Meet Anger, My Teacher and Ally
There I was, standing over the washing machine with clenched fists, shallow breath, gritted teeth. I was ready to scream, to pound on something, to rage so hard that the world would know the power of my wrath. I was angry, and I had been there many times before.
Anger became a familiar emotion when I had two young children, a full-time job (teaching other young children), and a husband who traveled frequently for work. My anger fueled me, propelled me, dominated me, and I liked that rush of adrenaline—or so I thought. That rush never was worth the tears in my kids’ eyes after the storm passed, nor the wave of guilt that crashed down when I went to sleep at night.
My anger was almost a badge of honor; I carried it like something I had earned and needed to show off. I was so misguided and confused, I had no idea the damage I was doing to my body and my spirit, but I could see how it was impeding the relationship with my children. It was when I started training as a parent coach that I began to see my anger wasn’t serving me, though I still couldn’t let it go. The real epiphany came in my eighth week with the Jai Institute, when we took a good hard look at the anatomy of anger. Since then, anger has been a valuable teacher, giving me an entirely new perspective on myself and my role as a mother. It has become my ally, something I can accept and trust. Here are the ways that anger now helps me as a parent.
I. Anger Reminds Me to Recognize Other Emotions
Anger is often an emotional coverup for more vulnerable feelings, or as Eckhart Tolle puts it, “Where there is anger there is always pain underneath.” When I feel angry, I am reminded to tune in to other emotions I’ve been ignoring. If a single uncomfortable emotion festers long enough it can convert to anger, and when several combine they can swirl together to create that raging storm. As I stood over the washing machine, I realized I had overlooked how tired I was feeling, how frustrated I still was over an earlier incident, and how agitated I was with the level of noise in the house.
II. Anger Helps Me Focus on My Needs
The most significant insight was that anger is a response to unmet needs. According to Marshall Rosenberg, connecting to underlying needs is a key component of nonviolent communication; it helps me separate my anger from the situation in front of me. It also guides me to take responsibility for my own needs, rather than blame anyone or anything else.
My new mantra became: Self-care is the antidote to anger.
The more time and attention I can give to meeting my own needs (rest, exercise, nourishment, connection, meaning, inspiration), the more emotional equilibrium I create within myself. Of course there are instances when I get triggered and notice a flash of anger, but feeling angry is no longer a daily occurrence. The best evidence: when my daughter observed, “Mommy, you’re not so grumpy all the time.”
The day I was fuming in the laundry room was actually one of those triggered moments: I’d gotten too little sleep, I felt frustrated from an earlier miscommunication, the kids were yelling and crying, and I realized through my anger that my needs for safety, respect, and understanding were under threat.
III. Anger Allows Me to Be a Role Model
Getting comfortable with anger as an emotion and learning to listen to the messages it sends is a useful parenting tool. As I gain proficiency in identifying, labeling, and processing my anger, I’m modeling the process for my children. They see me shake out my hands to relax my fists. They hear me verbalize, “I’m really angry right now and I need a minute before I help you.” They observe the change in my energy and presence as I come back to them as the regulated, logical mother they need me to be.
When I first responded to the shouting and crying I rushed over to my kids demanding, “What on earth is happening here?!” In the flurry of tears and garbled explanations, I took a few breaths and reminded myself they are not physically attacking each other, they are not mortally wounded, and I am capable of helping them. After a few repetitions of “Okay, I want to help you; I want to understand what’s going on; I’m here with you,” everyone deescalated enough to assess the situation.
IV. Anger Invites Me to Connect with My Children
A surprising benefit to acknowledging anger as an ally is that I am much better prepared to witness it in my children. Their moments of rage do not (always) stimulate a stress response in me. I am confident in my ability to support them in expressing anger, rather than brushing it aside or squashing it down.
According to Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, this capacity to give and receive “compassion for our difficult feelings” is the most important factor in our relationships.
They go on to say that when someone (like our child) turns to us with their difficult feelings and we tune in without judgment, it helps them “move through that feeling, like a tunnel, to the light at the end.”
As I tuned in to my children with my relatively calm presence, I could see my daughter was experiencing a volatile mix of anger and physical pain. I saw that my son was stunned by her crying and feeling simultaneously confused, guilty, and concerned for her. I came to understand that they inadvertently crashed their heads together; no malicious intent, just an unfortunate accident. First, I tended to my daughter by hugging her and then I invited my son to take action and retrieve a cool pack for her forehead. Within a few minutes everything simmered down: my daughter had stopped sobbing, my son showed relief and pride in his contribution, and we all resumed our activities. The most important outcome of this story wasn’t that we got back to what we were doing; it’s that no one was left feeling shamed, hurt, lonely, or scared.
We came together in the height of tough feelings, and we made it through to the other side.
I’ve noticed that anger doesn’t surface nearly as often as before. I guess that’s the beautiful paradox: the closer I examine my anger the less it comes around. I don’t seek out anger, I no longer relish its energy and power. I pay attention to my anger, I learn from it, and I have the awareness that it can serve me in my relationship with myself and my children.
Nagoski, Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (New York: Ballantine Books, 2020), 142.
Rosenberg, Marshall B., Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd Edition: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships (PuddleDancer Press, 2015).
Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (Namaste Publishing, 1997).
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