"My parents make me mad."

"My children drive me nuts."

"My spouse makes me insane!"

We often hear comments like these, indicating that others are responsible for our feelings. This was my initial belief when my wife first complained about my anger. I told her, "Managing my emotions would be easy if others would stop pushing my buttons!"

Motorists would tailgate, and I would be angry. Simple cause and effect.

Or so I thought.

The words of Solomon forced me to rethink this notion. He wrote, "For as he thinks in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7, NKJV). This meant that circumstances did not cause my emotions, but my thoughts about my circumstances did. I had to stop blaming others for how I felt.

Controlling our emotions

First, I admitted that I have more control over my emotions than I realized. Too often, my ethnic background and gender had become a convenient excuse for my negative emotions. "I’m an Irish male! Of course I’m a hothead!"

But if a billionaire offered me money to cheer up or a TV crew threatened to broadcast my angry mood coast-to-coast, would I work on self-control? Absolutely! The fact that I would even try to control myself suggests a deep-down belief that managing my emotions is possible.

Controlling our thoughts

Second, I reminded myself that negative feelings did not hit me out of the blue. While I could not control my circumstances, I could control what I thought about my circumstances.

For example, if I expect a restaurant meal to be served in 20 minutes and I get served in 10, I am happy. But if the sign says, "Service in three minutes," and I get served in 10, then I react. My expectations determine my response.

Being aware of underlying beliefs

Third, I began to think about what I think about. This is what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5, "We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." This meant becoming aware of my underlying beliefs and expectations. Some of these were guaranteed saboteurs to well-managed emotions:

"My kids disobey me on purpose; they want to drive me crazy!"

"Life should be fair!"

"There is only one way to do things!"

"If I don’t get the respect I want, life will be terrible."

"It’s others’ responsibility to cheer me up!"

Identifying these core attitudes gave me tremendous leverage over them.

Replacing wrong thoughts

Fourth, I learned to replace wrong thoughts. Instead of assuming that a tailgating motorist was intentionally irritating me, I would come up with three or four plausible explanations:

"He’s racing to the hospital with an expectant mother."

"He’s a new motorist unaccustomed to highway driving."

"God is using him to teach me patience."

In many situations, we may know the truth about others but ignore it. I try to replace unverified assumptions with truth.

"My child isn’t being irresponsible. She’s just tired (or hungry, or lonely)."

"If my needs aren’t met, it isn’t the end of the world."

"I prefer that bad things not happen to me, but God won’t send more than I can handle."

"Whatever is bugging me today will probably not still bug me in 20 years or even next week."

"What will people think of me? I don’t know. But what really matters is what God thinks of me."

Angry men, fearful women and moody children who have successfully managed their emotions have told me about notable moments when they avoided assumptions:

"That kid who bumped into me in the hall may not be mean, just clumsy."

"My husband didn’t forget to call me on purpose. He just made an honest mistake."

"I’m not shocked that this bad thing happened. After all, Jesus said we’d have tribulation in this world."

"My wife didn’t interrupt me because she’s disrespectful; she was just enthusiastic."

"When I got a bad health report, I told myself that with God’s help I will handle this."

Rather than thinking themselves into anxiety, frustration or discouragement, these emotion managers controlled their feelings. They are not at the mercy of their circumstances.

Next time you’re tempted to blame others for your feelings, replace negative thoughts with God’s truth and see how your emotions follow.

Erik Johnson was a family counsellor and founder of Family Challenge Ministries at the time of publication.

© 2008 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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