This morning my daughter A makes up a little game. One dog food bowl has a little kibble left in it; the other a little water; so she dumps the food into the water, the sloppy wet kibble back into the other bowl, back and forth, to create a ticking time-bomb of a mess. I allow it for one simple reason: I am washing the dishes.
Sink empty, I take on A’s fall out. Wet kibble is harder to clean up than I thought it would be… still I’m feeling fine (I chose this after all). But A is unsatisfied by my contented mood. She looks at me sideways, picks up a bowl of yogurt and berries, and chucks it into the mix.
In a moment of surprising maturity, I look at this small human, who is both so adorable and so infuriating, and in a calm voice I say, “I’m starting to feel mad.”
I’ve been wanting to talk about difficult emotions (I’m a writer; that’s what we do). It was a toss up between anger and shame, but it looks like anger just won.
I have tried to build skill around anger for as long as I can remember, but I never improved much until A came into my life. Guess I needed a 24:7 immersion to get enough practice.
Baby A inspires me to do better when it comes to emotional self-control, yet I still fall short sometimes (every day?). I want A to understand how to express her emotions authentically but also kindly. I want her to know it’s possible to resolve conflicts by talking and listening.
I want A to grow up in a peaceful home. I know a non-violent existence is possible even if I’m not there yet. I want to be it so that I can believe it; but also I want to teach my child what is possible through my own example. What is seen is so much more powerful than what is said.
I am always looking for some tip or trick to help me break that quick link between emotion and action, but if you offer Zen advice on how to handle anger skillfully then I automatically doubt you’ve ever experienced the real thing. In my mind your advice can’t be both useful and authentic.
How are any of us supposed to break in a gas-pedal moment well enough to respond instead of react? There is no time to count to five, find compassion, or breathe. Here’s some advice from one who knows anger: Get everyone out of the house. Leave the hard-drives and important documents.
If you want to save the world, it’s best to start with yourself. Maintaining enough perspective during the kibble incident that I actually 1. Remain calm, and 2. Use my words, makes me so proud of myself. It has taken more than a decade of hard work to arrive here. And I’m proud of A too. In response to my words, she lifts her hand, touches me on the face, and says, “Pat, pat, mama.”
Pat, pat is the gentle way I’ve taught A to touch living things. Friendly dogs like a pat, pat. Plants, too, get a pat, pat. Apparently, so do angry mamas.
We laugh. Seas dissipate. Clouds part. Birds sing. At 3′ tall and just shy of 30 lbs, my daughter knows more about how to push my buttons than anyone. But she also knows more than anyone about how to help me feel better.
Just as a parent shapes a child, a child also shapes her parents. Kids are karma bulldogs who lead us down life’s path on short, taut leashes. If you seek patience, you will get a trying child, and thereby you will learn patience. If you seek self-containment, your child will make you an island. If you seek inspiration, you will get a child who makes your heart sing. My child does all of these things for me.
My old habit in handling anger was to get quieter and say nothing until I became mad enough to shut down the party. I had this secret (as in unconscious) three-strikes system: Cross me once, and you will never know it. Cross me twice, and I will maintain. But cross me a third time and I blow like Kilauea.
In a recent moment, my husband was the victim of my ‘three strikes’ system. When I blew, my reaction seemed to come out of nowhere. What he said, with confusion on his face, was: “But you can be so nice sometimes!”
Staying quiet during the initial phase of my anger does my family a disservice. No one ever tried to help me calm down because no one knew I was mad. How could they? They never even saw it coming.
Letting my family know how I feel gives loved ones an opportunity to change course or to help me change course. Also, the use of “I feel” words integrates strong emotions from the limbic brain – a place of instinct and quick decision making – through the rational prefrontal cortex to a more empathetic and reasonable place.
I watch my behavior and try to understand what keeps me coming back to anger. Here’s what I see:
There exists an illusion that anger is useful in regaining order amidst chaos. When rage monster appears in a room, everyone stops and does whatever they can to get her to go away again. When it’s all too much, there’s always the option to go ballistic and bring people back under order.
Anger is effective, but it’s not very nice. Anger justifies itself, claiming you are the only rational person in the room. But really, people appease you because they are afraid or think you’re nuts.
I am looking for a middle way. So, I’ve decided to keep this little phrase: I’m starting to feel mad. I say these words at the first hint of a spark; long before the inner Kilauea starts to boil and all the good people should run for cover. I say these words for my husband, my toddler, or for myself if no one is around. Before the dark cloud moves in solidly over my face, before I yell or threaten, I say these words, and we are all spared.