I wonder if you’ve noticed this – you’re busy, stressed, and then you start to get a good head of steam around some minor irritation. You may become pretty angry about it too. Does this ever happen to you?
I had this last week. After a string of minor illnesses that meant my 1-year-old had to stay home from nursery – and my husband and I had to miss a lot of work to look after him (like, we’ve each missed at least a day of work every week for the past four weeks) – my youngest son woke up on Monday with a slightly pink and gummy eye. It was too mild to tell if it was conjunctivitis but, expecting nothing less at this stage, we sheepishly dropped him off at the nursery and spent time at or respective offices on Monday frantically calling the GP for an appointment, then the out of hours hub once we couldn’t get anything through our GP (because OF COURSE we couldn’t get an appointment).
So Monday evening saw me rushing home, then rushing with toddler to an out-of-hours GP a couple miles away, then racing to the late-night chemist before they closed so we could get the ointment that would allow him back into nursery the following day.
But I then became really annoyed at the nursery’s policy not to administer any kinds of medicine, even if the child has a prescription, the parents complete all the forms, and the child is no longer contagious.
Could a friend or family member come to the nursery to administer the eye ointment twice a day they asked?
No, we replied, if we had that kind of support we wouldn’t be so reliant on expensive childcare. (It didn’t help that the nursery had just told me they would be raising the rates to the tune of £80 more a month.)
I was told it was to do with the insurance, but I know other childcare providers can provide this service, so I emailed the management to understand more.
Well, that did not go well.
I got a very defensive email in response that it was their choice and their right (underlining from them) to have this policy and if i didn’t like it I could take my son and leave.
This whole exchange got me thinking – what exactly was going on? What was really bothering me?
Because I’ve had this before – feeling overwhelmed, getting worked up with some provider of some service or other, communicating with them just the right side of professional, and then getting a heated response that left me oscillating between anger (how dare they!) and guilt (I caused this response by being unreasonable/ angry/ difficult…).
It is often the fallout from these kinds of interactions at these overwhelming times in my life that breaks the camel’s back.
A couple of years ago, heavily pregnant with my second, drowning in work, and moving into a house that – surprise! – ended up needing way more work than we bargained for, it was a heated exchange with a woman I’d hired to bake my son’s fourth birthday cake that drove me to speak to a counsellor.
Not the RSJ we had to install because the previous owners had lied point blank to us about the wall that had been removed. Not the project at work that was hitting hurdle after hurdle, delaying launch date again and again beyond my control.
It was the woman who was supposed to bake a birthday cake who stood me up when we were supposed to meet to discuss the particulars.
Why is this?
Anger is an energy
Anger means action, and often the little things are where I have some semblance of control. So perhaps it makes sense that where my anger starts to boil over into shirty emails or terse exchanges are those nitpick irritations rather than the big sources of anxiety.
I can’t solve anxiety and depression a loved one is dealing with and my attempts to do anything about the situation have not landed well. I can’t stop my kids from getting minor illnesses that cause me to miss work. I’m doing everything in my power to resolve some of the issues facing my team at work, but it’s not a quick fix.
But I can send an email to the nursery, from my phone, about their no-medications-policy and calling bullshit on the excuse that it’s because of insurance policy.
As an emotion of action, we’ve evolved to feel anger for good reason. It’s the emotion that drives a mother bear protect her cubs from threat. It’s the emotion that drives people to the streets with signs of protest to fight for what they think is fair or right. Anger doesn’t want to sit still. It wants to speak up, fight back, defend. As Martin Luther King, Jr said, it can be a transforming force.
But its use is limited and often overrated. As in my case – it was misdirected at the nursery for their policy which, whilst inconvenient, certainly wasn’t what made the biggest contribution to my current feeling of overwhelm.
If I had a magic wand to fix one aspect of my currently overwhelming life, this would definitely not be even a contender of something I would change.
My anger was not, in short, acting as a transforming force. It was hurting me, and leading me to want to lash out at other people. It was building up about the things I cannot change, and seeping out into the irritating aspects of my life where I had some control, but which wouldn’t make any difference.
This got me thinking – what are more constructive actions I could take? If action and control were the two desires, what could I do besides starting petty arguments?
Some answers to that question have been minor but surprisingly helpful:
- Sorting out the IFA’s cock-ups with our remortgage and getting everything clear with the bank and the conveyancing solicitors cleared some bandwidth in my head.
- I scheduled a much needed meeting to clear the air with my team and find some ways forward to make things better, and making key decisions so we could start moving forward on some recruitment for the team also helped.
- And while I can’t fix someone else’s depression, finding safe places I could talk about it helped me feel less alone in coping with it myself.
Finding action not rooted in anger has been helpful. My anger helped me work through what I needed to do.
If you’re feeling this way, here are a few journal prompts that can help (or which helped me recently, at any rate).
What does your anger want?
Listen to it. Ask your anger what change it wants to see. Then look at more constructive ways you can meet those needs. For instance, my anger wanted to rail at my loved one for not taking steps to help themselves out of the hole of depression, but that wasn’t helpful. But what I realised from this was that I was hurting as a result of their depression, so what I needed was help with my own pain. That led me to seeking help for myself in more constructive ways.
Four selves exercise
This exercise can help you explore the anger, but also what other emotions might be hidden behind the anger.
Identify your simple steps
What simple steps could you take right now to tackle your sense of overwhelm? As I’ve written about recently, finding your main triggers and then identifying the simple steps that are linked to those can be hugely helpful in bringing your stress back to a more manageable size. True, reaching out for help coping with my loved one’s mental health issues or arranging a meeting at work or writing up a complaints policy for work didn’t make everything better, but I sure felt a lot more in control and could deal better with all the things that are still difficult. Again, anger loves action, so take the teeth out of it by acting – not from anger, but from the same desire for change that sparks that anger.