Do you want to hear about something I was so epicly wrong about that I’ll never get over it??
I was wrong about anger.
I used to think I was morally superior to people because I never got angry.
When people in my life or online would be angry I would skip along my merry way preaching “Always accept. Always forgive. Never be angry.” La la la la la
It was nice and cozy in my happy little bubble of anger suppression.
I used to delete social media and news apps whenever heated things were happening (cough, cough election season). My finger was so quick to click “mute” on my friends who posted their political opinions with exclamation points and caps lock.
I couldn’t hear and consequently didn’t try to understand VALID concerns because all I could hear was anger.
I thought this was because I was the ultimate peacemaker.
I listened to my calming apps. I meditated. I would look at the yelling and arguing and think, “Can’t we all just get along?”
I would pat myself on the back smugly thinking, “Good job self! Good on you for being above getting angry over things. You know that worse than any political/moral issue is fighting and anger.”
I can see where I was coming from, but ultimately, I was wrong.
There ARE very legitimate reasons for folks to be angry. My intolerance to anger didn’t protect me from its influence, it actually kept me stuck. It kept me from LEARNING and GROWING. My intolerance to anger wasn’t a virtue of mine, it was a roadblock. It kept me from needed growth through self-confrontation, listening and putting myself into someone else’s shoes.
I’ve learned that tolerance of anger is like a superpower.
Now, instead of running away from difficult topics with my hands up screaming, “Aahhhhh! Anger! Must flee!” I can listen. I can make it not about me. I can look PAST someone’s anger to discover the longing and dreams they are expressing UNDERNEATH their anger (I mean not always, I am human). I can SIT WITH MY OWN anger without needing to suppress it or numb it (I mean again with the human thing).
Upping my anger tolerance has been so critical to my growth as a human.
So, how does one gain this super power of anger tolerance?
I don’t have a formula, all I have is my story.
I will tell you my tale.
Sitting with my angry self
So there I was skipping along in my never-angry land of bunnies and rainbows (which some therapists call toxic positivity land….. killjoys.)
The suppression and blocking out were working pretty well until a few years ago, I finally met my match.
I finally had something in my life that I just. couldn’t. get. over. All of my self-help books and life coach podcasts were failing me!
Why couldn’t I get over this?!
I was so unfamiliar and ill-equipped at dealing with my own anger, that I finally admitted to myself I needed some outside help. I set an appointment with a therapist.
I went in with my pen clicked and my notebook open.
Ok doc, hit me with my 3-step program to get over my anger please. Where’s your pamphlet on forgiveness and acceptance? Just tell me how to get rid of my anger and I’ll do it!
Instead of my requested ‘here’s how to get over your anger in 3 easy steps’ pamphlet, she responded, “What if instead of convincing yourself out of your anger, you sit with it? What if you become it’s student? What if you ask your anger what it’s trying to teach you?”
I don’t have conversations with my anger! I jump on its head Donald Duck style, until it goes down so deep inside of me that no one has to see it or confront it (including me).
But she assigned me to use my little notebook to become a student of my own anger- to notice what triggers it and write it down. To notice how it feels in my body and write it down.
And I’m nothing if not a good student.
And do you know what? It turns out my anger wasn’t my selfishness unleashing itself and parading all over my best self. It wasn’t my ego vomiting up my inner darkness I tried so hard to stuff down.
Rather the anger I couldn’t shake was all about injustice, people being treated poorly. It was about incorrect information and oppression. My anger wasn’t a selfishness parade, it was more like my conscience tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Hey, something isn’t right here, pay attention to this please.”
Turns out my anger is actually pretty smart.
I learned so much about myself by journaling out my triggers and sitting with my anger.
When I didn’t have to fear my anger, it could teach me. When I didn’t have to numb my anger, it didn’t hold its power over me.
Over time, my therapist helped me see a glaring truth- it wasn’t other people’s anger that was the problem, it was my own intolerance of anger that was the real problem.
And I was SO SURE other people’s anger was the problem!
Because, gosh its easier to live in happy la la land and dismiss angry people (including myself).
When I learned this, I started seeing how my own anger intolerance kept me stuck in every area of my life (if you didn’t follow directions up there when I told you to sit down, take a seat now, these might hit close to home):
This one is tender, I’m still very much working on it. But my #1 mistake in parenting isn’t too much screen time or a lack of quality time with them or not teaching them responsibility, it’s anger intolerance.
When I am intolerant of their anger:
- I give in to their whining just to keep the peace.
- I teach them to numb their own feelings with food and screens because I am uncomfortable with them.
- I appease the loudest child instead of treating them all equally.
- I take their tantrums personally and make it about me.
- My interventions in their arguments aim to stop the fighting, not forge connection and reparation.
- I make them afraid of their own feelings because I am afraid of them.
- I teach them not to listen to their hearts, but to obey so that everyone (including mom) is happy.
- I teach them that anger and sadness is a problem to be fixed instead of an important and natural part of life to learn from.
I’m working on it.
Right. Remember that bit at the top of this essay when I talked about how I used to think myself morally superior to people who got angry…….?
Guess how this tendency served my marriage?
On a scale from no big deal to big yikes?
It’s a big yikes.
I used to think I didn’t have to listen to Rich when he was angry. I got to be the smug one telling him to “just calm down.” If he was angry, he was in the wrong.
You know Dr. John Gottman? That psychologist who can predict whether or not a couple will get divorced with 91% accuracy? One of the main ways he makes these predictions is by counting how many times a bid for attention or connection gets responded to and how many times it is dismissed or ignored.
He found that happily married couples respond to their partner’s bids for attention or connection 86% of the time. Couples that would later divorce? They only responded to each other’s bids for connection 22% of the time.
One of the main reasons couples turn away instead of turning toward each others’ bids is because often bids for attention can be wrapped in anger.
It is easy to dismiss a bid to clean up your socks or for more free time when the person requesting says it in anger, but it’s still a bid.
Marriage masters are able to see what the longing underneath the anger is, and respond to that instead of the anger.
I’m working on it.
STANDING UP FOR WHAT’S RIGHT
This is another tender one.
The amount of times I should have backed someone up in person or online but kept quiet because I didn’t want to appear like I supported anger?
The number of times I dismissed someone’s opinion because they cursed while saying it?
The number of times I judged people’s opinion because they sounded angry?
The number of times I didn’t trust myself to state my own opinion because I didn’t want to appear as an angry cynic??
These numbers make my heart hurt.
I’m working on it.
Lest you think the whole point of this post is to say, “Everyone should be angry MORE!”
I must say I think Brene Brown was right when she said that anger is a great catalyst, but a crappy companion. We should learn from our anger, we should let it catapult us into action, but clinging to it as our companion will make us blind and sick.
I still want my kids to not fight and not whine, but I am learning to tolerate their anger instead of NEEDING to squelch it because I can’t handle it.
I still prefer when Rich is in a good mood, but I’m learning to allow him to feel whatever he feels without NEEDING to convince him out of his anger because I can’t handle it.
Often I still look at the fighting online and say, “Hey, can’t we all be a little kinder?” But now, it comes from my conviction that respect and nonviolence solve problems better than blame and criticism; rather than my own intolerance of yelling.
In sum, I was wrong. There are good reasons to be angry. Angry people’s opinions are valid and need to be heard. Whether its my child, my husband or a Facebook friend, their anger is not an excuse to dismiss them or judge them.
And I’ve learned that the best way to learn to tolerate other people’s anger is to learn to tolerate my own.