What's really behind your anger?
I have four kids. None, except perhaps the fourth, on a good day, are easy-going, relaxed, chillaxin' little characters. All of them, including the fourth, have fire and spark and energy in them. And all of them, including the fourth, frequently use their fire, spark and energy on each other.
For example, two days ago, after breakfast, in the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Kid 1 standing within two feet of Kid 3 in the kitchen. I was about to turn around and say, "You two are two close. Separate. You're about to get into a fight."
But, Don't be unneccessarily judgmental and harsh, I thought to myself. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Within three minutes - no, actually two minutes - those two kids were in an argument*. And they expected me to sort it out. Which made me angry, which made them angrier and... well, it wasn't a great morning.
One of my kids gets frustrated very, very easily. When he does, he boils over into insults and verbal aggression. I've had to work hard over many years to help him out, and he's finally at a stage where we can talk about his anger and what to do about it.
"But where does the anger come from?" he asked me the other day.
I did some quick thinking. It helped that I'd just read a little about anger. "We all have expectations of how things should go," I said. "When our expectations aren't met, and things don't work out how we think they should, we get angry."
He chewed on that for a little bit. "So, what am I supposed to do when I get angry? I hate feeling like this."
I thought some more. "There are usually two things at the root of our anger. One is that we feel unimportant for some reason. The other is that we feel out of control."
He considered his angry-making situation. "I think it's both for me."
"So, the trick is to address those two feelings first. If you're feeling unimportant, you need to remember that you are deeply loved. You are important. God loves you, and made you - smart, unique and interesting. If you know that, right at your core, you can be more peaceful with those 'unimportant' feelings. Then you can come hang with me, and feel important again."
"What about the 'out of control' feelings?" he asked.
"I guess you need to do some things that make you feel a little bit back in control - things you like doing," I said.
He knew immediately what that was. "Watching a youTube video makes me feel better," he said.
"Okay, so do that," I said. "And then, also, remember that God has everything within his control, even if we don't. We can trust that he uses that control for our ultimate good, even if it doesn't always seem like it. Also, the more we learn about things, the less we need to feel out of control. If people are making us feel out of control, we can learn about people, and how they operate, to get a better grasp of the situation. If it's school that's making us crazy, we can make sure we're keeping up with the work and get some help if we need it. If we're mad at the system, we can try to work to change the system."
I put up my fists at my son. "And if we still feel mad, we can use our upper body muscles to get the energy out. Using our arms actually helps get rid of some of those feelings."
We ended our conversation and I went back to cooking the dinner, feeling kind of pleased with myself. It's great to give excellent advice to kids, right?
It's not so easy when you start to get angry yourself.
A few days later I found myself in a situation where I felt mad. Like, mad mad. Angry enough to consider actually going up to someone and saying something about their behaviour. (For me, that's pretty much the ultimate in cranky behaviour. I'm generally nice most of the time, but if you make me super-aggro, I just might say something to you. Maybe. As long as you don't make me cry. Or make me feel awkward, because that would be just as bad.)
In any case, I was mad, and telling my husband what had happened, and being generally snippy to everyone around me, making them cranky and miserable as well. Not wanting this to spiral any further and cause general unhappiness throughout the house, my husband pulled out my two questions: "Were you feeling unimportant, or out of control?"
Argh. I hate it when my great advice gets turned back on me. I hate having to deal with the root causes of my big feelings. Why can't the people I'm angry with just fix their behaviour instead, or (and this would more satisfying when I'm in the heat of battle) disappear off the face of the earth?
"I-felt-unimportant," I grunted at him. "Because-they-were-ignoring-me-and-they-obviously-don't-like-me." I burst into tears. "And-I'll-tell-you-what-else-makes-me-mad. The-fact-that-I-don't-have-any-control-over-the-publishing-industry-either. Or-neo-liberalism-or-materialism-or-the-fact-that-no-one-wants-to-pay-writers. That-makes-me-super-hyper-angry."
Aaaah, truth. Ain't it fine, when you actually stop to examine what's there?
I had to think about all the things I told my son to think about. I had to make deliberate decisions to remember that I am loved, that God is in control, that I can trust. I had to think about learning ways to handle the people who were ignoring me, or ways to avoid them, and I had to think about possibly going and learning more about the publishing and self-publishing industries so that one day I might just be able to crack it - or be an activist and change it.
I probably should also have done some pillow punching, but I'd just done some pushups, and besides, The Tudors was on TV, so I sat and watched that instead.
Look: things should be better. No one should feel unimportant, or not have an equal chance, or be marginalised for whatever reason, or feel ridiculously out of control in the general run of life. This is stuff that makes us angry. And it should.
On one hand, anger is good: it points out where things are wrong in the world. It can be the energy behind significant change. But, on the other hand, too much anger for too long can wreck your life, and your health, and often, your relationships.
On the one hand, we need to harness the anger for change. On the other hand, we need to get it out of our systems, and especially stop taking it out on other people who don't deserve it.
Stopping to think what's at the root of each experience of anger for us as individuals is a great first step.
So, you, angry person reading this? What's your anger from? Feeling unimportant, feeling out of control? What deep truth can you hang on to, while you soothe, and learn, and work to change things?
*I can tell you exactly what my two kids were fighting about. On the surface, it was about putting (or not putting) the jam away. Under the surface, one was feeling out of control and the other was feeling unimportant. And the reason I got angry with them for being angry with each other was because I felt out of control with the whole situation.