I could tell I touched a nerve in my recent Marriage Memo on “How Do You Change a Bad Attitude?”. When I asked for input from readers, quite a few began by admitting 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, “I just wanted to let you know that this memo hit home for me today! I was just thinking this morning how I need to apologize to both of my sons for being in a sour, bad mood this entire weekend.”
My problem has not been recognizing that I’m in a sour mood. Instead, the issue is what to do about it. One reader’s comment echoed my experience: “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.”
In my earlier article I described my poor attitude when we lost electricity for five nights over the holiday break. Reading your e-mails and comments, I saw how silly my attitude truly was. 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.”
In my initial Marriage Memo I asked for ideas and advice on how to deal with a bad attitude. I appreciate your responses and how they 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 One: 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.”
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 Two: 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 Three: 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.
Begin counting your blessings to put you into an attitude of gratitude. It’s a mental decision, a choice that one has to make. … There are times when I have a bad attitude about something regarding my husband, but when I remember the blessing that he has been to me, the deeper things that he puts up with from me, the unconditional love that he has shown me since before we married, etc., it begins to deflate my “feel-sorry”/bad attitude.
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 Four: Get your mind off yourself by finding a way to serve or help someone else. This forces you to get your mind off yourself and your circumstances, and focus on someone else instead. 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.