Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Working with Anger
"If you can be patient in one moment of anger you will escape 100 days of sorrow."
--Chinese proverb, from Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human
It's no secret around our house that I am a yeller. It has been my vice and my challenge for most of my life, but particularly since I had children. The pressure of all the time spent doing instead of being builds up in me until I let it all out in one spectacular display of anger.
I have known from the beginning that this is not what I want for my family or myself and it was this realization in part that led to my awakening.
I have come a long way in the past nine years; particularly in the past few months. Somehow things have all come together and my yelling has diminished quite noticeably - at least to myself. I guess it hadn't quite come to my son's attention because a few weeks ago, after he had yelled at me I turned to him - in a very kind and calm voice - and said, "Please don't yell at me."
He hurled back, "You tell at us all the time!"
To which I responded: "Do I?"
He thought about it a moment and then started to laugh. I laughed too and said, "I don't really yell that much anymore do I? In fact, when was the last time I yelled?"
He thought about it for a moment and then laughed again. He couldn't remember.
I basked in the glow of that moment for days. I felt it was a turning point. I had arrived! Yelling was no longer a part of my personality. I had left it behind. I had moved on. I had evolved.
This basking was followed - a mere week later - by a "not-so-much" moment.
We were in the car on a long road trip and I had decided that we were done with "screen time" for that day of riding. My son was MAD. It was hot, he was bored and he just wanted to sink into a video game and forget that we still had four hours of driving to go before arriving at our destination.
In her book, "Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses," Claire Dederer says the following, about her daughter reading as they pulled away from the home they had come to love to move back to Seattle, "Lucy sat silently, reading hard as we drove away...And I let her read. I didn't ask her to be present for something she want[ed] to miss; I didn't ask her to be a part of my story when she didn't really feel like it."
I wish I had remembered that on our car trip. That day I made my son be a part of my story and my story was this: We are a family on vacation and we are enjoying riding in the car together. We are chatting and interacting, we are noticing things out the window and sharing them with each other, we are not burying our heads in video games and just waiting to get there, WE are ENJOYING THE JOURNEY, WE are LIVING THE MOMENT.
Except, of course, that we weren't.
Simply by TRYING so damn hard to make it so, I was somewhere else, somewhere up ahead or in my head in a place called, We are the perfect family so THIS is how we enjoy a family vacation together.
And of course it didn't work. In fact, it failed miserably.
My son was MAD, MAD, MAD and he started yelling at me, "I can't believe it! You can't make us! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!"
And that was all it took. My head spun around like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist. My voice mimicked that of the Demon: "I HATE YOU TOO!" I screamed full-out. Then I turned around, crossed my arms over my chest and huffed.
Immediately his eyes got wide, his face fell and tears burst forth. "I can't believe you said that, you are the worst mother EVER...." he started down this path again. The path of blame and recrimination.
Usually after I yell at one of them I am willing to go there with them, but not this time.
I did feel bad about what I had said. And I felt disappointed that it came so soon on the heels of such a great moment. But as I thought about it further I realized that neither moment was the absolute truth.
Yes, my yelling has gotten better and I am less likely to scream and yell when things get tense around home. But that doesn't mean that I am "done" or "fixed" or in any way beyond my anger. Anger will always come up, it's HOW you express it that determines how much damage it does.
But on a deeper level, the problem in the car didn't start with my anger, it started with my thoughts and my judgments. My thoughts and judgments about our car ride and what would make it a "good" family vacation. It started with asking my sons to be a part of my story when they didn't really feel like it. It started with my head.
My son and I were wary of each other for a couple of days after that, but in the car ride home we had a good talk about it and in the end I think it was a good experience for him in that he learned that his actions (yelling at me) have consequences and that people sometimes say things they don't mean when pushed to their edge.
It was the first time in our relationship that I didn't take all of the blame for my yelling, but required him to acknowledge his part in it and I think he got that.
And then I had to pick myself up and go back to square one. I had to acknowledge - to myself and to my family - that I still have work to do. I had to start over.