My son gave me a great gift last night. He did not do what I wanted, which cause me to feel very, very angry.
Admittedly, I did not initially recognize this situation as a gift, but over the past few years I’ve learned that anger is one of my very best friends. So, when my son facilitated Anger’s entrance into my home last night, he gave me a gift. He invited one of my best friends to come by.
Anger can be one of your best friends too, if you let it.
You may have heard that psychologists describe anger as a “secondary emotion.” That means it doesn’t just show up on its own. It follows another emotion, often hurt or sadness or fear. So, there’s always a clue to your very best life (or your greatest joys or your place of safety) hidden underneath your anger. You just need to learn how to look.
Here are the steps I took last night to hear what my anger was telling me:
Step 1: Just feel it.
This step is so simple, but SO hard to do in the moment. Most emotions last about 90 seconds. They are like ocean waves. They intensify and then they die back down—if we allow ourselves to stay in our BODIES and feel them. The problem for most of us in Western culture is that we’ve been taught to trust our thoughts and to distrust our bodies and emotions, especially the so-called “negative” emotions, which (admittedly) don’t feel wonderful. So, we usually jump right over actually feeling, to thinking. This time I decided to try diving into the feeling instead of jumping out of it.
So, I stomped out of the room. (I may have slammed a door.) And then I stopped.
I just focused on my body. On feeling the anger in my body, not thinking about it. I just noticed where it was and what it felt like and it was crazy! The emotion really did feel like a wave and as I let it run through my body it really did die down! I don’t mean I was no longer angry at all, but the intensity diminished. And I was able to decide that it would not be wise for me to engage with my son that night. I’d wait until the next day.
But I didn’t stop there. I still needed to hear the message my anger was giving me.
Step 2: Notice the thought that fuels the anger and look for alternatives
I’ve been learning how to do The Work, a method of thought-work created by Byron Katie, which requires that you take a thought that causes suffering and “turn-it-around” as a way of finding some new possible truths in the situation that may be more useful and less painful. (This is my simple explanation of her method and purpose, please check out her website for the real deal, if you’re interested.) In this case, one of the painful thoughts I had was, “My son should care about what I need.”
One way to do a turn-around for a thought about someone else is to change the subject to yourself. So, I tried out “I should care about what I need.” Bingo. I found it. When I looked for evidence that, “I should care about what I need,” might be as true or more true than, “My son should care about what I need,” I realized that:
1) It had been a tough day for me at work, so I was more drained than usual.
2) Even though I needed date night more than usual because of my tough day, I had prioritized picking my son up after basketball over going out with my husband for dinner just in case my son might be feeling sad (in fact it turned out that he was exceptionally happy after this particular game). This choice cause me to feel sad.
3) And then I had chosen to watch a TV show about a serial killer with my son because he wanted me to, even though I know those shows usually freak me out.
Ahhh haaa! It was true! I had not cared for me!
I was drained and I was sad, but I did not treat myself with compassion or offer myself comfort. Instead, in order to avoid disappointing my son who was, as I noted above, quite happy at this particular moment, I chose to make myself do something that I knew would likely make me feel more drained and sadder—namely, to watch the serial killer show.
So, my best friend Anger came by to show me where I’d gone off track.
I’d forgotten what I have told you and others many times before: It’s your job to care for you. No one else can do it for you (though it’s nice when they help.) It’s your job.
Looking back on this situation, I might still have chosen to pick my son up even though there was a loss for me in that choice, but I certainly would not have required myself to watch the serial killer show. That was unkind—to me.
So, said my friend Anger, “If you want to be joyful and if you want to be a good mom, you’re going to have to be a bit more kind to yourself next time.”
The next day I told my son what I’d discovered – that it was my job to take care of myself and I hadn’t done that. I said I did think it would have been nice if he’d been more caring when I got upset after the show was over. (I had wanted to do something fun together to lighten the mood, but he just wanted to play his video game alone.) But I admitted to him that the real problem that night had started with me not being kind to myself. (Note also that I did not beat myself up for being so stupid for making this mistake. Anger asked me to be KIND to myself, remember?)
I couldn’t have gotten to this place a few years ago. It takes practice to become best friends with Anger; but it’s SO worth it.
I encourage you to look for the clues to your best life that show up in your anger this week.
Tell me what you find. I’d love to hear about it!
Here’s to Thriving!