We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God. Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God.
I was sitting in an Al-Anon meeting when Philip said something that changed made me sit up straight in my chair. He said, “When you say something once, it is information. When you say it more than once, it is an attempt to control.” He was describing the nasty and dangerous habit of nagging.
The word nag means to pester, badger, harass and to annoy by scolding. It likely comes from a Scandinavian source meaning “to gnaw” – which is a pretty good image of our behavior when we nag. It is probably the most annoying way to try to control someone’s behavior and perhaps the most counterproductive. I was raised by nagging parents and learned by example. When Philip made his comment, he turned a spotlight on my “go to” behavior to get someone to do what I want.
What do we nag about in families? Leaving all the lights in the house on, hanging dirty clothes on the floor, texting at the dinner table, storing left-over food under the bed, getting hair cuts, doing homework, cleaning out the litter box, taking the trash out. These are normal (though ineffective) attempts to control in many homes. But we also nag and scold about important things: Get up in time to go to church. You’ve had enough to drink! Get a job! Find a new boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend. Pay attention in school! Come home on time! Pay attention to me!
We nag when we think someone hasn’t heard us or is ignoring us. We nag when we are embarrassed by what someone is doing (particularly a tween or teen) and it reflects on us. We nag when we don’t know how to communicate or don’t dare to say what we really mean. For example, “Stop drinking” means “I’m afraid; your drinking is ruining our family life.” Nagging is a sign of an unhealthy relationship, a power struggle where love and courtesy and respect are non-existent. Nagging almost never works; if it does, it means the other person has given up or given in or is manipulating the nagger.
If nagging is soul-sucking and ineffective, what can we do instead? First, stop denying that this is inappropriate behavior and choose to let it go. Second, recognize that we are attempting to control another person and find other ways to communicate our needs and wants. Look at how Jesus interacted with people. He loved people into relationships; he did not try to control them. Third, stop focusing on the other person, search out your own shortcomings, and give them to God. Once we let go of trying to arrange the outcomes for all the people around us, they may take responsibility for their own lives. (Even if they don’t, it’s not our business to try to change them.) Finally, and most difficult, fear less and love more. Controlling behavior is all about fear.
The next time you hear yourself saying the same thing over and over (“Don’t forget to call the plumber today!”), stop nagging and scolding and have a conversation. You may learn that it’s better for you to call the plumber yourself.