“I know that I shouldn’t be mad, but …”
I hear that a lot from clients. People look back at times when they lost their temper, and they beat themselves up for it. But here’s a dirty little secret: It’s OK to get mad.
Everybody gets mad. We might do it in different ways, but we all do it. Sometimes it’s a toddler throwing a fit when the sippy cup isn’t right. Sometimes it’s a passive-aggressive comment when someone puts the empty milk carton in the fridge—again. Sometimes it’s yelling and screaming when the referee calls a penalty against the Buckeyes.
And sometimes, it’s a frustrated parent who feels overwhelmed and can’t hold it in anymore.
That feeling, ironically, isn’t actually anger. That’s because anger is an imposter, a mask for another emotion that makes us feel vulnerable. Anger covers rejection, abandonment, disappointment, sadness and any number of other emotions. Anger helps us delay accepting and examining the deeper feeling.
This happens a lot, but it’s especially tricky with parenting. For example, if you have a bad day at work, you might not be able to blow off steam before rushing home, picking up the kids, driving someone to soccer practice, cooking dinner, making sure everyone finishes homework and then getting everyone bathed and in bed so you can repeat the process the next day.
(OK, I’m stressed just typing all of that. Let’s take a breath together. Breathe in … breathe out slowly … repeat as necessary.)
But we aren’t doomed to failure. The first step to reducing anger’s influence is to understand and accept that you get irritated in the first place. Too often, we shrug off the slights of the day—the wrong creamer in your coffee, the person who cuts in line, the boss who criticizes you in a team meeting—and we pretend nothing happened. Meanwhile, anger builds like water heating in a pot: slowly, steadily, until it suddenly boils.
Clients often say anger comes out of nowhere, but it’s actually been building all day. I remember a client who told me that he was rage personified. He’d been mad for decades, and he was sure that would never change. As we talked, though, he realized a few things. First, he recognized moments when irritation increased that he never noticed before. He also observed that as irritation grew, he started pacing well before anger took over.
As we explored how he recovered from anger’s fits, he realized that he used effective coping skills: things such as walking away from the situation, deep breathing, distracting himself and thinking through alternative choices. So he started paying attention to his pacing and used his coping skills then—before anger took over. Those fits were reduced significantly.
The first step, though, was for him to accept that it was normal to get angry in the first place. Ignoring those feelings of irritation didn’t prevent anger; it cultivated it. Eventually, those emotions burst out like a volcano. Accepting that anger happens to everyone was the first step in reducing its influence.
—Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.