“Why aren’t you listening?” I snapped at my 6-year old as her mind drifted off into la-la land for what seemed like the fifth time in 30 seconds. “You need to hear this,” I told her as I impatiently tapped my finger on her God Time Card activity which was, ironically, on SELF-CONTROL. “You need to pay attention to this because you’ve been losing control a lot lately.”
“So have you, Mom.”
Out of the mouth of babes.
Kids have an uncanny way of speaking the truth, especially when you least expect it. I’ll never forget the time I questioned my daughter about the scratches I discovered on our brand new dining room furniture. (Note to self: Do not buy nice, expensive furniture when you have small kids!) In a very matter-of-fact tone, she admitted, “I did it, Mommy. I drew on it with a fork while you were cooking dinner. I thought it would make it look prettier.”
Look prettier?! I LOST IT. I thought she should know better. I remember yelling at her and sending her up to her room for 30 minutes. She was 3 years-old at the time. Which brings me to my point…
Kids have an uncanny way of speaking the truth, oftentimes when we need to, but may not want to, hear it. As moms we tend to be overworked, overwhelmed, and over committed, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to not exhibit the same self-control that we expect our children to demonstrate. It is our responsibility n
ot only to model what self-control looks like, but to teach our children appropriate ways of expressing anger, frustration, disappointment, and other emotions that, if not dealt with appropriately, can end up hurting them and those around them.
For the next few weeks, James 1:19 became the mantra in our home:
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
It became the lock screen on my cell phone. I wrote it on an index card to carry in my purse. I even had the kids write it on a piece of paper, which we decorated and put in our kitchen where we ate our meals, did our homework, and completed our daily God Time Cards.
As a craft project, we made stoplights with the words, STOP, THINK, and ACT on the red, yellow and green circles. We talked about what it feels like when we are about to explode – how your temperature rises, your body tenses up, and you may want to yell, scream, throw, or even hit something to release your feelings. We talked about recognizing the triggers that cause us to feel that way and made a pledge to make a conscious effort to STOP before we react – to take a deep breath, walk away, or do whatever we needed to do to THINK and calm down instead of reacting. This was the yellow light – to THINK about how we could handle the situation in a way that would make God proud. What would Jesus do? How would He show self-control in this particular circumstance?
Lastly, the green light was to ACT – in an appropriate way. To follow through by doing what we SHOULD do, not what we want to do or what comes naturally.
We made up hand motions to go with each phase – a hand up for STOP, pointing to our head for THINK, and pointing forward for ACT. We gave one other permission to put our hands up (or use the sign for self-control, which I had taught them earlier when learning about the fruit of the spirit) when we or those around us were about to lose it.
This activity on self-control served as a good reminder for me too, their mom and role model. As I started using the signals and modeling how not to lose it when I was stressed or overwhelmed, they started doing the same. Eventually, the signals became personalized because what worked for one child didn’t work for another. For my older daughter who loves to read, I would sign the word “book,” which prompted her to grab a book (or one of her audio books and her headphones) and go to a quiet room to “chill out.” For my younger daughter, I got down on her level, looked her in the eye, and talked through it with her to help her brainstorm appropriate solutions. It didn’t always work as smoothly as I would have liked, but it was much more successful than my “old way” of simply telling her to calm down.
Amidst our little lesson on self-control, I pulled out the book, Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions, by Lysa TerKeurst – a great resource if you’ve never read it or, if you’re like me and have read it, but just need to let the words sink in a little deeper and really start putting her advice into practice.
Here are my biggest takeaways from TerKeurst’s book, combined with what I’ve learned from my own experiences. What I love most about these four steps is that they can be applied to any area of life. It is through mastering the art of self-control that we can improve our parenting, transform our marriage, overcome cravings and emotional eating, grow in our faith, and build our character.
STEP ONE: LET GO OF YOUR PAST MISTAKES.
Before you can begin to change, you have to let go of your past mistakes and labels you have placed upon yourself that are holding you back. Holding on to the past is like carrying around a bucket of rocks filled to the brim. Not only does it weigh us down, but just adding one more rock – especially a big one – can cause the entire bucket to overflow. When we empty out all the old rocks we free ourselves to handle each new rock as it comes and focus on that so that it doesn’t have to go in the bucket.
You can “empty your bucket” and start fresh at any moment you choose – you just have to make the decision to stop dwelling on the past and start looking at each new circumstance that arises as an opportunity to begin again and find new strength.
“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” Philippians 3:13
STEP TWO: KNOW YOURSELF.
What are the issues or circumstances that cause you to lose control? It’s important to understand yourself and what “sets you off” so you can take action to sidestep those circumstances.
1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that God is faithful and that “he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Our job is to find that way out.
Perhaps you’re most tempted to lose control when you’re trying to get out the door in the morning, when you’re sitting in front of the TV at night, or when you’re trying to prepare dinner after a long day at work.
For me, it looks something like this…
It’s dinner time and my 2-year old is throwing his fish sticks on the floor while my oldest is whining that she doesn’t want to eat her broccoli. As I am bending down to pick up the fish sticks and scolding myself at the same time for not preparing a healthier dinner for my kids, my 4 year-old yells from the bathroom that she needs me to wipe her bottom. As if the evening hadn’t already gone down the toilet, now I will literally be wiping up poop in the middle of my meal, which, by the way, is still sitting untouched on the kitchen counter. As I get hit in the head with a fish stick on my way to the bathroom, my oldest lets out a long, drawn out whine that puts me over the edge. “JUST EAT IT or you won’t get dessert for a month,” I scream! Not a day. Not even a week. Yes, an entire month.
Feeling out of control of a situation and pulled in a million different directions is my main trigger for what TerKeurst calls becoming “unglued.” What’s yours? Is it stress? Loneliness? Anxiety? Fatigue?
So, now for the second part of the equation. Once you’ve identified the circumstances where you most often lose control and make poor decisions (e.g. yelling, binge eating, loss of control over your emotions), make an action plan for how you can avoid or sidestep those situations. Can you put out the kids’ clothes the night before and wake them up earlier for school? Can you save the children’s screen time for when you are preparing dinner or make dinner earlier in the day? (I often prep dinner in the morning to avoid the pre-dinner meltdown.) Can you have the children use the bathroom before dinner so they aren’t constantly getting up during meals?
As you better get to know yourself and your triggers, be careful not to label yourself! Overreacting doesn’t make you crazy. If you were actually crazy, you wouldn’t worry about being crazy because rationale thoughts like, “Am I crazy?” would never enter your mind! When we impose labels upon ourselves we become enslaved to our own emotions and negative self-talk. We start to believe we will never change. The past can steal our present if we let it – don’t let it! Your past does not dictate your future. We can learn from our mistakes and be better because of them.
Bottom Line: Losing control and feeling like you are a mess doesn’t mean you are a mess and that you’ll never be able to get it together. It just means you need more than willpower to overcome your emotions. You need His power. Unfortunately not something you can order off of Amazon, but to find out how you can get it, read on…
STEP THREE: REDIRECT YOUR FOCUS.
This time I’m putting the “bottom line” first – We can face things that are out of our control and not act out of control simply by changing our perspective and retraining our mind to think differently (1).
We may not be able to control every situation we face, but we can control how we think about that situation. We may not be able to control what other people say and do, but we can control how we react to them. We must choose not to allow the actions and behaviors of others dictate how we think, feel, and act because to do so is to let that person take control over our feelings and our life, which is ultimately our responsibility. We determine whether our circumstances drive our thoughts, direct our mood, and determine how we act. By making the conscious decision not to let our circumstances control us, but instead “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), we can resist the temptation to let our thoughts and actions run wild.
One way to do this is to “check our thoughts” and THINK, “Is what I am about to say/do True? Is it Helpful? Inspiring? It is Necessary? Is it Kind? (This is another good one to share with our kids.) Are my thoughts and actions aligned with Philippians 4:8 – are they true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy? If the answer is no, then we must choose to renew our mind, resist giving in to our natural instincts to speak or act impulsively, and replace our out of control emotions with positive action that sets a positive example.
Romans 12:2 instructs us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
So, how do we see the good in a situation that seems completely out of control? We have to trust that God is working out something good from it (Romans 8:28). We have to call on Him for strength and to help us walk by the Spirit instead of gratifying the desires of the flesh (Philippians 4:13, Galatians 5:16). We have to allow Him to use the experience to refine us, test our faith, and strengthen our character (James 1:3-4).
STEP FOUR: ASK GOD TO CHISEL YOU.
In TerKeurst’s book, she tells the story of Michelangelo’s David. He was just 26 years-old when he picked up a chisel and set out to complete his masterpiece. Upon completion of the statue, when asked how he made it, he said, “It is easy. You just chip away at the stone that doesn’t look like David (1).”
Might God be using those out of control moments in your life to bring attention to those areas that need chiseling? Can you ask God to chisel away the bitterness, anger, hurt, loneliness, defensiveness, compulsiveness, and lack of self-discipline and replace those feelings with His power, love, and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7)? Can you allow Him to chisel away the less-than-desirable qualities to reveal the true masterpiece underneath?
It was two weeks after we hung the stoplights up in our house that my husband called me out on losing control – again. This time, instead of reacting immediately, I closed my eyes for a split second and said the words, “God, chisel me” in my head. It was my invitation for Him to take control and remove the defensive remark on the tip of my tongue, the pangs of frustration and embarrassment I felt for being brought face-to-face with my weaknesses, and the feeling of failure for freaking out yet again. This time, instead of losing it, I regained control. I said nothing.
Since then, my husband has been very supportive of my efforts to maintain composure when I’m feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. A simple hand on my shoulder or gentle touch on my arm has become his non-verbal cue for, “Pull yourself together, woman! You’re about to lose it!” without saying those words directly. It’s the “STOP” of my STOP-THINK-ACT. It prompts me to THINK about what I’m feeling (e.g. anxious), go to God and ask him to remove/chisel away the negative thoughts, and then to ACT in a way that sets a positive example. My mind drifts back to James 1:19 or recalls another one of those note card Bible verses, including Proverbs 25:28, Galatians 5:22-23, and 2 Peter 1:3-8. The Bible tells us in Proverbs 29:18 that, “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.” In other words, it is only through God’s power and His Word that we are able to exercise self-control and act in a Godly manner. When we rely on our own strength and willpower, instead of His power, we quickly resort back to our old behavior patterns.
“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” Ephesians 2:10
I invite you to see yourself anew as God’ masterpiece. Next time you feel like you’re about to lose control, try praying “chisel me,” “refine me,” simply say His name, come up with your own short prayer, or pull out that index card with your favorite bible verse that pertains to what you need from Him to address the specific emotions you are feeling. The key is to find a short, simple phrase or prayer that you can use to refocus your mind on Him and help you take captive destructive thoughts. Rather than simply trying to refuse temptations of the flesh, we must replace them with thoughts and actions that are obedient to Christ. Where our power falls short, His power can give us the strength we need to act in a Godly manner.
There will be days when we still fall short – when we “lose it” despite our efforts to maintain control – and when we do I suggest reminding yourself of this quote from TerKeurt’s book: “If this is the worst thing that happens to me today, it’s still a pretty good day.” Keep it in perspective. If it’s not so important that you won’t remember why you were upset a week or two from now, let it go. Shift from looking at what’s wrong to praising God for what’s right. Your circumstances may not change, but the way we look at those circumstances certainly can. Kids driving you crazy? Remember how blessed you are to have kids in a country where 1 in 8 couples struggle with infertility. Another fish stick hit you in the head at dinner? Remember how fortunate you are to have warm food on the table – even if you don’t get to eat it until it’s stone cold. Wishing you had money to shop outside the clearance racks at Kohl’s and Target? Consider those who have no warm clothes, let alone a roof over their head. The biggest anecdote to getting an attitude is expressing gratitude!
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN…
One of the best ways to practice mindfulness and exercise self-control is to stay grounded in the truth by starting each day with God. As we dive into the pages of the Bible and commit His Word to memory, we become better able to control our emotions, hold our tongues, and STOP AND THINK before we ACT. When we act in a Godly manner and demonstrate peace among the chaos – that peace that transcends all understanding – we let God’s light shine through us and set an example for others, including our children. We can equip ourselves with His word and turn to it when we are about to lose control, whether it be with our parenting, our eating habits, job stress, or any other circumstance. We might be out of control by nature, but we can practice self-control by obedience. We can make the conscious choice to act in line with His Word.
Find a few Bible verses that speak to you and make them the lock screen on your phone, write them on a note card, or post them on a sticky note where you’ll see them daily. Make His Word your mantra until it directs how you act while in the midst of raw emotion. (Click here for additional Bible verses on self-control.)
You may have heard, or even believe, that people don’t change. On their own, this may be true, but with God anything is possible. He has the power to change us from the inside out. May you allow God to chisel away the negative emotions, unrealistic expectations, and out of control behaviors to reveal the true masterpiece underneath!
CALL TO ACTION: What areas of your life need chiseling? What strategies can you implement to “keep your cool” and maintain self-control while also building your character?
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** One of the best ways to relieve stress and to manage our emotions is to get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and fuel our body with food that will allow us to operate at our best. Our physical health is intricately linked to our emotional and spiritual well-being. In order for God to work in us and through us, we must care for our bodies and treat them as temples of the Holy Spirit. If you would like help in any of these areas, please email me to set up a free Discovery Call and find out how you can take that next step.
1. TerKeurst, Lysa. Moore, Beth. (2012). Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan.