Turn Anger into a Peaceful Heart
January 16, 2024

Are you feeling cross?



(Note: This JOT is adapted from Mother Nurture, a book written for mothers – focusing on typical parenting situations and gender differences that are experienced by many, though not all, mothers and fathers, and by parents in same sex relationships. Parenting is a complex subject, plus it intertwines with larger issues of gender roles and the long history of mistreatment of women; obviously society should do a better job of supporting families in general and mothers and fathers in particular, but meanwhile there are things they can do for themselves; alas, there is no room for these complexities in these brief JOTs; for my discussion of them, please see Mother Nurture.)

Let’s be realistic: it’s completely normal for a mother to get angry with her children. Or with her partner, the in-laws, her clueless boss—or herself. Studies have found that the more children a woman has, the more time she spends with them or doing housework, or the more hassles she has with child care or her kids, the angrier she’s likely to be. There’s no need to feel guilty about anger itself. The real question is, what can you do about it?

On the one hand, anger is a healthy emotion. It shines a bright light on things that should be different—like a child’s incessant whining, a partner’s broken agreements, or some stupid workplace policy that keeps you from your kids—and energizes you to try to change them. Bottling up anger numbs your other feelings as well, and it wears on your health. Acting like you are not mad when you really are is inauthentic and teaches kids to put on a false face themselves—not a good lesson.

On the other hand, anger can be an emotional roller coaster that stresses the body and can create bad feelings for hours. And no other emotion has such an impact on relationships. When Mom or Dad gets mad, that’s scary and often overwhelming for kids since their parents are so big, powerful, and important. In an intimate relationship, frequent anger is very wounding; after a while, anyone would start wanting to step back from a person who’s angry a lot of the time.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy middle path between tight-lipped self-censoring and boiling-over rage.


Stop Things from Building Up

We usually get mad in two stages. First, there’s the priming: tension, frustration, bodily discomfort, fatigue, gripes, etc., which mount up like a growing pile of dynamite. Then comes the firecracker that sets it all off.

During the priming phase, try to defuse things before there’s a blowup. Here are a few ideas.

  • Don’t overgive. One trick is to imagine asking your future self how you will feel if you commit to taking on yet another task. Another is to adopt the blanket policy of never agreeing to anything until there’s been adequate time to think it over.
  • Blow off steam along the way. Try not to accumulate a residue of irritation from individual interactions.
  • Take a break before reaching the breaking point. Most people become quite frayed by the time they’ve been alone with a young child for three or four hours. Make it a serious priority to find some way, any way, to take a break before the pot boils over.
Understand What’s Making You Angry

When anger arises, there’s typically more to the story. Let’s say it’s Wednesday after work, a mother is in the store with her three-year-old son, and all she wants to do is get home, make some dinner, and relax. But he wants some candy, she says “no,” and he throws a major tantrum. People are staring, and she feels mortified, somehow, she gets him out of the store and into her car, and then she really yells at him. In that moment, the intensity of her anger is at least a six or seven on a ten-point scale.

But now, let’s change some of the elements of the situation. Suppose it’s a Saturday morning instead, and she’s feeling rested and relaxed. How intense do you think her anger would be in that case? Probably less: maybe one to three on the anger scale. Or suppose that she’s at home, not out at the store, when her son throws his tantrum; no one is watching, and she doesn’t have to care what anyone is thinking. How angry do you think she’d be then? Again, probably less.

Fatigue and embarrassment can amplify feelings by five or so points while having nothing to do with the actual seriousness of a child’s misbehavior. But when the “amplifiers” in life are understood, suddenly there’s a lot less to be mad about.

Key Ways to Turn Anger into Peace
  • Don’t let things build up, don’t overgive, blow off steam as you go along, etc.
  • Understand the thoughts or ways you are perceiving things that are the true sources of your anger.
  • Try to sense down to the softer emotions beneath anger, like hurt or fear; acknowledge those to yourself or express them to others.
  • If you feel like you’re going to blow up, walk away or call a friend.
  • Get professional help if you are directing anger at yourself or others in harmful ways.
  •  Ask your heart for guidance.

Know Someone Who Could Use a More Peaceful Heart?

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