I have a client who’s one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. She went to an Ivy League college and was a straight-A student her whole life. She used to help her older sister do her homework when she was in secondary school and her sister was in junior college. She was an investment banker for many years before quitting to raise her son.
She came to me because she wanted help controlling her anger. No matter how hard she tried, she said, she was always getting angry and lashing out. Recently she had cut up her son’s football in a fit of rage. She confessed that when she got frustrated and angry, she said and did mean things which she would later regret and which caused her to feel guilty and ashamed.
There was something intimidating about her, though she seemed sincere and genuinely wanted to change. I appreciated her sharp mind and keen sense of humour, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that she was analysing everything I said so very closely. When she questioned me, which was a lot, I felt like I was being interrogated because of her aggressiveness. It didn’t help that she would often also have pursed lips and a scowl on her face. I was always on edge around her.
What’s Below the Anger
I started to question her anger and frustrations.
“What exactly are you angry about?” I asked.
I suggested she reflect on the incident where she cut up her son’s football. She said that he was taking too long to do his homework and not concentrating. She was worried that he might not get his work done in time. I asked her what would be so bad if he didn’t get his work done in time.
“Well,” she said, “then he may not be able to keep up in school and get bad grades.”
“So what if he gets bad grades or can’t keep up?” I asked.
She continued saying that she would worry that he wouldn’t get into a good university, then because of that wouldn’t get a good job and wouldn’t earn enough money to pay for his living expenses so he would struggle.
“Why is that so bad?” I probed again.
“Well, if he struggles then he will suffer and I don’t want him to suffer…”
She stopped talking, realising that she was projecting so far ahead into his future, and essentially her anger was rooted in a fear of her son’s ability to survive on his own in the future. She was concerned for him, as any normal parent would be, but she let her anxiety about the worst possible outcomes in his life overtake the reality of what was happening at the moment.
When I asked her more about her son’s academic record and how he was doing in school, it turned out that he was a good student and generally well adjusted. In fact, he was mostly at the top of his class. When I asked her if she felt that he was safe and surviving right now in his life, she said yes, he was. When I asked if he had always been safe and survived in his life, she said yes. When she checked her anxiety against reality, her son had always been safe and survived. He was also a very bright boy who kept up easily at school.
All her anxiety about imaginary futures was just creating frustration and anger that led to her lash out then feel guilty. It made her son afraid of her and put distance between them, which affected their relationship and the closeness that she so treasured and wanted with him.
How to Get Past the Anger
I told her that I could see she was a good, responsible parent who obviously wanted the best for her child. That it was so natural and human to worry about her son. All the parents I knew experienced feelings of frustration and worry about their children.
By bringing awareness to her anger and frustrations and reflecting on these feelings, she saw that at the root of her anger was anxiety. Understandable anxiety. There was nothing wrong with feeling the way she did.
“What if you just give your emotions space to exist?” I said, “as much space as they need,”
She gave her emotions space by imaging them floating in a bigger sea of awareness then noticed that this helped her to feel more at ease. I asked her to investigate her feelings further and check them against reality.
Looking at her current life situation, she realised that her son was on track to excel in school. If she looked at the facts and reality, past and current, it was actually more likely that her son would do well and survive. The future right now was just in her imagination and the worries about her son struggling to survive were a projection of her fears. Yes, horrible things can and do happen, but it is just as likely that good and positive things do too.
When she realised that her emotions, though very natural, were not based in a likely reality or any facts, she was able to relax and enjoy her interactions with her son.
Questioning our worrying thoughts can often help us to see that so many of them are not based in truth and once we see that it’s easier to relax and be at ease. This then causes anxiety to subside which helps us bring calm to our relationships so we can enjoy them more and be happier in our lives.
If you feel overwhelmed by feelings of anger, it can help to stop and take the time to question what’s under the anger. It could be that, like my client, anger is a cover for other feelings like anxiety and fear. If there are feelings of anxiety and fear, they could make you unconsciously worry about worst case scenarios that keep you on edge and worry about your future and the future of your loved ones.
This can even keep you up at night and make you tired and irritable because you don’t get enough sleep. Anxiety and survival fears can also drive you to work long hours and not get enough time to rest and recharge so you’re always running on empty. Then you don’t have a lot of extra energy and resources to give to the ones you love because you just aren’t getting replenished in your life. It could lead to burnout and health problems in the long term.
You can make a decision to stop and make it a priority to care for yourself. To get enough sleep so that you’re refreshed and in a calmer state of mind to interact with others. This is something that you can teach your children even, that health and healthy relationships are more important than money and career. Because if you lose your health, it could end up costing you a lot of money, and if you get so sick that you can’t work, you would be even worse off. Your life and relationships are built on the foundations of your health and well-being. Material things like money and career are poor substitutes for feeling well in your body and mind and enjoying happy and fulfilling relationships with your loved ones.
Sometimes anger is a sign that there is a genuine injustice that needs to be addressed or that someone has crossed our boundaries. The energy and power of our anger can then help us to be motivated to get justice for ourselves, through action and communication, and that can restore the integrity of our boundaries. Taking the time to be mindful and reflect on your anger, in this case, will help you to do so from a place of greater clarity, authority, and fairness and not just to get the upper hand, control, or wanting revenge. Such motivations also often have their roots in fear.
When you learn to take care of yourself and relate to your anger in a skillful way, you can bring more compassion and balance to your relationships and communications, which improves the quality of your interactions with others. You’ll also feel more at ease with yourself because you know that you’re living in a noble way with respect and consideration for others. You’ll also generate more goodwill from others, who will appreciate the way you relate to them.
My client realised that when she allowed herself to be led by her fear, all she was doing was creating more fear in her son. This cycle of fear only kept her in a state of heightened anxiety that she was finding harder and harder to control, which resulted in her anger and lashing out.
When she was able to take the time to stop and give her anger space, all the space that it needed, she calmed down. Then she could reflect on what other feelings and thoughts were underlying her anger and find out if they had any basis in reality or if they were just mental projections. She learnt that she didn’t have to believe her thoughts and let them lead her life and relationships, especially when they caused her and her son to feel more fear and affected the closeness between them.
When she checked her feelings and thoughts against reality and made a conscious choice to live in the moment, knowing that in the moment, everything is likely fine and everyone is surviving, she realised that that was the only reality she could ever really know.
There’s a Buddhist quote that says that the ocean has only one taste, salt. Whether it’s a drop or pail of ocean water, it tastes the same, of salt. Whether it’s water from the surface or ocean floor, it tastes of salt. Any and all parts of the ocean taste of salt. Likewise, any part of the truth tastes of liberation. My guess is that it’s liberating to release your fears and worries and recognise that, at this moment, all is fine. My client certainly found that and it made her less angry and able to feel more connected and at peace in her relationship with her son. Things are not perfect, but they are a lot better, and she is consistently practising mindfulness, which helps her manage her anxieties and frustrations. That is the truth she now knows.