Transforming Anger

I've been reading some of Buddhist monk/writer Thich Nhat Hanh's work lately, and one bit in particular struck me. It was a piece called "Transforming Anger". He writes:


Usually when we are angry, we do not return to ourselves and take care of healing our anger. We want to think about the hateful aspects of the person who has made us angry--rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on. The more we think of them, listen to them, or look at them, the more our anger flares up. Their hatefulness may be real, imaginary, or exaggerated, but whatever it is that is making us angry, we are inclined to give our full attention to that. In fact, the root of our anger is inside of us, and we have to come back to it and take care of it first of all. Like a fireman, we must put water on the blaze immediately and not waste time looking for the person who set the house on fire....If we put our mind to the work of observing and calming our anger, we will avoid creating damage we will probably regret later.

--Thich Nhat Hanh, from Transformation and Healing


I love the firefighter metaphor, and it's not just because my older son has been obsessed with firefighters for four years. The image of a firefighter running all over the neighborhood to see who set the house on fire while the house itself is burning down--it really highlights the senselessness of seething in anger at the one who has made us angry. And when my children are the culprits, it really is a waste of time and emotional energy to let them get under my skin. I just get madder and madder at them for stuff that, in the big picture, is not that big of a deal: disobeying, being silly when I want to be quiet, not hurrying up and coming inside for dinner, being rude and talking back, not eating their veggies. Not that any of that is okay. It's just not worth it to allow it to ruin my afternoon, or my dinner, or whatever--and theirs, too. So I've been trying to put out the fire first.


Thich Nhat Hanh advocates getting away from the thing that's making you angry, if possible, and focusing on being present with yourself--feeling yourself breathe, feeling your feet on the ground, etc.  The best thing, he says, is to go for a nice solitary walk, and just focus on walking, but we all know that this is probably easier for a single monk than for a mother of small children. So I just do the best I can--change rooms for a minute, pull over and get out of the car. Do the breathing thing. I find it helpful also to make myself see something beautiful around me, wherever I am, and to try to be thankful for that one beautiful thing.


After a little breathing, we can focus on our anger--not the object of it, but the feeling itself--and finding it, we embrace it gently, like a mother picking up a crying baby, he says.


This one was tough for me to figure out, but this is how I do it: I try to figure out who inside of me is angry, so to speak. The one who wants to be in control? The one who is afraid she isn't a good mother if her kids don't eat their veggies? The one who is freaking out about meeting a work deadline? Then I think, where am I carrying that angry person? In my shoulders? Belly? Throat? Behind my ears? When I find her, I tell that angry, fearful person, "It's okay. You're a good person and you're doing the best you can. You have your moments and the kids have theirs, but you love them, and they adore you." I focus on relaxing the part of the body that's tense, I breathe a little more.


And then I look for a solution that will help everyone to be their best selves.


Something else I learned recently (not on my own) was the importance of really stepping out of myself,  stepping into my kids' heads for a moment, and finding the thing that's making them be rude or mean or whatever. Maybe it's just that they were happy to be playing and then disappointed to have to stop. (I never give that one the credit it's due--I hate stopping playing, too. It's way past my bedtime right now, and here I am at the computer--if I were my kid, I would be yelling at me to turn off the computer this instant and go to bed.) Maybe they're fearful, or jealous, or just plain crazied up because the weather's nice.


Whether or not I think their feelings make sense (since when do feelings have to make sense, anyway?) I find that if I make a real effort to empathize, and really feel what they're feeling, I can discipline them with more compassion and less anger. Maybe that means a hug and a kiss and apologies all around, but I've found that sometimes it still means no dessert, or paying me back time and trouble by cleaning an extra mess somewhere in the house, or whatever. I just am able to make it happen calmly and compassionately, knowing that I'm really doing the best that I can, rather than doling out a punishment because I'm pissed off and want to teach those little brats a lesson.


Not that my kids always behave any better afterwards--although it has been working more often than not. But even when they don't behave, and try to blow off whatever next step I come up with, at least I feel calmer and less personally insulted. Which makes me better able to deal with the new craziness.