A dubious luxury

Frustrated. Furious. Livid. My face and neck turned red. Stewed in it until I could feel the smoke curling out of my ears. Slammed my keys on the counter, breaking off a key fob with a clean snap. Flung a box across the living room. Screamed wordlessly to no one.

That day may have been worse than normal, but I get angry most days. It’s just so common that something happens that I judge “worthy” of anger. Whether a car cuts me off in traffic, I get a bill for back taxes from the IRS, a coworker sends me a passive-aggressive email, a strange man makes threatening comments to me on the street, or a grocery store cashier judges my parenting skills, I would rather be angry than feel the tiny cuts of helplessness, hurt, shame, and fear.

And besides, I like being angry.

I suspect that we all do, really. I know that when I let anger take over, I don’t have to sit with hurt or disappointment or fear. The quiet, broken-heart sadness and gut-wrenching helplessness of those emotions is consumed with the hot, righteous fire of indignation. It feels strong and active and in control. It feels both blameless and powerful.

Yesterday, when I finally let myself feel what was underneath the rage, it sucked. A lot. I felt hurt and embarrassed. I emailed a friend, writing, “I feel like sometimes I am just here for someone to blame.”

Hurt pride is my greatest anger trigger. It causes me to puff up to try to save face, to ice people out with haughty and condescending comments simultaneously crafted to cut them to size and absolve me.

I’m trying to be abundantly clear about this. I don’t consider myself a patient person.

Thinking of those comments afterwards, fruitlessly trying to glue my key fob back together, opening the box in hopes that its contents survived my less-than-delicate handling, I recognize that this is not ideal. But at least no one saw me doing those things, I tell myself. At least I waited until I was alone.

Anger is a coping mechanism, an altered state of consciousness. It’s intoxicating and blinding. It impairs judgment. I don’t expect myself not to feel it, and I know I will turn to it on occasion when I can’t bear to feel the painful emotion underneath. It’s an endogenous mind-altering substance – my brain produces it, whether I intend it or not.

All that is to say: it’s just an emotion. I guess I’m still learning how to deal with my own emotions and those of others. In the past, when I have been angry, or felt the anger of others coming in my direction, I just allowed it to overtake me, and then I distracted myself as best as I could.

But in my obsession with research and doing things the right way, I’ve learned a bit about how to deal with the emotions of my toddler. You see, two-year-old brains are right in the midst of developing their prefrontal cortex, which manages executive function. Executive function includes working memory, perspective taking (empathy), pre-planning, reasoning, and inhibitory control (for example, not hitting someone that you really want to hit). A toddler’s neural networks are undergoing huge reductions in size as they consolidate in order to allow for complex cognitive processing. When kids are going through this stage of development, the more they use their executive function, the more those related connections are preserved and the more robustly they develop. (A great book for parents on helping your child develop executive function is Mind in the Making, by Ellen Galinsky.) Humans go through another similar stage of neural connectivity “pruning” during the teenage years, which might explain some of the similarities between toddlers and teens.

As a result of this developmental research, I know that he is not yet able to control his emotional expression – he is learning right now. I am very intentional about responding to his emotion with full permissiveness and validation while simultaneously curtailing his behavior with strict limits and setting age-appropriate expectations for self-control. By modeling empathy and helping him understand and label what he is feeling, I want to help him learn to identify his emotions, learn appropriate expressions for those emotions, and to control his resulting behavior. I want him to be able to empathize with others. I want him to be, in short, a fully functioning human being.

I have to say, I have been shocked on numerous occasions by how generous and validating I can be with his anger, and simultaneously, how cold and thoughtless I can be towards my own anger, or even anger in other loved ones.

Maybe my son will be better at it than I am.

“You are angry,” I say quietly, as he wails in frustration. “That didn’t seem fair to you. It makes you feel bad that I am not letting you throw my hat in the trash can.” Amazingly, I don’t laugh at his tiny rage. This time.

“I am MAD!” he yells. “Raaawwwwr!”

I ask him to take a few deep breaths and sing the “mad” song I stole from Daniel Tiger. “If you feel so mad that you wanna roar, take a deep breath and count to four.

“It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to hurt people,” I continue calmly. “You can be angry, and you can yell or hit a pillow, but you cannot hit me.” He looks at me and takes a few exaggerated deep breaths in sync with my own, then slides off my lap and finds a new toy to play with. I take a few extra deep breaths. This is not the first time this scene played out today, and I am sure it will not be the last.

Suddenly, my mind brings up images of a recent fight, words spoken. I did not try to understand the other person’s anger. I responded, knee-jerk, with my own anger, my own agenda. It comes to me, unanticipated and unbidden: the other person’s perspective on the situation. I didn’t hit him, because I’m not two, but I also wasn’t kind. I did hurt him.

I think about when I was trashing my belongings earlier. What led to that outburst? I tried to deny how I felt about something until finally I lost control. I failed to acknowledge my own emotions. “I was angry. I didn’t like how that person treated me. I felt hurt and vulnerable.” I immediately feel just a little bit better – just a little more seen, if only by myself.

I’ve decided, and I hope it causes no one offense, that the way to interact with the world is to act as if everyone in it is a toddler. That’s the right takeaway, isn’t it?

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