It’s been a rainy Sunday and lazy by my standards. Sure, I’ve baked some cupcakes and we had a family disco at my son’s request. But it’s been a lot of sitting around, the boys playing somewhat on their own while I worked on my website copy and wrote in my journal.
And despite being able to be kind and loving and patient towards my son, I’ve had a few instances of losing my patience with him, too. We’re cooped up in the lounge together, and he insists on jumping from one piece of furniture to another, or pushing his baby brother using his face and head, or jumping and kicking, or basically doing the very thing I’ve just asked him not to do.
When this happens, I feel angry, then guilty. Then he does it again and I’m angry again. It’s been a vicious cycle.
I’m reminded of what Paul Gilbert writes in The Compassionate Mind:
When we feel retaliatory anger, we want to make the other person do as we want. Maybe we demand an apology or a submission or we want to make them suffer, too. Why? Well, because then we’d feel safer with them; we’d feel in control. What would our world be like if anyone could put us down without our retaliating; what if we had no way to defend ourselves so that others could easily take advantage of us or cheat us with no comeback? What if they felt that they didn’t have to be wary of us because we’d never retaliate? Very uncool – evolutionarily speaking! So this response was designed by evolution to protect us.
On the one hand, this paragraph jumped out at me like a slap in the face. Want to make them suffer – isn’t that the definition of a bad parent? It’s sadistic. Hateful.
And yet…when I feel the anger flare up, when my tone of voice changes and I can feel the muscles of my face take on the ‘angry mother’ look, it is because I want to make the other person do as I want. In this case, I do want my son to do as I say. I want him to listen to me and take on board the message I’m giving, either because I’m teaching him what’s appropriate behaviour (‘Don’t interrupt your father when he’s talking to me,please’) or because I’m trying to keep him and his baby brother alive (‘Don’t throw that toy into your brother’s face!’).
And I do, I do want to be in control. I don’t want to be out of control as that is when something could harm one of my boys. I’m the parent; shouldn’t I be in control?
Of course, all of this happens in less than a blink of an eye. I realise I’m angry after the anger has already built up steam. I don’t think through it logically (‘Yes, Alison, you’re angry because you want your children to obey you so that they remain safe, and this is a natural response in your brain chemistry that humanity has evolved to have.’). I just get angry and raise my voice, or say things like, ‘Go to your room! You need to calm down and listen to me and behave.’ Or worse, get an irritated edge to my voice (‘For crying out loud, I just told you not to do that!’).
And then I feel guilty. Part of the anger comes from trying to do something, like work on my coaching website, and being thwarted because my son is yelling and jumping around like a madman around the baby. I think, ‘If I were a better parent, I would be playing with them and then he wouldn’t be misbehaving. This is happening because I’m neglecting him.’
Yes, words like ‘neglect’ come up for me. Reading it back, it sounds ridiculous. Children can play on their own – in fact, I’m trying to encourage my son to play on his own so he can be creative and entertain himself. Many of my fondest memories of my own childhood involve playing on my own, using my imagination, making my own fun.
I’m also modelling this by working or reading or doing yoga or whatever it is that I want to do for myself. I am demonstrating that everyone, myself included, takes care of themselves, follows interests, pursues hobbies. For me, developing and pursuing interests that help a person grow, develop, learn, and lose themselves in flow IS self-care – far more than a bubble bath or whatever else we’re marketed to.
This serves to remind me that anger itself is neither good nor bad. It just is. And sometimes it serves a purpose. Rather than berate myself and swing from one extreme to another, from irrational anger to guilty giving-in, it’s helpful to remember – why am I feeling this anger? As in, what part of my evolution has instilled this impulse to feel angry? Now, how can I meet that objective?
If the objective of my anger is a desire to get my son to listen to me, how might I do that?
Journal prompt: Think of a time when you’ve felt a particular way. Maybe it was angry, or stressed, or exhausted, or frustrated, or sad. The emotion itself is neither good nor bad. It just is. And it’s there to tell you something, to meet some kind of objective. What was the objective? And how might you meet that objective now it’s made itself known to you through this particular emotion?