Dear Neil: I know I have an anger problem and I need help to control it. When things don’t work out, when I’m running late or when I’ve taken too much on, I can turn into a monster. I snap and yell at my kids, and I say the most terrible things to them which afterwards I bitterly regret. I always apologize later, explaining why I was angry and telling them it wasn’t their fault, but I feel I’m damaging them emotionally.
I have a lot of anger inside of me because I was emotionally abused as a child. I was made to feel that I was a loser, an idiot and unattractive. I need some strategies to help me recognize when that anger is threatening to bubble over. Also, it’s difficult to walk away when I’m in the car or when I am awakened by my son three times in the middle of the night. What can I do?
— Angry in Manchester, United Kingdom
Dear Angry: The first thing you can do to control your anger is to quit making excuses and offering self-justifications for blowing your top. We can all come up with loads of excuses for why we can lose our temper (“you’re irritating me,” “I’ve already answered that question,” “I’ve had a hard day at work, so don’t get on my bad side tonight” and so on). Your childhood may indeed be why you have a lot of anger inside, but your childhood is not making you lose your temper. You’re adopting the attitude that your children are responsible for your explosions; that they are, in essence, forcing you to be angry because they won’t abide by your wishes or your rules, or because they are acting irritating.
But your children are not responsible for your emotional reactions. You are. That’s where you can begin exerting control over your temper: by accepting responsibility for everything you say or do when you’re angry, irritated or upset, and by holding yourself accountable for more tolerant, loving behavior.
Second, when you feel your temperature starting to rise, step back and ask yourself the following questions: What is the emotion underneath my anger? (Hurt? Fear? Feeling invisible? Feeling devalued? Feeling inadequate? Feeling overwhelmed?) Specifically, what is it that is triggering me? Other than anger, what am I feeling right now? (Vulnerable? Shamed? Inadequate? Impotent? Powerless?) What do I want to see happen? What do I need in order to resolve this issue? How vulnerable do I feel right now? Am I feeling criticized or judged? Am I attempting to cover up my low self esteem or my feelings of inadequacy by being angry?
If you ask yourself these questions before you react, you will be starting to gain greater control over your anger, because the answers to the above questions are likely driving your temper outbursts.
Third, let’s assume you’re right, that your upbringing has a lot to do with why you’re so angry. If you grow up feeling badly about yourself, you will likely, as an adult, be relentlessly self-critical, highly self-blaming, have low levels of self-love and poor self-acceptance. In essence, you will endlessly brood about how disappointing you are, how unworthy you feel, how unlovable you believe yourself to be and how flawed you are. If this is what you’re doing, no wonder you feel so angry. Now it’s not just the memories of childhood that are driving you. This time around, it’s you who are telling yourself how much of a loser you are. If this is accurate, you need a psychotherapist to help you work on overcoming childhood messages and improving your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
Fourth, learn to stop escalating and to calm yourself instead. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Take regular, long, slow, deep breaths until you feel calmer and less on edge. There are a variety of meditative techniques you could learn, all of which focus on relaxing your over-active mind or calming your edginess. I am saying that you have the power and the ability to respond differently when your children irritate you. It would be empowering for both you and your kids if you responded in a peaceful manner rather than in an angry, reactive or judgmental manner.
There is no excuse for you not being a more loving, patient and tolerant mother. There is no excuse for you to turn ugly or to hurt the people you care about. Hold yourself accountable for learning how to be in control of you. If you do, you will reduce the likelihood of you doing unto your children that which was done unto you.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 21st year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: www.heartrelationships.com. He is not able to respond individually to queries.