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PEP Blog

07|05

Avoid Toxic Anger in Three Steps

By Brian Lewis

“I’m sick and tired of the constant screens.”
“I’m sick and tired of arguing with you.”
“I give up.”
Possible thoughts of any parent, anytime (including me!)

When we are enraged, we are easily alienated from those we love. It happens. But what if – instead of disconnecting – our rage helped us see what we need and put it within reach? What if our anger gave us an opportunity to strengthen connections to those we love?

Here’s a strategy that may be unfamiliar. I witnessed it firsthand as a student, then leader of an innovative curriculum at the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) of Kensington, Maryland. The strategy consists of three skills we can practice and master. Best of all, we can model and teach these skills to our children.

Step 1: Practice recognizing anger as a feeling (but do not take immediate action)

One night, my high school senior brought her phone to the dinner table and completely tuned out, absorbed in videos. I noticed a deep resentment and heat building inside me. Without pause, I felt an urge to act.

But how to act? Describe my resentment out loud? Seize the phone? Demand better behavior? Each option made sense. But each also seemed potentially corrosive.

Science tells us that enraged humans slip into the primitive brain mode popularly known as “fight or flight.” Because complex judgment and self-diagnostic functions go offline in these moments, they are not the time for high-quality reasoning and decision-making.

Sure, we have basic self-diagnostics to detect immediate threats to health, safety and survival. And immediate threats warrant immediate action. But the primitive brain mode lacks higher faculties essential to deep insights and thoughtful acting. Postponing most of our actions during anger becomes our best option.

Start by learning to detect your unique anger “symptoms”: warmth in the neck or face, a racing heart, growing despair. It takes determination and practice to focus on becoming fully aware of what’s happening. Only then can we put a hard stop to immediate action. But we can do it.

Then if we are not reacting, what CAN we do? We can pause – even if only for a hot minute (pun intended)!

Step 2: Practice taking a sacred pause

I first heard the term “sacred pause” during a Buddhist meditation with Tara Brach at her nationally recognized loving-kindness Wednesday Night Meditation classes in Bethesda. In the context of anger, pausing affords us time and space to bring higher brain faculties online.

Exactly how do you pause? For some, focusing on the breath helps. For others, listening to music, or taking time for a walk. Find a way that works for you. No one is born knowing how to pause and collect this way, and it’s not easy. It’s a skill to learn through practice.

Compassionate self-talk can help: “I bet there’s a good reason I feel this way … I am worth the time and effort to figure it out!” It may come in the form of asking those around us for compassion and time and space: “I care about our relationship and see that something’s wrong. I’m committed to our connection and addressing the concern. But first, I need to cool off, so I can give it my best.”

Step 3: Practice detecting what’s behind the anger

The most illuminating part of PEP’s anger curriculum proposes that we recognize what’s “behind” anger … after we take that critical moment to cool off.

The idea is to ask yourself “Beyond my agitation, am I sad? Jealous? Fearful? Uncertain? Intimidated? Guilty?” Whatever the emotion underlying anger, it turns out to be something worth knowing. And it’s nearly always about a threat to the things or people we care about most. In fact, we seldom get burning mad over things we don’t care about.

In my family’s dinner table example, ironically, I feared that my own kids were becoming distant. Maybe I also worried that they lacked skills to succeed in life, bringing phones to a meal. Reacting with hostility would have been easy. But it would have given back to me exactly the opposite of what was needed.

I think of naming our emotions as a gift that helps us identify something we cherish that seems endangered. What powerful self-knowledge! And it’s all within reach when we move out of our primitive brain and take a moment to ask, “Why am I angry?”

Sometimes restoring calm and reflection tells us we are disconnected from our loved ones. So … reconnect. We may need to ask for their help. More communication may actually be the key when we feel less communicative.
Try sharing what you noticed, how it affected you and what might be different or better from your point of view in the future. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying: “When you spoke with me I felt belittled, therefore, moving forward, would you be willing to work together to improve how we communicate?

Putting it All Together

Perhaps you have experienced an evening of quality couple time that turns negative when a laptop and pressing work tasks intervene. Just like the dinner table scenario, it’s tempting to rage against the machine (the computer) and the owner. I found myself enraged in exactly this situation. I could see I was feeling hot and angry. I could see that taking immediate action wouldn’t bring us closer.

Luckily, I was able to pause, cool off and postpone problem-solving until the morning. Then, after identifying what I cherished that seemed threatened (quality couple time), I worked with my wife to plan time for a date – free of distractions.

Like attracting bees with honey, you can get what you want without toxicity if you find the right time, then ask for it! Better communications, better connection and a stronger relationship opened the door for me to honestly discuss limiting screens and work after hours.

Thoughtfully planning how to get what we want and need without shedding resentment and anger helps us “be the change we want to see in the world” – the words Gandhi might have said had he been in the business of making bumper stickers. What he actually said was, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” Yes!

Most Importantly, Give This Gift to Your Children

Even the youngest children can learn why corrosive anger won’t bring us closer or get us what we need. Here are the three steps – for kids:

  • Step 1: Practice detecting when you are angry so you can avoid immediately responding (which might make things worse).
  • Step 2: Practice using angry moments to completely calm yourself (focusing on breathing or listening to music, reading or taking a break).
  • Step 3: After you are completely calm, practice detecting why you are really angry (could it be sadness, fear, jealousy, feeling overpowered?) so you can positively figure out how to make things better. We usually become angry when something or someone we care about seems threatened (for instance your safety, your toys, your respect, your independence). Knowing what’s threatened gives you super helpful information to make things better.

As a parent and teacher of the next generation, approach your angry moments with self-compassion. Give your emotions credit for providing a healthy barometer for your own life. Why wouldn’t you feel bothered when something you cherish is in danger? Endangered children, marriages, safety, savings and dreams are not only reasons to be upset but worth defending.

When you discover “what’s behind the anger” – fear, sadness, envy, or feeling overpowered or disrespected or overworked or underappreciated – you can finally, calmly, take thoughtful, helpful action. You will be the change in the world that you want to see.

This article appears in the July 2024 issue of Washington Parent magazine.

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