Most of us have heard it said that, when someone feels angry, they’re not really angry, it’s a symptom of something else that they feel deeper down. But often I forget this truth because, in the moment, it certainly feels like anger – all that boiling within and, usually, roaring without. However, a few things happened recently which reminded me to look for what’s really going on beneath a person’s anger and have helped me to feel more confident about dealing with anger – mine and my children’s.
THE ANGRY FORK STORY
Begin with a recent Summer evening. Having enjoyed a barbeque dinner outside, I was sitting at the patio table and my boys were playing on our lawn. Jake picked a stray fork off the ground and I could see in his eyes that he thought it would be a fun idea to throw it.
“Please don’t throw the fork”, I said.
He threw it.
“Jake, I told you not to throw it”, I said calmly.
Jake immediately jumped into a defence of himself, accompanied by angry faces & gestures, volume quickly rising. He ended it all with the exclamation, “You’re always so rude to me!”
“I don’t want him talking to me like that”, I thought but, perhaps thanks to the warm evening and a satisfied belly, I was able to keep calm and present. Without knowing what I was going to say, I asked Jake to come and sit down next to me. He reluctantly sat at the table beside me.
“The way you spoke to me wasn’t respectful. What were you really trying to say?”
He was a little surprised by my question. I think he sensed that I was right – his response to me was out of proportion to my simple statement that I’d asked him not to throw the fork – but he needed to figure out for himself why he was so upset.
“Tell me what you were trying to say, respectfully” I encouraged.
“I’m sorry for throwing the fork!”, he suddenly blurted, brow creased and avoiding eye contact with me.
“Is that what you were really trying to say when you were shouting at me?”
“Tell me if I’m wrong, but when you shouted why are you always rude to me? were you actually feeling bad that you threw the fork, even though I’d asked you not to?” I didn’t want to put words in his mouth but I felt he perhaps didn’t know or couldn’t quite articulate what had happened for him and needed a little help.
“You shouted at me, but really you were angry with yourself? You felt kind of guilty?”
He needed no reprimand for throwing the fork or shouting at me, the natural consequence – the discomfort of his guilt – was enough.
THE PURPOSE OF ANGER
It was an eye-opening conversation for us both. It made me wonder, how often do we end up “disciplining” our children for showing anger when really they just had an emotion they didn’t know what to do with? We need to teach them to take a moment to recognise their feelings and respond intentionally to them. To do this, we can guide them through a kind of self-exploration suitable to their age and give them an opportunity to understand what’s happening for them, like I did in the angry fork story. And, importantly, we need to do this without punishing or criticising them for their age-appropriate struggles with their emotions.
Guiding our children through their anger is part of growing their broader emotional intelligence. Our parenting can help them to develop emotional awareness and an ability to articulate what’s going on for them. In this way, our children can become more at ease with the range of human emotions available to them, less controlled by them and able to choose good-feeling ones for themselves.
Our emotions are like a spiritual barometer. The good-feeling ones tell us we are aligned with our truth. The bad-feeling ones show us something we need to be aware of in order to become more aligned. By taking a moment to be with Jake’s anger, he was able to realise that he, in fact, felt guilty and it showed him that not listening to me when I asked him not to throw the fork wasn’t aligned with his true loving self .
Your negative feelings are there for a reason. Like pain in the body, they are a call for awareness and healing. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are not your emotions. But your emotions do come bearing lessons, and you can’t learn those lessons until you feel them. – Mastin Kipp, Claim Your Power, p.51
ADULTS GET ANGRY TOO
But developing this kind of emotional intelligence is a long-term goal for our children. I cannot expect my 6 year-old to deftly manage all of his many emotions. Especially as our emotions sometimes hide beneath anger, they can be hard to get to. Heck, we adults struggle ourselves. Here’s my story –
The next night after the barbeque, I slept in the spare bedroom downstairs because my husband was feeling unwell and I didn’t want to get sick too. When Jake came in to see me in the morning, he said he’d vomited during the night. When I got up, I saw that my husband had left a bundle of Jake’s dirty bed sheets in the laundry sink. I started fuming. Why hadn’t he rinsed and soaked them – or asked for my help to clean them?! I might not be able to get the stains out now! I splashed & stomped & barked around for a while and my poor boys steered clear of me. Then I asked myself, “why am I so angry?” My husband had done the best he could in the middle of the night, trying not to wake me so I could have a good sleep. I paused and realised that I wasn’t really angry, I actually felt guilty that he’d dealt with a vomiting Jake and the dirty sheets on his own when he was feeling unwell himself.
It really is never anger, it’s always something else. Thinking back to Mastin’s quote, my guilt was pointing to my discomfort at the thought of causing someone else any kind of trouble, an aspect of my sometimes shaky sense of self-worth that I’m still working on.
IN SUMMARY – THE ANGER ICEBERG
Later that day on Pinterest, I came across this anger iceberg infographic by The Gottman Institute. I think The Universe wanted to drive the point home to me, make sure I really got it.
For me, it feels easier to know that I’m dealing with guilt or some emotion other than anger. Anger seems so explosive and unreasonable (even in a person who quietly seethesrather than shouting) and I’m never sure how to approach it in another person. But these experiences of late have given me some ideas about how to go about it.
(You may find this essay about how we can respond helpfully to our children when they are angry helpful).
Much love to you and your little souls,
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