Thursday, May 15, 2014

My Problem With Anger

        It’s been nearly two years since I stepped away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith I have loved passionately my entire life. About a year ago, after a lengthy conversation about this with a close friend, my friend gently urged me to consider who I was becoming in this process and observed that I had revealed some unresolved anger. When he said this, my heart sank. I felt aware both of his loving concern and my own desire to avoid becoming a bitter person, as well as my own concern that my friends would write me off as “angry” and not actually hear me. 

In the grand scheme of things, I have found that speaking my truth and then letting go is  healthier than trying to force somebody to understand something they haven’t experienced. But this issue of anger(and negative emotions in general) has been a consistent point of interest for me as I’ve grown into my new self and seen others of my friends who have “fallen away” interacting with active Mormons. Looking back I can see how Mormonism shaped my ideas about negative emotions and how I responded to those emotions in unhealthy ways, which largely contributed to my depression and anxiety. I write about this, not to condemn Mormonism per se, but in an effort to point out something that might help others, as well as myself, be a little more healthy in how we think about our emotions, especially anger.

My approach to anger in my younger years was heavily influenced by several scriptures and teachings of the Church. The first verse that comes to mind is 3 Nephi 11:29:  

“For verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another;”      

Of course, there is wisdom in avoiding a “spirit of contention”.  To me, this implies somebody who is just looking for a fight, or somebody who stands to benefit selfishly by distracting people with anger and in-fighting. And that is an interpretation I can stand by and agree with; but is that how we apply it? Another verse may provide a little more nuanced insight to some problem-areas in our beliefs about anger. Matthew 5:21-22: 

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…” 

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount has to be one of the most beautiful sermons ever given in history, and I can’t count how many times we read this verse in Sunday School and Seminary. Again, I stand by these verses as true and insightful. But what I find most telling about Mormonism’s problem with anger is the Joseph Smith translation of this verse. For those who are unfamiliar, Joseph Smith acknowledged the problem of the Bible containing mistakes due to its ancient origin and having passed through so many translations, so in order to correct these mistakes he went through and changed small portions of the text, using revelation to “re-translate”.  He changed the words in Matthew 5:22 to read, “whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment…”, omitting the words, “without a cause”.  I believe this to be the most telling tweak in terms of how we, as cultural/doctrinal Mormons, handle our emotions. 

On the one hand, I see value in the distinction in that anger is something we need to be able to manage, regardless of our reasons for being angry. The reason for our anger may not leave and we can’t always wait around for an apology. We have to deal with that anger and move on.  However, that’s not exactly what the Joseph Smith version of that verse actually says. It actually says that God commands us to never be angry. Hmm…how has that gone for you guys? It hasn’t really worked for me. And believe me, I’ve been trying (and praying for help) my whole life.  

The first time a therapist told me that anger was a perfectly normal, healthy response in life, I just sat in silence for a while, both stunned by the obviousness of it and feeling like I could breathe for the first time. Negative emotions can be so unpleasant, and adding on top of that the belief that they are of the devil puts a lot of pressure on a person. One thing we have to start understanding is that the most powerful glue that binds us to our negative emotions (and bad habits in general) is shame. I’ve seen first hand that feeling guilty about being angry only leads me to fixate on it in an attempt to blot it out. Even when I tried to let go of it, my viewing anger as an evil thing made me afraid of it, which led me to hide it from myself and others, rather than actually negotiating with it, understanding it and working through it. Expressing anger in a healthy way is key to working through it. If we approach anger as a normal emotion requiring sensitivity, rather than Satan’s influence, it’s easier to own it and take responsibility for it. If we’re afraid of anger, we might be more likely to take the passive route of blaming someone else by saying things like, “You always…” or “You never…”. When we own it, we say things like, “I get so angry when….” It’s also helpful to find other healthy responses to the anger that give us the freedom to express it while being less hurtful to others. A physical action like going running or punching a pillow(as cheesy as this sounds) can also be helpful.

One of the reasons unhealthy responses to negative emotions can be such an issue in the Church is that there is a constant reminder that righteousness=happiness and wickedness=misery. The gospel is intended to be a guide for how to live a happy life and be a good person, but teaching it in this rigid, one-size-fits-all way sometimes naturally leads us to morally judge ourselves and others based on whether we are exhibiting positive emotions or negative emotions. This is an automatic recipe for shame, fear and self-loathing when we are inevitably confronted with negative emotions in our daily lives. And that shame can cause us to fixate on the negativity, solidifying the anger rather than resolving it, as well as causing anxiety about our own worthiness. 

While this isn’t something that everyone experiences within Mormonism, it’s an experience that I’ve heard many describe and it’s one of the reasons I personally had to step away. Since then I have noticed how this shame extends beyond how we treat ourselves into how we treat each other. Often when someone expresses something about Utah, or about the Church that has been very damaging to them, the stand-by response by those who feel defensive is to point out that the person is angry, thereby delegitimizing whatever it is that they have just expressed. Within this logic, since anger=evil/the devil, the conclusion that anything someone says when they’re angry can’t be trusted. In reality this argument is a manipulation to get the upper hand, whether it’s done consciously or not. 

It is important to allow people(especially loved ones) the freedom to express their anger in honest, healthy ways. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes when I hear certain teachings over the pulpit that have specifically led me down painful and damaging paths, I feel angry that those ways of thinking are still being perpetuated. But I also recognize that some people find those teachings truly uplifting and helpful in their lives. The fact is, different people are affected by things differently and there’s nothing we can do about it! That’s the challenge of co-existing with people who are different from ourselves. 

If someone expresses anger it doesn’t mean they’re saying you have to feel the same way. Their anger doesn’t mean they are deceived by the devil, and it doesn’t mean that you have nothing to learn from them. It means that something is hard for them and they need to let it out and move on.  Telling someone they are wrong because they are angry is a lazy and uncharitable way of shutting them down rather than actually taking the time to listen to what they are saying. If you are in a situation where you don’t feel you can be the one to support this person at this time, take ownership of that and be honest. (That’s ok) Maybe you are feeling too fragile, or your feelings are hurt by their anger and they should be talking with someone else about their anger. Own up to that and kindly be honest. But also keep in mind that ideally we “hope to be able to endure all things” and that if someone asks us to go a mile with them, we should go two. (13th Article of Faith; Matt 5:41) 

A year ago when I was talking with my friend and he encouraged me to think carefully about who I was becoming, I took that to heart. He was sincere. He didn’t shut me down. I knew he couldn’t fully understand my feelings, but he listened to me. And he was right. I had unresolved anger. Since then I have been working hard to make peace with my anger and acknowledge that although it is painful, it is also really normal and valid. In doing this, I’ve found it easier manage my negative emotions, rather than letting them control me.


  1. I love this. I am realizing that you have to honor your feelings by feeling them. All feelings need to be felt, not ignored. Then you release them. It is the only way to really respect yourself.

  2. <3 <3 I've felt like this for a long time, and it's part of my personal struggle to reconcile my faith with what the members often preach as doctrine. I totally agree that what's said in the scriptures is beautiful and true, and I also completely agree that people misuse and even deliberately misinterpret what they say to justify and validate their own opinions and condemnation of others, which goes pretty much exactly contrary to what the true message and mission of the church are really about. [hopefully that came out right, it made perfect sense in my head...] Either way, thank you so much for writing this. Helps me to feel better that i'm not the only one who's struggled with feelings of frustration with the Church and its members/"member-generated doctrine."

  3. Thank you for sharing. As a therapist I feel this way...people need to be listened to and allowed to express themselves without fear of judgement. This happens to all people, members or not. Thank you for sharing, and having the courage to be truthful. It is unfortunate that so many members of the LDS faith are living by "principles" that they interpret as truth rather than living the Gospel and truly following Jesus Christ. Thank you again, thank you for expressing your true feelings with courage, strength, and beauty. I am grateful for you Maggie.

  4. I read this the other day in the passenger seat of the car. I am always blown away by your clarity in saying the things I think of so often. Thank you for your words, for sharing, for being bold and brave. I've been writing in my journal much lately and I have spilled some thoughts on this there. Hopefully I can collect them enough and write a response/back up on my own blog sometime soon. All my love, Dear. I have been understanding my own anger more and more these past few years since leaving the LDS faith (and all faiths). My thoughts are still too jumbled to write here (I just tried) but yours have touched me. Thank you.

  5. I have a few issues with your post. My apologies for the comment length…

    1) Your interpretation of the LDS view on “anger” is misleading. The JST of Matthew’s verse doesn’t “command” us not be angry. It simply says that those who are angry with their brother will be in “danger of judgment”. The word “danger” is important here. Just as walking near the edge of a cliff is “dangerous”, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to fall off. Likewise, if anger leads us to committing actions that are sinful (such as physical abuse), we are certainly in danger of judgment. On the other hand, we would not be human if we didn’t have occasional feelings of anger over the perceived injustices of life. For example, someone may become angry if someone were to bash your car with a shopping cart and take off without leaving a note. It’s in the way we express our anger that is important. Are we angry out of disappointment that someone would just ding your car and run, leaving a huge dent/scratch on the paint of your car? Are you angry because you know it’s going to cost you $500 to repair, money that you may not have? In this case, the person will eventually cool off and move on with life. Or are we so angry that if we found out who it was, we’d not only key their car in retribution, but also punch them in the nose? Does your heart start racing every time you see that ding on your car, just wishing you could find out who it was so you could invoke revenge? One form of anger is natural, healthy, and the expression of which leads to eventual healing, and I’ve never heard the LDS church teach that the expression of this frustration is a “sin”. The other is contentious, vengeful, and an “eye for an eye” mentality, which is not conducive to Christ’s teachings and would certainly lead to judgment. The Church certainly teaches to avoid such behavior.

    2) I also believe this verse in Matthew is in reference to selfish anger, meaning an unwillingness to even consider another’s point of view or be willing to grant forgiveness. Was Jesus not angry with the moneychangers at the temple? The difference is that his anger was pure and just against those blatantly sinning against God. I’m sure if one of those moneychangers were to ask forgiveness of Christ, he would have been just as quick to forgive and love them. To insinuate that the LDS church has taken a hard stance that showing any emotion of anger/frustration is breaking a commandment would lead us to believe that Christ was sinning for expressing emotion and anger in the Temple.

    3) You are also missing the point of 3 Nep 11:29. This verse is talking about “contention”, not anger. Fighting and constant bickering is certainly not a Christlike attribute. There is a difference between “contention” and “anger”. You do address the difference, but I don’t see how this scripture ever dissuaded you of expressing any type of anger.

  6. 4) I also take issue with your argument on wickedness, misery, happiness, and shame. Misery in the scriptural sense typically refers to those who are not keeping the commandments of God. Arguing that living a life of sin can lead to happiness would be a difficult argument to defend for a Christian of any faith. After recognizing that one has sinned, it is natural to feel shame and guilt, which can lead to negative thoughts about one ’s self-worth. You argue that “fixating on the negativity” solidifies anger, which leads to more feelings of unworthiness, shame, and anger. The element you’ve completed omitted is Christ’s Atonement. He suffered for us so that we can thrust those feelings of guilt, shame and anger upon him. To think that we can simply work out the feelings of guilt, shame, and negativity by openly expressing emotions of “anger” would simply omit Christ from the whole process. This would mean that we’re leaning on the flesh to take care of and deal with our emotions, rather than relying on arm of Christ. One of the main purposes of prayer is to be able to express these feelings of anger to a perfectly understanding Heavenly Father, and ask that his Son’s Atonement help us overcome these feelings and emotions. I believe many within the LDS faith, or any Christian faith at that, express their anger through prayer rather than through throwing objects, harsh language, or emotional outward expressions.

    5) In reference to your argument on delegitimizing someone’s point of view because they’re “angry”, it is dangerous to make blanket statements. It appears that you have had personal experiences that have led to these feelings, given your examples regarding reactions to your opinions of Utah and the LDS Church. It is probably in the way that you express those opinions. Do you express them in a way that comes across as defensive or argumentative if someone were to disagree with your point of view? If this is the case, then yes, it becomes difficult to have your views taken seriously because you’re showing an unwillingness to accept that someone else’s view may be different than yours. It is difficult to listen or consider an opinion from someone who is always emotional and defensive when a differing point of view is expressed. I feel this debate is similar to those who oppose same sex marriage. For so long, the LGBT community has fought for tolerance and acceptance of their lifestyle. However, now that their movement is becoming more mainstream, they have quickly turned the tables and become intolerant to those who disagree with their lifestyle or their view on marriage. Those who oppose gay marriage are now labeled as intolerant, hateful, and bigots. Is it possible to take a position or express an opinion without being viewed as angry or hateful? I believe it is, but it’s all in how you present that opinion both verbally and meta-verbally.

  7. Again, apologies for the long comment. I fully recognize that this is your blog, and you are open to rant on whatever things that come to your mind. However, I felt the official views of the Church were being misrepresented. The Church has always taught moderation in all things. Human emotions are natural, but one of the purposes of life is to overcome those emotions or feelings of the natural man. Just because I feel anger at someone doesn’t mean I need to explode in anger at them. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel emotions, but it’s all in how we learn to control them – The process of becoming, right?

    On a final note, and I say this with absolute love in my heart - If it’s really been 2 years since you left the Church and you still feel the need to constantly vent or post articles on FB that justify your reasons for leaving the Church, does there come a point where you just move on? I can imagine that it’s been difficult given that you grew up in the Church, but constantly expressing and debating why you left becomes exhausting for everyone. I recognize that I could chose to just unfollow your Fb and your blog, but I considered you a friend when were in school together and still wish to follow your endeavors. Just a thought…

  8. I'm not sure who you are, but clearly we are friends. My intention in writing this is to express my personal experiences and observations, as well as work through my personal journey. Using social media is certainly a tricky balance that creates many delicate questions about how to honestly represent oneself online while being respectful of others. I take great care and put a lot of thought into that. The fact is, I will always talk about the Church because it will always be a part of who I am. The Church became an unhealthy place for me and I expect that for many years to come I will continue working through the good and the bad ways the Church has influenced me and made me who I am. I understand that it's hard to hear someone say things about your beliefs that don't reflect your personal way of believing. I don't intend to define your beliefs, but mine. I'm glad you have found ways to maintain consistency within your belief system and that you continue to draw strength from it. I'm moving away from things that have weakened me and moving towards the things that help me be healthy and happy. Our experiences have been and will be different, and that's ok. The Church has done so much good in my life and in the world and I will always be truthful about that. The Church has also hurt a lot of people, legitimately. I'm happy for those who have not been hurt by it, but I won't lie and pretend that it hasn't hurt me. I believe the Church has good intentions, and their teachings are well-intended and often produce positive results. But however perfect those doctrines are intended to be, they still inevitably and naturally lead to unhealthy outcomes as well. Maybe not for you, but for others. My telling my part of the story does not have any bearing on yours. As far as the social media side of things, I've decided that Facebook is where I keep in touch with the broadest array of people, and I will always try to err on the side of tact in that context. However, this is my blog and my personal space for expression. In terms of my online presence, this is my one safe place to be myself and say my truth and I don't intend to stop doing that. Whoever you are, I'd be happy to stay friends with you on Facebook and you don't need to concern yourself with reading my blog if you find it upsetting. Best wishes.

  9. Anonymous friend, since my initial response to your comments I have taken a little time to review my Facebook page to see if I should remove anything that could potentially offend or upset my faithful Mormon friends. Upon reflection, I have concluded that I have actually bent over backwards to resist saying anything that would be harmful. Justified or not, I absolutely hate hurting people's feelings- it's the worst. Well, almost. What's worse is not being allowed to have ownership my own identity and experience and being judged as someone who is just trying to "justify" her choices. I have a whole life of my own, a mind of my own, and yes, choices of my own that I'm not ashamed of, nor do I feel the need to prove their value to you. I will continue to express myself. I understand where you are coming from, I do. But you won't do me the respect of facing me friend to friend with your name attached to your words. And you are asking me to keep quiet. This is not what friends do. A person cannot be themselves unless they are allowed to be so in front of their friends. This is who I am now. If it's too difficult for you, it might be best if you unfriend me. I don't harbor any ill will toward you at all. It's just that if I'm going to make any room for myself at all to simply live and breathe and be me, people's feelings might get hurt along the way and there's nothing I can do about that.