My 21-month old grandson punched me in the face last night. It was not an accident – he was extremely angry with me. I was being unreasonable; I wouldn’t let him pull a thirty-pound picture down from the wall onto his head. He wanted to undertake this course of action very much and his frustration over my refusal was expressed by violence. In return, he was placed on the floor and admonished, yet again, “We don’t hit. We like gentle hands.”
It has been an interesting experience, watching my grandson grow and develop. I didn’t pay as much attention the first time through, though I tried. I was too much in the trenches. This time, however, I’m not the parent; I have space to observe things more thoughtfully. And the development of emotions and behaviours is interesting indeed.
My grandson is very in touch with his emotions. He has not yet learned the fine art of denying them. You know when he’s happy or sad, annoyed or amused, frustrated or angry. He hasn’t learned to prevaricate. He hasn’t learned to hide what he feels. He hasn’t learned moderation. Hence the punch to the face.
I am the opposite. I am not immediately in touch with my emotions. It takes work for me to figure out what I’m feeling. I mostly figure it out after the fact. Except anger. I recognize that one. I feel it when it’s rising up. It terrifies me.
I don’t deal with anger well. I don’t tolerate it well in myself, nor in other adult people. I find it terrifying. Angry people are dangerous. Angry people are out of control. Angry people are a threat. Getting angry is wrong. Expressing your anger is wrong. These are the lessons I learned as a child, the ones I didn’t want to pass on to my children, the ones I definitely don’t want my grandson to learn.
The problem is the judgement we give to emotions. We label them and teach our children to label them as good and bad. Desirable and forbidden. Acceptable or unacceptable. Truthfully, however, emotions don’t have a moral value. A feeling is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Everything depends on what happens next.
The education has to be two-fold. We need to understand the emotions we feel – what they might mean – and understand what to do next. What to do with the emotion we’ve identified.
Anger is a secondary emotion. That means that something else is underneath it. Something is driving the anger, something beyond the initial act that we think set us or someone else off. We mostly use it to hide our vulnerability, that instinctively undesirable state.
The feelings that drive anger are the ones most of us would expect if we thought about it: fear, frustration, hurt, humiliation, rejection. We have been taught that these emotions are bad. We see them as so undesirable that we immediately puff up and lash out at the stimulus when we experience them. Some of us lash excessively.
My grandson hit me in anger but underlying his rage was frustration at not being able to get what he wanted. Being able to understand that informed my response. It stopped me from getting angry in return. And yes, you can get angry at toddlers.
I didn’t grow up around a lot of overt anger but the threat was always there. You could feel it, simmering under the surface, infecting the house. And I had a lot of anger towards my younger brother, a consequence of sibling jealousy and resentment over the attention he received by virtue of being a rather sick infant and child. That, of course, is perspective speaking. At the time, all I knew was that at times, I felt like I hated him. He teased me until I exploded. I got in trouble for it every time.
Until one day, I exploded and there was a hammer in arm’s reach. I grabbed it and flung it at his head, as hard as I could. Of course, I was horrified and desperately remorseful as soon as it left my hand. And luckily, my brother ducked. But the incident created a scar. I was determined to never lose my temper and turn into a horrifying person again. This incident exacerbated my fear of anger and carried it into adulthood. I wish I had understood enough to look deeper into the feelings that were driving me.
My grandmother told me, “if you’re angry, count to ten.” It’s remarkably good advice. Do some deep breathing while you’re at it. Counting lets you pause before reacting. It gives us time for reflection and second thoughts.
You have time to identify the underlying emotion when you’re counting and breathing. It gives you space before you react. In my case, unless I’m driving, the underlying emotion is probably hurt with a side order of fear. The latter because when there’s hurt, you’re probably going to have to stand up for yourself or enforce boundaries and I hate doing that. It feels like a risk. I worry about the other person getting angry and attacking me – even though that has never actually happened.
Anger is an easy emotion. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to work hard to generate it. And expressing it can be a bit of a kick. You feel strong and clever. Powerful and in control. When you vanquish the opposition, it feels like you’ve won something. At least until you have to do internal and external damage control.
For my grandson, punching me in the face was easy. For my younger self, throwing the hammer was easy. As is usually the case, the grown up and mature reaction – acknowledge the anger, figure out what’s driving it, and address the situation intelligently – is much more of a challenge.
How do you treat your anger?