To be honest, I still struggle with anger sometimes, particularly when I’m tired. Every time I think I’m making progress, I find myself yelling again, and even stamping the occasional foot, and wondering to myself if I’ll ever have a handle on it! Still, looking back, I have made progress, and I’ll share what has helped me so far.
For perfectionists like myself, the following are the most likely causes of anger (from Living Wisdom School by David Riddell):
- Fear of unbearable feeling (UBF) or Fear mis-expressed as anger
- Inability to negotiate and be assertive
- Unrealistic expectations
- To protect our pride
- Emotional exhaustion
I’ll take a look at each of these in turn but it was fundamental that I first had to decide that anger really was my enemy, not my friend. Anger gives us a feeling of power and control, sometimes it even seems to make people change. The power-rush that anger gives can frankly be addictive. But these effects are only brief, and then we are left with memories of things said or done that we are not proud of, people (our children!) who are frightened to get too close to us or even active opponents striving to even out the power balance.
It really helped to ask myself some uncomfortable questions.
- Do I want to be an angry person? If I am an angry person now, I am not suddenly going to turn into a sweet little old lady at 85, now am I?
- What do other people see when I am angry or in a rage? Is that what I want to look like?
- My kids are inheriting WHO I AM. Do I want them to inherit that?
- What is the other fallout of my anger?
- Am I making people afraid of me to avoid being inconvenienced?
- What feeling would I have if I didn’t feel anger?
At the root of most anger lies fear. Anger is like a vicious guard dog we send out to chase away the threatening intruder on our property. We don’t let the guard dog loose on invited guests or benign visitors. The guard dogs are being let loose for a threat. And that threat is usually our own UBF (unbearable feeling).
This is the reason that self-control is not enough. There are lies under the anger that are causing it. When we address the UBF, we address the anger. Once you’ve made friends with the intruder (the UBF), the guard dog becomes unnecessary. Truth coaches are vital here. We need to find one that will get there faster than the guard dog! To fix my anger, I firstly had to find my fear. Then I had to find a truth coach that addressed the fear and repeat it to myself until it became part of who I was.
There is also the kind of fear you get when you child does something REALLY dangerous, like running away in a parking lot, or thwacking their little brother on the head with a toy metal teapot, that can also lead to an explosion of anger when really, you are just so frightened of having to make a hospital dash – or worse. Better to express the fear. When I’ve done this, the offending child usually spontaneously bursts into tears of sorrow too.
Inability to Negotiate and Be Assertive
I also had to learn how to negotiate and be assertive. I would imagine I was being ‘patient’ with the kids when I hung up the bathmat and towels, cleaned up their spills and put their books back on the shelf for the hundredth time, but really, I just didn’t know how to say what I wanted. I was too scared of hearing ‘no’, and I didn’t know what my ‘bottom line’ was anyway. Finally, after the resentment had built up too much, I would explode. For a moment I would feel powerful, and like I had won, but it never lasted. The bathmat and towels were still left in a wet, crumpled heap, the messes were still left for me and the books were still scattered everywhere.
Anger is HARD to unlearn. REALLY HARD. I needed a realistic alternative before I could start giving up this survival kit, and I needed to learn how not to be scared of hearing ‘no’. I try to be quick to assert myself now rather than being ‘patient’ and then blowing up. I let the kids know what I will not put up with in a calm way and I expect compliance. I don’t do it for them while ranting and raving at them about it. If they forget to hang the bathmat, I ask straight away for it to be done. If they refuse, there is a calm consequence. They know I am serious now and respect me much more than when I would launch into a tirade. And you know what? I also get told “I love you’ a WHOLE lot MORE, often within a short timeframe of a consequence being given! When I am irritated, I try to say so right away, rather than letting it grow. When I need to assert what I will not put up with, I try to do it quickly, BEFORE I get angry.
It was helpful for me to re-frame my anger as ‘disappointment energy’. In other words, the anger I felt was in direct proportion to the disappointment I felt at my expectations not being met. The ‘gap’ between what I wanted, and what I got, determined whether I was mildly irritated or on the rampage.
The first thing I had to ask myself was: “Were my expectations realistic?” Often, they were not! Lowering them or changing them made a big difference. For example, instead of “I expect the kids to do their fair share around the house”, which was vague and required some mind-reading ability on their part, I changed it to, “I expect the kids to help willingly when I ask for it.” This is more specific and put the onus on me to be humble enough to make polite requests for help.
But what about the ‘willingness’ part? Well, I also learnt to have the expectation that they would most likely refuse, whine or complain as their first reaction so I came up with a plan – at the first sign of hesitation (or after a blatant refusal) I would supply the cheerful “Yes Mum” response for them! And I would keep cheerfully repeating it until all their excuses had run out. I don’t have to do it so often now J I also learnt to communicate my expectations ahead of time, not after the inevitable happened.
I had many ideals – a tidy house, kids who never fought, kids who were always helpful and cooperative and respectful, always being on time. I wanted my husband to be able to know what I wanted before I did, to have no hesitation about sharing his innermost thoughts with me, and to be deeply interested in discovering mine. I wanted him to be a servant leader, my spiritual guide, my counselor, my knight-in-shining-armour who would protect me from all danger, do anything for me, even give his life for me… and then it struck me. I wanted him to be Jesus.
Now even in my soaring flights of girlish fairytale idealism, I realized that he couldn’t be Jesus. Moreover, I was robbing Jesus of the role that he wanted to have in my life.
I had to give my husband and kids permission to be… human. To be my friends and companions, fellow injured souls and equals. I couldn’t just expect them to ‘know’, I had to invest time training them in how to love me. This was humbling! I couldn’t act the betrayed queen anymore crying treason! I also had to give myself permission to be human too – because if anything, my ideals for myself were even higher!
It really helped me to put my ideals in writing and then let them die. I grieved for them for a while, but then I got something better in their place, because God always has something in his other hand.
Protecting Our Pride
When we are unwilling to take correction/criticism, we can often react with anger and/or defensiveness. When our self worth is in other people’s hands, this is very easy to do. I had to learn to ask myself, “Is there any truth in what they are saying?” If there was, I had to learn how to be humble enough to take it on, knowing that I WAS STILL OK. If there wasn’t, I had to learn that I didn’t need to change their mind. I gave up the right to vindicate myself, knowing that God knew the truth and that was all that mattered. I could lay down my sword. Other people could think what they liked, I was still ok. It’s one of those breathtaking paradoxes that I can defend myself without going on the defensive – by being centred and knowing my worth is secure.
Controlling people is exhausting. Keeping everything in its place is exhausting. Sometimes I felt like I was the sole bastion against the onslaught of entropic forces threatening to rain down chaos and spread out all their stuff on any available flat surface! Then there was the functioning on little sleep thing and working far too hard for far too long. When more is going out than coming in… Need I say more? A ‘snap’ is just around the corner. Which straw will break the camel’s back?
Work out what is truly important. Negotiate. Be assertive. Get real.
Anger uses up a lot of energy. A LOT of energy. And it never seems to help, at least not for long, but we continue using it because it feels good, powerful. But what about the ‘Big Picture’ – will it matter a year from now? Probably not.
It’s not winning this battle that’s important, it’s who I am becoming. My family is inheriting WHO I AM. Did you catch that? Just like they can inherit your blue eyes and the shape of your nose, they can also inherit your attitudes and beliefs. But unlike our physical characteristics, which we can’t do much about, we can do a lot to make sure our interior characteristics are worth passing on. And that alone makes giving up anger a worthy struggle to engage in.
More Helpful Truth Coaches
Anger NEVER improves my situation.
My life would be more peaceful if I had realistic expectations.
Anger gives short term gratification for long term pain.
I can defend myself without going on the defensive by being centred.
Is the anger even real or am I reacting to an echo from the past?
What would I feel if I didn’t feel anger? What am I afraid of?
Do I want to be an angry person? What do people see? What is the fallout? What is the price of the quick fix?