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?

Committing

I like to fancy myself a rock climber. I’m mostly a gym rat (or what the New York Times refers to as a “cheerful, athletic nerd” – can’t argue with it), but my true passion is outdoor climbing.

When I got into climbing about five years ago, I found that climbers have a lot of jargon and euphemisms. It was kind of like learning a different language, and sometimes it was a culture shock, as well. In climbing, a particularly dangerous climb is often called “bold,” and quite honestly, when I hear a climber use that term now, I laugh a little. It’s usually just an absolutely huge understatement – in other words, if you hear that someone completed a “bold climb,” the climber is probably lucky they didn’t die. Their skill may have been important, but that adjective, for climbers, typically carries a significant connotation of luck, as well.

Another term, which refers to a climb or move that cannot be reversed once started, is “committing” – as in, “that is a committing climb.” The climber doesn’t really have the option not to finish; there is no way down, or it is otherwise risky to try to back down, until you get to the top. There are a lot of reasons a climb might be described as “committing,” but an easy illustration is a freesoloist. Freesoloists climb without ropes. Steph Davis, a climber who excels at committing climbs, is known for being the first woman to freesolo a face of Long’s Peak called The Diamond (which she has since repeated three more times). This solo allows for a hike back down, but once you get a couple dozen feet up the mountain, you’re committed.

Breakaway Wall in Rocks State Park
For reference, this picture shows me on a climb that is neither committing nor bold.

I’m fascinated with committing climbs and with commitment in general, even though I try not to put myself in those kinds of situations in climbing when the physical risk is high. Maybe it’s because when I was younger, I always liked to keep my options open. The idea of not being able to reverse something – a career path, a move – feels like being trapped. I think climbing was the thing that showed me that committing is actually not a loss of freedom; a loss of freedom is being paralyzed from choice because you face a wealth of options, none of which you can actually take because you don’t want to “limit your opportunities.”

Committing is physical and exhilarating, in climbing. The payoff is the exhilaration of ascent – a “send,” in common climber jargon. But it’s just as good in the moment: I am fully immersed. My body and mind are engaged fully in what I’m doing. My mind is not preoccupied with deciding whether or not to turn back, an otherwise ever-present internal monologue when pursuing a perceived high-risk objective, even if the risk is just that it would look bad to miss or fall. But now, turning back is gone. My only concern is how to make this move work.

This is true about any number of trade-off decisions in life. Will you move to take a job or not? Maybe the job won’t be there if you wait. But once you’ve moved and taken the job, it may not be as easy to find another one. And you can think of a million reasons to choose one or the other, and a million reasons not to.

Refusing to decide in these situations only leads to regret, because not deciding is making the decision to do nothing, as the old adage goes. It’s not an intentional decision, but one born out of procrastination, neglect, or indecision. You wait too long and miss the opportunity. No amount of regret or resentment will reverse that when it happens.

I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review that changed my entire perspective on decision-making and commitment in real life. To paraphrase, the author, Ed Batista, advises that when the decision is a trade-off, it’s best to just pick something. It actually doesn’t matter what you pick, as long as you’re committed to making it work. Isn’t that mind-blowing? But when it’s a trade-off, pros and cons lists don’t work, because both sides could have equally long lists of pros and cons with different levels of importance, and there are just too many variables. You may as well just go with your gut. But whatever you decide, just commit fully to making the best of the situation you’ve chosen, whatever it is.

Consider this bit of advice for “going with your gut,” if that’s what it comes down to: pay attention to how you feel physically when you think about each of the options. Both may trigger apprehension, but what is your body saying? Do you huddle down and protect yourself? Does your heart sink? Or do you sit up straighter, expand your shoulders, and feel tingly and excited? Marie Forleo refers to it as “intuition,” which I know is how a lot of people think of it. I think of it as a check-in with my emotions. This actually echoes Batista’s advice in HBR when he advises “paying close attention to the feelings and emotions that accompany the decision we’re facing.” The research has proven that our mind-body connection is really quite strong, and when your mind is too focused on facts to detect feelings, you can rely on your body to tell you about those emotions that your superego wants to bury.

These days, even when I am looking at a decision that seems straightforward, I like to do this check-in. For me, it’s very easy to over-intellectualize life decisions. I sometimes forget that how I feel about it on a visceral level actually should factor into my decision. Sometimes, I don’t even recognize how I truly feel about it!

Ultimately, even if it all makes sense, my misery factor will impact the success of that decision. And my misery doesn’t listen to reason.

There are always trade-off decisions in life, and for me, it is parenting that has multiplied these decisions exponentially. Do I want my child to have a lot of enrichment opportunities, or do I want my kid to have more free time? Do I want to make dinner most nights and eat well, or do I want to grab fast food sometimes and get a break to give my family my full attention? These are trade-off decisions: optimal physical health is sometimes in opposition to better mental health. To achieve one, you may have to allow yourself to lower your standards a bit in the other.

I have found a lot of value in viewing these decisions as commitments. If I just do my best and commit fully to my choices as a parent (and to my decisions in my other roles in life), I don’t have to be defensive, I don’t have to explain myself, and I don’t have to agonize or feel guilty in retrospect.

And honestly, I just don’t have time for all that. I just have to make it work today.

How? I'm afraid that's your problem, mom.
How to make it work? I’m afraid that’s your problem, mom.