Sorting Out Anger With Buttons, Containers, Heat, and Waves

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After my Simple Epiphany the other week, I have seen some changes to my mindset. Once you start to think that your thinking is creating your reality, then you begin to be far more selective about which thoughts you give credence to. I have been feeling a lot more positive as a result.

In view of this, I was surprised to find myself losing my temper in a big way over a small dispute with my five year old daughter. How did that happen? Since I decided to accept my human weaknesses, now I can be so frickin’ serene that I will actually be perfect after all right? Yeah, I know. It doesn’t work like that, does it.

At the time I was shocked. I swore I didn’t see it coming.

The time is about 6:15 on a Wednesday evening. I have picked up the kids from school, played, got dinner in the oven, and in a moment I will be putting hot fish fingers onto little plastic plates to cool down. Miss 5 decides that right now, she wants to do painting and there is NOTHING else in the WHOLE WORLD she can do at this moment: Mother, can you not see that I am seized by the muse? Well, yes my darling I can, but it is time for your evening repast.

OK, actually it was more like…

Miss 5: Can I do some painting?
Me: I’m afraid now isn’t a great time darling because dinner is almost ready.
Miss 5: But I really want to paint….Please can I paint?
Me: it’s great that you remembered to say please sweetheart, but I don’t think so. Tomorrow we can paint though.
Miss 5: (face crumples, shrieks) but I really, really want to paint right now!
Me: Look, we have five minutes before dinner and getting out the paints means, taking out paint pots, mixing up paint, finding the brushes and paper, and then Sam will want all those things too. It’s just too much stuff for right now.
Miss 5: I WANT TO PAINT!
Me: CAN’T YOU JUST TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER!!! HOW DO YOU LIKE BEING SHOUTED AT!! IT’S NOT VERY NICE IS IT!! (throws oven glove to floor in fit of maturity)

Now, sometimes I shout, but I rarely yell. Miss 5 and Mr 3 we’re startled. Miss 5 was quite shaken and ran for the door. Mr almost 3 started laughing, which broke the tension, so I tickled him and gave him a kiss. Then I went to find Miss 5. I said that I was really sorry for shouting at her and she must have felt quite scared to be running off. I said that people shouldn’t shout at each other like that. I said I didn’t really know why I yelled at that moment, but I guess I was feeling wound up and lost my temper, even though it was just over a small thing. We had a cuddle and went on with dinner.

I felt awful. It’s a horrible feeling to have just scared your kid.

It then took me two and a half hours to get the children into bed. Aaargh. Then, I cried on husband’s shoulder and had some wine. I was still at a loss as to where that big blast of anger came from.

Looking back, I have a few ideas:

Everyone has their buttons. They get installed in childhood and become apparent through adult experience. As a teacher I had teacher buttons, and as a parent I have parent ones. They get pressed a lot, too.

I have one big button which says ‘We’re going to be late’. Lots of English people have it. Hubster has it. My family has it. His family has it. One day, our kids may well have it, but not yet. I can see that many of my Portuguese counterparts don’t have this button. There is a look of benign incomprehension on the face of my neighbours as I say ‘I must go, or we won’t get to school on time’. I can see them thinking ‘Calma!’.

So earlier, I had gone to pick up the kids from crèche and it took longer than usual. Mr almost 3 wanted to bash the plastic barrier on the stairs so it made a big satisfying noise. While I was disengaging him from this activity, Miss 5 thought it would be fun to go downstairs and hide. All this time, Miss 1 was clinging to me and agitating for a breastfeed. Push, push, push went the ‘we’re going to be late’ button. Then as soon as we got home I put us on a clock. I want dinner at half six, kids in bed by eight thirty. Push, push.

It is ironic that, as someone who loves independence and autonomy, I also have a button which says ‘I don’t want to do it alone’. This had been pushed quite a lot over the last three months or so, due to me feeling overwhelmed. When husband is away at work and I am tired, and there is chaos and washing up all over the place I push this button. It sounds like a violin. Woe is me. Push. I live a long way from my family. Push. Some days I just want to be mothered. Push.

So, on that particular day I had been pushing my buttons. People always say that kids push your buttons, but actually you watch the kids do something totally innocuous and then you push your own button. They are just being kids. They test boundaries and parents try to establish them. Button related stuff is guaranteed to tick you off at times. Often, it is something you do without even really noticing, until suddenly you are caught up in a whirlwind. In our house, things tend to get messy when we are trying to get the kids out the door in the morning. You get in a bit of a bad mood, then suddenly you are raging over something really small and mundane.

After losing your temper comes regret, or maybe embarrassment, or a lingering sense of ineffable nastiness. You beat yourself up for flying off the handle. You think you should have stayed in control. You wonder at the force which temporarily overtook you. Sometimes people talk about loss of temper as a release, but it never feels like one when the recipient of that anger is your own child.

Back to thinking about how I think about things. I wonder if the way that we think about anger in English speaking culture is not very helpful in deciding what to do with that feeling.

Anger is often described as heat in a container: She was getting hot under the collar; She simmered with a slow burning resentment; She felt her blood boil; She needed to let off steam; She exploded.

As with other emotions, we take something physical and use it to map the features of the abstract feeling. This gives the unknowable shape and helps us talk about it. These metaphors have a huge influence on the way we understand our internal experiences, and how we evaluate our external behaviour.

Like a hot liquid in a container, anger is thought manageable and measurable. Yet, when things are really bad we talk about rage. Rage is unpredictable and uncontrollable: She erupted with white hot rage.

There is a certain amount of ‘goodness of fit’ for these metaphors: we do get hot when we get cross; we do find that little irritations mount up over time; we can try to release bad feeling by ‘letting it out’; just as we can become suddenly livid and take ourselves by surprise when we lose control..

However, using the logic of metaphor, we go from basic cookery to huge, bombastic, natural forces in a couple of quick steps. So, when you lose your temper it sort of feels like you were boiling an egg, then it exploded like Vesuvius all over the kitchen for no apparent reason. You feel shocked and kind of culpable, but you still don’t quite know how it happened. After all, if you had turned down the heat on the egg, you might not need to clean shell off the ceiling. To be fair though, this is not the normal result of boiling an egg a bit too long. Yes, you could have acted in some way to prevent it, but the mechanics of what happened are unclear to you.

What if you get rid of that whole metaphor.

In fact, people talk about waves of anger too.

What if anger was like waves breaking on the coast:

Imagine standing on a rocky promontory above the sea. Sometimes the waves just break around your ankles and it is no big deal. Sometimes the waves get bigger and you find yourself in danger of being lost at sea. Sometimes waves even crash over your head and you really panic that you’ll be washed away. But if you stay on your rocky outcrop and don’t let that happen, then the wave will pass over you. You will be kind of soggy for a while, but you will dry out.

I apologise in advance for mixing metaphors: when your buttons are pressed the waves get bigger.

When your mood is bad they get bigger. When you are feeling tired they get bigger. When you are overstimulated they get bigger.

However, the waves are also at the mercy of the elements, not under your complete control. There are periods of calm and good weather followed by stormier seasons. That is just how it is.

You can’t stop the waves happening, but you can choose not to get lost in them. You are going to get wet, but the storm will pass. The sea will calm. You do not need to do anything.

If you just stay on the rock, the storm will pass and the sea will calm.

Then it will get all riled up again, because that is what the sea does.

But the storm will pass and the sea will calm.

Even if sometimes you can’t breath and you feel that the wave will never stop coming. It will. All you have to do is hold onto your rock and wait.

I reckon if you think about anger like this, you might feel less compelled to do something with it. Less compelled to manage it. That compulsion to direct anger at stuff. The urge to say and do not very nice things. It is such a destructive force. All too often though, it is not things which deserve anger that get the brunt of it. It is the people close by. Which is why it is better to do nothing with it. Not bottle it up. Just leave it alone. Recognise that you are experiencing some bad feeling and it will pass in time.

The anger is a heat in a container metaphor tells us that we have to release the anger somehow. We have to find a way to discharge it, or we bottle it up and set ourselves up for a greater, more dangerous explosion later on.

If anger is a wave, then you wait for it to wash over you and then it goes away on its own. No direction necessary.

Whatever caused the waves to be so damn big might need some attention. Look at your buttons! Noticing when you are doing too much button pushing helps the anger waves to diminish and recede. Also, noticing when there is a problem which needs genuine attention. Something which cannot just be borne out. Better to deal with these issues when you have returned to a more relaxed frame of mind. Come back to it when the sea is not so rough.

Sometimes you fall into the waves because it is tricky to balance on a rock while the sea rages around you. Sometimes you jump in, because the compulsion to act on your feelings is just too strong. Everyone does it. It is normal.

But you don’t need to do anything to get rid of anger. You need to let it wash away in its own time. While you’re waiting for that to happen, you can put a bit of attention into self care. Have a nap. Phone your mum. Cuddle your resentful paint deprived child.

The storm will pass and the sea will calm.

Then it’ll rise up again and you’ll end up with a wet bum. Life’s just like that.

At least though, you can kind of explain what happened.

What buttons do you have? Are they familial? Cultural? Just plain barmy?

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