger.

Is it really the thing in front of you that is provoking your anger, or is the thing in front of you stirring up old wounds? Is your child’s whining the real problem—or is the deeper problem that you are hungry and exhausted?

Understanding the real source of your anger is critical to addressing it in a proportionate, productive way.

 

Sublimate Your Anger to God

As you are collecting your thoughts, pray for the grace you need to handle the situation well.

“Anger isn’t so much a call to action as a call to prayer,” Dr. Popcak said. “Without prayer, anger can cause us to feel stuck, powerless, and perpetually outraged with no solution in sight.”

“We have to stop and say to the Lord: ‘Lord, I’m a mess,’” Lisa Popcak added. “’Everything is dysregulated inside of me because I feel like there’s an injustice happening. You went through the worst injustice possible. Show me what to do with this.’”

In the language of the Theology of the Body, your goal should be to sublimate your anger to God. Sublimation is not about repressing or denying your anger, Donaghy said; it is about “lifting it up to God, giving it to God and asking God to come into it.”

 

Learn to Express Anger Constructively

Righteous anger focuses on setting things right and finding solutions. In other words, it has a constructive purpose.

Setting boundaries for a respectful discussion can help. In a conflict with your spouse, for example, you might agree that each of you has a right to express their thoughts and feelings, but that it is not acceptable to express those thoughts and feelings in a disrespectful or destructive way.

Similarly, constructive anger focuses on finding solutions that address the concerns of all parties involved. The priority ought to be healing, restoring, and strengthening relationships, not “winning,” which only fosters resentment and fuels the cycle of angry conflict.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

Sometimes, dealing with anger —yours or someone else’s— requires some extra help. You can find Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s advice about handling anger in many of their books, particularly Parenting with Grace (for handling kids’ anger), Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (for anger as a gift from God), How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love (for handling anger in a marriage), and God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People (self-explanatory, really).

And for more in-depth, one-on-one help, reach out to one of the many pastoral counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Boost Your Spiritual Growth: Try the Eulogy Accountability Challenge in Your Marriage or Friendship

When you go on a long trip, do you prefer to travel solo or with a friend?

Regardless of your usual travel preferences, when it comes to our spiritual journey, it’s good to have a companion who can help us find our “true north,” overcome obstacles, and get us back on track when we get lost. In fact, the Catholic Church insists that none of us comes to faith alone or is saved alone; we need one another, because our three-in-one God made us for relationship.

We can work for one another’s good in lots of different ways, of course: providing emotional support, lending a helping hand, worshiping together, and so on. But here’s a way that Christian couples (or close friends) can be more intentional about working for one another’s good—and strengthening their relationship at the same time.

This exercise from chapter 2 of Dr. Greg Popcak’s book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People can help us do just that. Dr. Popcak didn’t give this exercise a name, but let’s call it the “Eulogy Accountability Challenge.” The name is appropriate because this exercise is anchored in your idea about who you want to be at the end of your life. To put it another way, what personal characteristics or qualities do you want to be mentioned by whoever delivers the eulogy at your funeral?

“The key to working for your own or others’ good is discovering the kind of person you want to be at the end of your life and supporting each other as you struggle to become that person­,” Dr. Popcak writes in the book.

Together with your friend or spouse, work through the following steps. You’ll each need at least one sheet of paper.

 

1. Envision Your Ideal Self

Begin by prayerfully considering the qualities you wish to be known for at the end of your life. Be specific. For example, you might aspire to be:

  •  Loving
  • Wise
  • Understanding
  • Empathetic
  • Truthful
  • Responsible

List these qualities on a sheet of paper. Invite your spouse or close friend to do the same.

This list may change over time, but it should represent your best sense right now of what it means for you to become most “fully yourself”—that is, most fully the person that God calls you to be.

 

2. Identify Challenges

Now think of a situation that causes you to act or feel toward one another in a way that doesn’t align with your desired qualities. For example:

  • Maybe you are unpleasantly snippy and curt first thing in the morning.
  • Maybe you always shoot down your friend’s or your spouse’s suggestions.
  • Maybe you lose your temper when you get into a disagreement.
  • Maybe you don’t follow through on responsibilities, leaving them for the other person to take care of.

Whatever the challenge is, write it down.

 

3. Apply Your Ideal Qualities to the Challenge

Next, reflect on how you might act differently if you were to more fully embody the positive qualities you listed in the first step.

Be specific. How might your words, tone of voice, or actions change? For instance, would you be more patient or understanding? Focus on your own behavior and how you can align it more closely with your spiritual ideals.

Don’t offer your partner suggestions about how to complete this step!

 

4. Share Your Aspirations

Share your reflections with your spouse or friend. Make a commitment to help one another practice the positive qualities that each of you listed—not just in the particular challenge you named, but in other aspects of daily life, too.

 

5. Respectful Accountability

When you notice your partner or friend acting in a way that seems inconsistent with their stated spiritual ideals, gently remind them of their goals. For example, you might say, “You mentioned wanting to be more patient. Can you help me understand how your actions help you become a more patient person?”

Obviously, the key here is to be as respectful to the other person as you would want him or her to be toward you. After all, this is a two-way street: you’re each helping the other, so at some point, your partner will be giving you a gentle nudge toward your best self, too.

Done right, this exercise should help each of you along the path to becoming the person God calls you to be—and deepen the intimacy of your relationship.

For in-depth, one-on-one help strengthening your marriage or other relationships, reach out to a Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

 

Apocalypse Always: How to Stop Catastrophizing

In the classic children’s book Wemberly Worried, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, a little mouse named Wemberly worries about everything, big and small: cracks in the sidewalk, noises in the house, taking a bath—and, especially, starting school. No matter the situation, she constantly assumes the worst will happen.

Her constant worrying about what could go wrong is a hallmark of catastrophizing, where the focus is on the most catastrophic outcomes rather than on more likely, benign possibilities. Catastrophizing is an example of what therapists call cognitive distortions: unhelpful “scripts” that we pull out of our subconscious mind to help us interpret our experiences.

Some other examples of catastrophizing:

  • You find a strange mark on your skin and stay up late researching skin cancer. By the morning, you’re a wreck.
  • Your spouse is running late and not answering their phone; your mind starts fixating on the possibility that they were in a serious car accident.
  • You decide you need to leave your dysfunctional workplace, but you’re so focused on the worst possible outcome (not finding a new job, or finding a new job that is even worse) that you can’t take action.

It’s not that these worst-case scenarios aren’t real possibilities: you might have skin cancer, your spouse might have gotten into a serious car accident, you might not get a better job than the one you’re leaving. But are these the only possibilities? No, and they are not even the most likely possibilities. But catastrophic thinking leads us to focus almost exclusively on the worst-case possibilities, causing stress and anxiety without doing us anything good.

“Catastrophic thoughts like these represent Satan’s way of causing us to spend all of our energy on imaginary problems so that we don’t have the strength to deal with the real problems in our lives,” says Dr. Greg Popcak in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

Dealing with Catastrophic Thinking

So, what can you do if you recognize yourself catastrophizing in certain situations? Because cognitive distortions are deeply rooted in our subconscious minds—and often related to bad memories of similar situations—it usually isn’t going to work to simply tell yourself to “stop thinking that way.”

If catastrophizing is causing significant problems in your life, you might want to reach out to a therapist for help; you can find many Catholic Pastoral Counselors who draw on psychology and the wisdom of the Catholic tradition at CatholicCounselors.com. Another option would be to work through the process outlined in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! or Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, also by Dr. Popcak.

Either way, you’ll be led through a “cognitive restructuring” process that is aimed at challenging and altering negative thought patterns to promote healthier thinking. Here’s a brief outline of what that process might look like:

  1. First, you’ll identify the type of events that trigger your anxious, catastrophic thinking.
  2. Next, you’ll name what this type of event means for you—why does it matter? What does it “say” about who you are, or how others see you?
  3. Then you’ll identify the memories of past experiences that provide the basic template for your catastrophizing way of thinking.
  4. Next, you’ll begin to develop a more helpful way of thinking to replace the unhealthy, unhelpful, catastrophizing script. For people of faith, this involves carefully listening to what the Holy Spirit is whispering to our heart.
  5. Next, you’ll make a conscious connection between this new way of thinking and experiences you’ve had that reinforce the truth of this new script.
  6. Finally, you’ll develop some practical strategies—physical, mental, spiritual, and relational—that you can take to further strengthen your mind’s connection with this new way of thinking.

You can find an abbreviated version of this approach in another post on our blog, “Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This Journaling Exercise.”

Changing old ways of dealing with stress doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t mean we’ll never have another worrying thought.

But remember: God doesn’t want you to live with constant, overwhelming stress. And with the right support and an openness to God’s grace, you don’t have to.

Want to Handle Conflict Better? Take Your Emotional Temperature

Hurricanes are measured on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and earthquakes are rated on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale.

Human stress can be measured, too, using the Stress Temperature Scale (sometimes known as an Emotional Temperature Scale). Unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, though, keeping track of your emotional temperature can be really useful for avoiding conflict with other people—and handling it better when it’s unavoidable.

By regularly monitoring your emotional temperature, you can take steps to lower it before it gets too hot. This is useful because when our emotional temperature gets too high, the problem-solving part of our brain tends to go “offline” and the reactive, “fight or flight” part of our brain takes over.

That’s not a problem if we’re facing an imminent physical threat, but in the context of human relationships, the reactive brain almost always makes things worse.

Over a period of days or weeks, keep a notebook where you track your emotional temperature several times a day. You can also jot down “triggers” that make your emotional temperature spike, and how you tend to react when that happens.

Here’s the Stress Temperature Scale as outlined in Dr. Greg Popcak’s book How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. You can find another version of this tool geared toward kids in the books Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace, both by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.

 

The Emotional Temperature Scale

1–2: Relaxed. At this level, you’re pretty “chill.” You’re not really focused on any problems or challenges; your heart and respiration rate are in the low to normal range. You’re mainly warm and affectionate toward others.

3–4: Relaxed but alert. You’re engaged with and alert to your surroundings and getting along well with others. Whatever challenges you may be facing feel manageable.

5: Alert and focused. At this level, you’re still working well with others, but you may feel a little distracted by problems or concerns that are taking more of your attention. You’re working a little harder to meet challenges, but they still feel manageable.

6: Alert and stressed. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline begin to be released. On the surface, you seem to be in control of your reactions, although some people might comment that you “seem a little off.” You’re distracted, and it may be difficult for others to get your attention. You need to make a conscious effort to be polite and pleasant in interactions with others. It feels like you’re struggling to stay on top of things.

7: Irritable. As stress hormones continue to flood your bloodstream, the part of your brain that filters nonverbal signs of disgust and irritation begins to go offline. You may sigh, roll your eyes, fidget, or otherwise show your irritation. At the higher end of 7, you may avoid eye contact with others. The problem-solving part of your brain is still engaged, but just barely.

At this point, people who are attuned to their emotional temperature will know to take a break or find another way to lower their stress level.

8: Angry. Now your nonverbal filters are definitely not working, and your verbal filters have begun to collapse: your tone of voice and choice of words definitely betrays your anger, although you aren’t yet raising your voice or using insults. Different personalities express anger in different ways. Some people withdraw, becoming quiet or sullen and pouty. Others may “tantrum,” engaging in emotional manipulation and finger-pointing. Still others may take a superior attitude, offering lengthy explanations of why they’re right and others are wrong.

Emotionally savvy people know to walk away from the conversation once they hit this point, taking a long break to cool down, pray, reflect, and otherwise regain control.

9: Very angry and feeling like a victim. Now your verbal filters have completely collapsed. If you tend towards pouting or withdrawing, you will probably be shut down for the rest of the day. This is when the name-calling, insults, and raised voices begin, all of which will seem perfectly justified by the circumstances or the other person’s behavior.

10: Outraged and out of control. Now your brain’s physical filters have shut down; doors are slammed, tables pounded, random objects thrown or kicked. At this point, people may physically hurt one another.

 

Keep It Under 7 or 8

Tracking your emotional temperature in a notebook over the course of a week will help you identify strategies for keeping your stress level below an 8, the point at which your brain stops being able to solve problems effectively, and the point at which the primitive fight-or-flight part of your brain takes over. Record your stress responses, and write down ideas for how you’d prefer to handle things in the future.

For strategies to help you lower your emotional temperature, check out Dr. Popcak’s book, God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy! along with other titles such as How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. And if you need professional help managing your anger, reach out to a Catholic counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

Five Ways Happy Couples Fight Differently

Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships; even the happiest of couples experience it sooner or later.

But surprisingly, research shows that happily married couples “fight” differently than others. While many couples fall into an adversarial, combative mindset, happy couples tend to take more of a team approach. Their priority isn’t winning the argument. Instead, it’s solving the problem in a way that respects their spouse and strengthens their marriage.

Just as great sports teams support one another even in tough situations, couples with a team mindset go out of their way to make sure that their spouse feels loved and cared for. In fact, research finds that happily married couples have five positive interactions for every negative interaction—even during conflicts.

What does this look like in practice? In his book How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love, Dr. Greg Popcak describes some of the strategies couples can use to navigate conflicts in a more loving, caring way. Here are five to try the next time you find things heating up between you and your spouse (or other conversation partner).

 

1. Give a Heads Up Before Difficult Conversations

If you know you need to tackle a tough conversation, try scheduling the conversation with your partner for a later time—and do it in a way that sets the tone for a cooperative, problem-focused conversation. For example: “Hey, I feel like we need to talk about (topic). Could we make some time to do that tonight? I know this isn’t a conversation either of us really enjoys, but let’s think about how we want to handle it between now and then. I’m interested in hearing your ideas.”

 

2. Turn to God for Help

Christian couples have an extra resource to help them manage conflict: the power of prayer. Praying before, during, and after a hard conversation grounds your relationship in the larger reality of God’s love for both of you, opening you to receive God’s help.

You can maximize the power of prayer by praying together, out loud: “Lord, you know how difficult this conversation is for us. Give us the grace to be both loving and truthful with one another, and help us be open to your will for us. Amen.”

 

3. Complain, but Don’t Criticize

At a minimum, couples who take a teamwork approach to conflict focus on solving the problem, not attacking one another. It’s all right to complain. But when that complaint becomes a personal criticism—when you name your partner as the problem—you’re headed for a contentious, unproductive argument.

Here’s a personal criticism: “You obviously have no money management skills; I can’t trust you with a debit card.” And here’s the same issue framed as a complaint: “When you go over the budget we agreed on, it makes me feel frustrated and anxious.” The first statement locates the problem in the partner; the second states two facts (the state of the budget and your feelings about it) that pose a problem to be solved.

 

4. Offering Encouragement and Affirmation

High-functioning teams offer one another words and gestures of support even when they’re in a tough spot. The same goes for happy couples during hard conversations.

You can reaffirm your bond and create a supportive atmosphere with a simple gesture—reaching out to hold your spouse’s hand, for instance, or offering them a tissue or glass of water. A few well-chosen words of affirmation can work magic, too: “Hey, it’s going to be okay. We’ve gotten through worse.”

 

5. Take Mini-Breaks When Things Get Too Hot

Another way couples can care for one another when a conflict starts getting too contentious is to take a short break. The point of the break isn’t to avoid the situation; rather, it’s to give yourselves a chance to calm down and refocus the conversation.

During your mini-break (five or ten minutes may be enough), work on empathizing with your partner and his or her position (even if you don’t agree with it). Then, ask yourself what you can do to shift the conversation to a more solution-focused mindset.

 

For couples who handle conflict in this way, it doesn’t drive them apart—instead, it results in a stronger, happier relationship. And that makes sense: After all, what better testament to true love is there than caring for your partner even when they’re driving you a little crazy?

You can learn much more about this topic in the “Caretaking in Conflict” chapter of Dr. Popcak’s book, How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love. And if you could use some professional help with your marriage or other relationships, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

How Anger Can Be Effective

Guest post by Dr. Mark Kolodziej, Pastoral Counselor with CatholicCounselors.com.

“Anger is not the issue, anger management is what is important!”

 

Anger is a natural progression of unmet needs. It would be easy to assume that once an individual’s needs have been met, the anger would go away, however this is not always true. When we have unmet needs we learn certain behaviors that become knee jerk reactions, these become habits. These conditioned responses persist even when there is no need. Similar to a law that has been developed because there is a need for the law. When the need disappears, the law often persists for long periods of time, sometimes centuries.

First we must identify what our needs are, then we must develop strategies to meet our needs, and finally we must use effective tools to be able to deal with our inappropriate anger response that persists even after the need has been met.

It is important to note that anger, when used appropriately, is a very effective and necessary tool for us to navigate the world. Knowing how and when to use emotions makes us more effective at life and in making a difference in people’s lives. Learning how to use the graces that God gives us helps us to bring our souls back to God and others who are in our lives. 

I have developed a program–Refrain-Freedom From Anger–that helps participants meet their needs and effectively manage anger in a healthy and grace filled way.

A new Refrain course is starting soon! Learn more about Refrain and my work as a Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselor.com

 

Dr. Mark Kolodziej, Pastoral Counselor, CatholicCounselors.com.

Baby Steps – Guest Post by Judi Phillips, Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com

Guest Post by Judi Phillips, Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com

Often, in the course of my daily professional work, I find that clients are so focused on the ‘big picture,’ that they can become easily overwhelmed, frozen, and find themselves struggling to do anything at all. This often leads to internal self-talk that further sabotages their efforts at moving forward. Statements such as, “This is all too much,” “I always end up like this,” “I don’t know where to begin,” “How am I ever going to get any of this done,” along with any other similar form of self talk that is indicative of believing one’s self to be powerless.

We have a tendency, in our humanity, to doubt that we can accomplish what needs to be accomplished. We focus on ‘all there is to do,’ and we lose sight of the fact that there is always something we can do. However, we won’t be able to do a small thing if we are focusing on everything or if we are focusing only on the big picture. We need to break down, whatever it is that we are facing, into smaller segments, smaller ‘bites’ so to speak. I often say to my clients, “Does a person get from the base of Mt. Everest in a giant step? No! It’s one small step and then the next, and the next…” This is the very way that we need to address any problem we may face in daily life.

To compound this challenge, there is a rampant belief system in our culture, the “all or nothing” belief of I either have to do ‘all of it the right way and perfectly,’ or I ‘can’t do anything.’ This often leads to the continuous cycle of starting and expecting perfection, which is unrealistic, or stopping and not doing anything.

God created us to have the ability to be empowered. We know this because of the way our brain is created. There is a part of our brain dedicated to being aware of and processing emotions and a part of our brain dedicated to logic, reasoning, and cognitive processing. Using both parts of our brain, we can determine a way forward, which is God’s desire for us, to know that we have the potential to always take a step forward. Essentially, we are empowered in the ways God intends when we operate from the place that ‘there is always something I can do’ no matter how small it might be. 

So, the next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or frozen, remember…”There is always something I can do!” Then ask yourself, “What is one small step I can take to begin helping myself to address this issue?” You’ll find it is a small thing that has a HUGE payoff!

If you would like more support on this topic or another area of your life, schedule an appointment with Judi Phillips (or any of our Pastoral Counselors) at CatholicCounselors.com!

Stop Attacking Me!—How To Deal with Conflict Effectively and Gracefully

There is often confusion with how we can speak up for ourselves, set healthy boundaries, or respond effectively to antagonistic people from a Christian perspective.

The Theology of The Body (TOB) reminds us that every person has dignity and deserves to be treated with love–including the people who we experience as antagonistic and unsupportive.  However, TOB also reminds us that loving people doesn’t mean letting them treat us however they want. Loving someone means working for their good. We aren’t working for another person’s good if we allow them to demean themselves by behaving in a cruel, abusive, disrespectful, antagonistic, or unkind manner. We can’t just do whatever comes naturally–whether that means avoiding conflict or enflaming it. Instead, when we feel attacked, we have to ask God to help us make a response that serves the ultimate good of everyone involved.

Jesus modeled two ways of confronting abusive behavior. Sometimes, when he was clear about the greater good being served–for instance, the salvation of humankind–he patiently bore the wrongs committed against him. But other times, when the greater good required it–for instance, when the pharisees intentionally tried to twist his meanings, confuse his message, or undermine his mission–he confronted them. Like Our Lord, we must always respond to antagonistic people with the greater good in mind. Rather than simply reacting, we must bring our emotions to God and ask him to teach us how to respond in a manner that will glorify him, help us be our best selves, and lovingly challenge the antagonistic person to be better. Sometimes that will require us to give them the space they need to self-correct, and other times it will mean being more direct. With prayer and practice, we can learn to deal gracefully with even the most antagonistic, unsupportive people.

Here are a few ways to respond to conflict gracefully and effectively:

Know Your Worth—In order for us to handle heated moments gracefully, its helpful for us to know our worth and respect ourselves (and the other person) enough to present ourselves calmly, firmly, and virtuously. Allowing ourselves to lose our cool, or give our power away by reacting based on the other person’s reactions, does not help us to act in accordance with our dignity as a person. Allow yourself to say, “I respect myself, and you, too much to allow this conversation to continue disrespectfully.” If you are able to have the conversation respectfully in that moment, it’s okay to continue, but if you or the other person are not able to be respectful at that time, it’s okay—and encouraged—to come back to the conversation at a later time when both parties have had time to cool down. 

Focus On Caretaking—When conflict flares, taking care of ourselves and the other person is usually the first thing that goes. Conversations go much more effectively when we focus on taking care of ourselves and our partner. For ourselves that can look like being attentive to how we feel physically—knowing when our muscles tense up and working to stretch and release those muscles, or taking deep breaths when our heart or respiratory rate starts to increase. Taking care of ourselves can mean knowing when we need to pause before we respond or when we need to take a break, step outside, get a drink of water or a snack to help engage our parasympathetic nervous system. Taking care of our partner can involve small acts such as, “I’m getting myself some water, can I get you some?” Sitting next to them and making eye contact to help engage in active listening, or saying something like, “I want to work through this with you, how can I take care of you during this conversation so you know I am working to be your partner through this?” Taking care of one another throughout a conversation can also mean taking pauses together and saying, “I’m starting to feel ____ (frustrated, defensive, angry, etc.) and I don’t want to feel that way. How can we take care of each other better in this moment?” 

Control Your Boundaries—Often we say something to another person in order to set a boundary with them and then we expect them respect and uphold that boundary. However, while it is appreciated when someone upholds our boundaries, it is actually our job to maintain the boundaries we set. 

 

For more on working through conflict, check out:

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People 

Get Personalized Support with Our Pastoral Counseling Services

 

Can You Hear Me Now? Cultivating Greater Understanding in Communication

“Where did you get that idea from?!” Sound familiar? Often we feel like we go in circles with our conversations or we try to explain ourselves in a million different ways and the other person still doesn’t get the point. 

Theology of The Body reminds us that the primary work of building the Kingdom of God involves building real communities of love between us and the people that share our life. Seeking to understand another person–especially when it’s difficult–is what allows communication to become communion. Really listening to each other is hard, but if loving another person means helping them become everything God created them to be, then we need to take the time to really listen to each other so that we know what each person needs to grow and flourish.

The more difficult a conversation is and the more important we feel it is to get our point across, the more important it is to listen to the other person’s needs, their concerns, their perception of what we’re saying, and the reasons they are having a hard time hearing us. Of course, all of this requires us to grow in virtue, such as self-control, respect, compassion, and love. That’s why cultivating a spirit of understanding isn’t just good for our relationships, it is a spiritual exercise that allows us to love each other as we love ourselves.

1.  Say Less–The biggest mistake we make in trying to communicate with another person is that we say too much. This is especially true when we aren’t getting the response we were expecting from another person. We tend to think that if we just explain ourselves again, or offer more examples, or say it one more time, they’ll finally get where we’re coming from. In fact, in these situations, it’s better to say less. Instead of throwing more words at the other person in the hopes of being clearer, ask this simple question, “Can you tell me what you’re hearing me say?”  Asking the other person to tell you what they are hearing you say will quickly clarify any confusion and help you and the other person get on the same page. People tend to run the things they hear through their own internal filters that end up distorting or confusing what we say.  Don’t assume that your words are sinking in. Ask them to tell you what is coming across so that you can make sure that the message you are trying to send is the message that’s being received.

2.  Make a Plan–Sometimes we think that if we’ve complained about something or vented our feelings about something that we’ve done a good job letting another person what we need.  Complaining and venting is sometimes necessary to help us sort out all the noise in our heads, but it does nothing to solve a problem.  Remember, the point of most important conversations should be figuring out what to do about a particular situation.  Make sure you don’t leave a discussion until you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to do about the problem you’ve been discussing, who is going to do it, and when you’ll be getting back together to discuss what else might need to be done.  If you do end a conversation after you’re done venting  or complaining, you should assume that the problem will come back because you haven’t done anything to actually solve the problem. Complaining isn’t problem-solving. If something is worth talking about, it’s worth taking the time to make an actual plan for solving it. Don’t end a conversation until you know what you’re going to do differently moving forward, who is going to be responsible for what, and when you’re going to check back in to see how things are going.

3.  Make Them A Partner–When you feel like another person is having a hard time hearing what you are saying, or doesn’t really want to listen, see if you can make them a partner and get them to buy-in by proposing their own solutions. Tell them, “Look, I’m just trying to do X.  Obviously, you’re not crazy about the ideas I’m suggesting to make X happen. What ideas do you have for making X happen?” Don’t let the other person avoid addressing your actual need. If they propose something that falls short, acknowledge what’s good about their idea, but then explain why it doesn’t completely fit the bill. Then ask them again for an idea that actually would address the actual concern you’ve stated.  If the conversation gets stuck or bogged down at this point, or if they keep trying to convince you that your concern is silly or not worth addressing, that’s a good indication that you probably need to get other people involved to help you solve the problem effectively. Invite another family member, a mentor, or a professional counselor to help you break through the impasse and develop solutions that will work for all concerned. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others to get the help you need to create deeper connection and understanding.

Would you like more support in being heard or cultivating understanding in communication?

Check out these resources: 

Pastoral Tele-Counseling

How To Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love

Having Meaningful (Sometimes Difficult) Conversations With Your Adult Sons & Daughters

 

Learning From Jesus’ Example–How To Deal With The Antagonistic People In Your Life

During this Holy Week, we are reminded of the ways that Jesus confronted and responded to those who antagonized him. We can use His example to help us effectively respond to the antagonistic people in our life, but that may look different than you would expect. 

Theology Of The Body (TOB) reminds us that every person has dignity and deserves to be treated with love–including the people who we experience as antagonistic and unsupportive. But TOB also reminds us that loving people doesn’t mean letting them treat us however they want. Loving someone means working for their good. We aren’t working for another person’s good if we allow them to demean themselves by behaving in a cruel, abusive, disrespectful, antagonistic, or unkind manner. We can’t just do whatever comes naturally–whether that means avoiding conflict or enflaming it. Instead, when we feel attacked, we have to ask God to help us make a response that serves the ultimate good of everyone involved.

Jesus modeled two ways of confronting abusive behavior. Sometimes, when he was clear about the greater good being served–for instance, the salvation of humankind–he patiently bore the wrongs committed against him. But other times, when the greater good required it,–for instance, when the Pharisees intentionally tried to twist his meanings, confuse his message, or undermine his mission–he confronted them. Like Our Lord, we must always respond to antagonistic people with the greater good in mind. Rather than simply reacting, we must bring our emotions to God and ask him to teach us how to respond in a manner that will glorify him, help us be our best selves, and lovingly challenge the antagonistic person to be better. Sometimes that will require us to give them the space they need to self-correct, and other times it will mean being more direct.  With prayer and practice, we can learn to deal gracefully with even the most antagonistic, unsupportive people.

Let’s look at a few practical steps to deal with the antagonistic people in our lives:

1. Take a Step Back--TOB reminds us that, in all things, we are obliged to be loving; that is, to work for the other’s good. But that means different things in different situations. Sometimes, when a person is really working hard to be kind and loving, but they have a momentary lapse, the most loving thing we can do is bear that wrong patiently–to make it safe to make a mistake and self-correct. Other times, when a person is habitually behaving in a manner that undermines their dignity or ours, the most loving thing to do is to admonish them–to set limits that address their offensive behavior. But we can’t always immediately know the right thing to do. That’s why it’s our job to cultivate receptivity. That is, at all times, it’s our job as Christians to step back from the situation we’re in and ask, “What choice does God want me to make that will see to both my wellbeing and the wellbeing of this other person?” The better we can be at asking this question in the moment and responding accordingly, the better we will be at cooperating with God’s grace and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us through difficult relationship situations.

2.  Hold Up A Mirror–People are often unaware of how they are coming across. We might experience someone as antagonistic, or selfish, or hostile, but they might see themselves in an entirely different light. Instead of just reacting out of our perception of a person, we have to first hold up a mirror so they can see how they are coming across. Before you react, say something like this, “Listen, there’s just something about the way you’re coming across that feels really X (hurtful, antagonistic, unsupportive, etc).  Is that what you’re trying to do or am I missing something?” Saying this allows the other person a glimpse of how they are coming across so they can either clarify or change their approach. Doing this is one way we can “bear wrongs patiently” without reducing ourselves to a doormat.

3. Reassess the Relationship–If a person who is close to us persists in being hurtful or offensive, despite our efforts to address the situation charitably, it may be time to reassess the relationship. Ask yourself, “In what situations, or what contexts do I feel safe with this person?” Then limit your relationship accordingly. For instance, what level of service can you continue providing without feeling like you are being treated as an object? Scale back your service to that level. Or, in what contexts does this person tend to behave themselves? (When they’re in public?  When they are on the phone? For an hour or two but not 10?) Restrict the relationship to those contexts where they can handle themselves in a manner that doesn’t undermine their dignity or yours. This way, you aren’t cutting them out of your life–unless there is simply no safe way to be around them–but you are working for your mutual good even though you are having to set a limit. If they complain about the boundary you’ve imposed, simply tell them that you would be happy to remove the boundary as soon as they are willing to take the concerns you’ve expressed to them seriously and change their behavior. What happens next is up to them (whether you maintain the boundaries, or you feel safe to adjust the boundaries). God does not ask us to make relationships work all on our own regardless of how the other person treats us. He merely asks us to be charitable in all we do and make sure that whatever we do is done prayerfully, and with the intention to work for the overall good of the other person, our relationship with them, and ourselves.

If you would like more support dealing with the antagonistic or difficult people in our life, contact us at CatholicCounselors.com.