In my neighborhood here in Little Rock, huge piles of tree branches remained piled in front of many homes halfway through the month of January.  It was the aftermath of a winter storm that swept through central Arkansas on Christmas Day—freezing rain and then a foot of snow.

It was a white Christmas, but not the type you dream about.  It’s difficult to enjoy the snow when falling trees and snapping limbs take out the power in over half the county. In our case, the outage lasted five nights.

If you have ever faced a similar situation, you understand what a shock it is to realize how much you depend on electricity. Your normal lifestyle is disrupted when you lose it—especially in cold weather. We have a generator, but that only gave us power for a refrigerator, a space heater, cell phones, and a few small appliances. Our house grew colder and more depressing with each passing day.

Once our power returned, I was left with two major questions:

How did our ancestors make it without electricity and central heating or air conditioning? I feel spoiled by my modern comforts and conveniences. I can’t imagine the hardships faced by rural families trying to make it through a winter in Wisconsin or Nebraska—or a summer in Arkansas. Yet those days were not so long ago—many of our grandparents or parents who grew up on farms didn’t receive electricity until the 1930s and 1940s.

How do I get rid of a bad attitude? This was my biggest struggle. After the second night without power, thoughts began running through my head:

This house is making me depressed—it’s so dark and cold.

Other people are getting their power back on … why is it taking them so long to fix ours?

I was looking forward to my time off between Christmas and New Year’s, and now I don’t get to relax at all. My whole life is focused on staying warm. Why did this have to happen to me?

I felt like I had a constant pressure weighing me down. At times I was irritable, sour, and moody.

I knew I had a bad attitude, but I couldn’t break out of it.

I think this is one of those nitty-gritty issues of life. And it’s a critical issue in a marriage and family; when you’ve got a sour attitude, it creates a black hole that threatens to suck in every other person in the home. Sometimes the bad attitude will focus on your circumstances, sometimes on your perception of another person, sometimes on problems in the world at large. I’ll bet each of you can recall situations where you’ve created that black hole—or where you’ve been affected by the sour attitude of a spouse, child, or parent.

So I return to my question: When you’ve got a bad attitude about your circumstances, or another person, or about anything at all, how do you deal with it? How do you get out of the rut?

The readers respond

When I first wrote on this topic for the Marriage Memo e-newsletter, I asked for feedback from readers, knowing you like weighing in on issues like this.  And from your responses I could tell that I touched a nerve.

Quite a few readers admitted to the same problem. “I have found myself in the position you describe far more times that I like to admit,” one wrote. Another said, “It’s as if once the bad attitude has settled within me, I can’t get over it. I recognize it. I know it’s not godly. I know my family is suffering because of it. But I can’t shake it.”

Reading your e-mails and comments, I saw how silly my poor attitude was over something so trivial. How can losing power compare with the difficulties of long-term care for parents, or with a husband who tells you he’s leaving after 19 years of marriage and nine children? One reader said he had just lost his wife of 23 years in early December. “For the four kids aged 22-15 and me it was a pretty somber holiday season.”

This underscores the first common theme I saw in your e-mails. Often a key step in battling a sour attitude is reorienting your perspective. “The way I deal with a bad attitude toward a situation or person is to look around and see what is right, not waddle in self-pity,” one reader shared. “After the school shootings in Connecticut right before Christmas, my father-in-law dying the day after Christmas, and a friend who is 5 about to die any day, I look at my life and I am humbled and grateful that God has still allowed my husband and me, along with our children and grandchildren, to still have our health.”

The reader responses on this topic reminded me of some basic, biblical truths. If I could reduce all the responses down to four primary steps for changing a sour attitude, they would be:

Step 1: Recognize the bad attitude for what it really is, and repent. What we call “bad attitude” is usually pride, anger, or selfishness in disguise. We want to be in control, and we are not. As one reader wrote, “The tendency is to be selfish and focus almost obsessively on these circumstances and details. We have no control over this and, to me, the sour attitude has to do with taking back control from God.”

Another said:

I find the quickest way to get back on track is repenting. Usually by the time I discern I have a bad attitude I have already said or done something to offend a member of my family. I gather my family to the table or if in the car while driving (this can happen too often) I say these exact words: “I’m sorry for acting poorly by yelling, not acting nice, or lashing out. I was wrong for having this behavior; would you please forgive me?”

Step 2: Turn your thoughts toward God. A bad attitude is like getting stuck in a rut in the road. You’ve got to take active steps to stop what you’re doing and pull yourself out. Readers mentioned reading Scripture to remind themselves that God is sovereign and in control; praying and thanking God for the situation; singing songs and hymns of praise; taking a hike and enjoying God’s creation. “A little over a year ago I was struggling with negative thoughts and I decided I was not going to be defeated by those thoughts that day. … Every time a negative thought entered my mind I thought of a verse to quote or a song to sing. … By the end of the day I had a wonderful feeling of victory.”

Step 3: Make a list of your blessings and thank God for them. I could have included this as one of the “active steps” that readers mentioned to turn their thoughts toward God. But I’m highlighting it separately because it was the most frequent piece of advice from readers:

Just like the old hymn says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” No matter what situation I find myself in, there are always so many things to be thankful for, and it’s important to be specific. I always begin with thanking God for sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to be my Savior. Then I continue to thank Him for the family and friends He has given me, and so on. It is difficult to stay irritable when you are thanking the Lord for all He has done.

This discipline is a direct application of Philippians 4:8, which tells us, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Step 4: Get your mind off yourself by finding a way to serve or help someone else. One reader said, “I change my mood by doing something generous for someone else. It doesn’t have to be financial. Acting kindly toward another person to bless them changes my whole outlook very quickly!”

Readers also mentioned pursuing hobbies or other things you enjoy … doing something physical … taking a nap … and talking out the situation with a friend who can offer a fresh perspective. All of these actions help us refocus.

One comment from a reader has stuck with me because I think it summarizes this issue well:

Something I have learned is that attitude is made up of what we feel, what we think, and what we do. We tend to focus on trying to change the feelings, but this is not the place to begin. We need to change what we think and do first. These are what affect our feelings.

This describes me perfectly. When I find myself stuck in a sour mood, I won’t shake it by focusing on my feelings—in fact, that only leads to discouragement. Instead, I need to become proactive in changing what I think and what I do. The steps listed above are a good start.

Another question I asked in my original Marriage Memo was, “How have you addressed a bad attitude in your spouse?” I received some good responses to that question as well, and I’ll use those in a future article. Meanwhile, here’s another question on that same topic: How has your spouse helped you change a bad attitude? If you have any thoughts on that, please leave a comment below.