Anger…and other things

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions lately especially those nasty, sneaky, powerful ones that seem to bubble up from somewhere and completely take over.  I have always had a ridiculously bad temper although I have much greater control of it now than I did when I was younger.

Becoming angry can go one of two ways for me if I am not present and mindful: explosion or implosion.  Blowing up is a fairly addictive thing.  It feels really, really good to let fly with a screaming, ranting, fit. The effect is only temporarily liberating, however. When I explode, it’s ugly and always leaves me feeling spent and ashamed. I will relate an example only because I am certain that I am not alone in having exhibited this kind of tantrum.  I have two kids. They are both girls.  There’s a lot of drama in our house. And glitter (I hate glitter). And Barbies (I really hate Barbies). For several months running, every time we were in the car, the two of them would wait until we were in traffic and then begin shrieking at each other. Those of you who are parents are nodding in weary acknowledgment because you have suffered the same fate. If you are a parent and don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re probably a way better parent than me. I’m just a regular, good enough parent. So, one time when my beautiful children morphed into screeching, howling, reality show wannabees in my backseat before we even got out of the driveway, I slammed on the brakes throwing them against their seatbelts and let them have it while slamming my fists on the steering wheel.  I can’t remember the content of my diatribe but the end result was that I screamed so loud that I had a sore throat for two days.  The effect on the girls was immediate and, momentarily, incredibly gratifying.  They were silent.  Absolutely silent. And they stayed that way. I glanced in my add-on little kid rear-view mirror to see four enormous un-blinking eyes.  I kept checking back and saw tears. Very quiet tears. I had gotten exactly what I wanted but now I felt a growing sense of shame and horror.  How many times had I told them that temper tantrums weren’t ok? A hundred? A thousand? Why can’t I be the calm, reasonable, perpetually, unconditionally loving parent with perfect children I read about in everyone else’s blogs?  I drove in their silence.  We did our grocery shopping, also in silence. They didn’t look at me. I didn’t look at them. We got home and unloaded the groceries.  By then I was awash in shame. I had, for want of any other way of describing it, disconnected us. I decided that compensatory bribery wasn’t going to help; they wouldn’t buy it and neither would I. So, I apologized to them explaining what had happened and why I had responded the way I had. I didn’t blame them but did hold them accountable for their fighting in the car. I told them I hoped I would not lose my temper that way again but that I couldn’t guarantee it (It’s amazing how a couple of elementary school children can look so intimidating when you are apologizing to them for behaving like a child). I don’t remember what they said but there was hugging and something snarky about warning them in advance so they could plug their ears.

Me with my daughter on Cooper in a Generation Gap class.

That’s the exploding kind of anger.  Sometimes when I’m angry, however, it all goes inside (Freud was an idiot about women but he was right about some things).  We have a horse. Both of my girls ride and so do I (the husband, not so much but he’s becoming a darn good horse show dad).  A couple of years ago, my oldest was riding and our horse Cooper was being a troll (which is one step up from being a toad in case you were wondering).  She was crying so I got on and attempted to find a solution.  Cooper wasn’t having any of it.  He’s one of those horses who knows just how big he is and, on that day, he did not want to work so he didn’t. After nearly an hour of bone-jarring riding, I was furious and exhausted. I got down, hosed off the horse, and put him back out in the pasture. As if to further infuriate me, he immediately dropped to the ground to roll.  Shaking my head I walked back into the barn to get my daughter and go home. I had begun to cry. She said something like, “It’s ok mom.” I said something like, “No it’s not. I’m so stupid, I can’t even pick the right horse for my kid!” I didn’t mean to say it out loud but I did. I had taken full and personal responsibility for the behavior of a 1200 pound, passive-aggressive bully who hadn’t been getting enough exercise lately to be civil. It wasn’t fixable because it was me.  That’s like swallowing a grenade. That’s imploding.  On a different day, I would have gotten down sooner (some days horses don’t want to work or don’t feel good just like us) and reframed it as a training issue for another day when everyone was more calm.

Of the two, I implode more often than explode and I’m particularly prone to imploding anger when my depression is acute. I’m not one of the many well-respected people out there who argue that all anger is toxic.  I believe that, like all emotions, anger is adaptive when experienced in a balanced, mindful way. My challenge is that I did not learn that skill early on and am only now learning it as an adult. I’m not much of a believer in karma or fate but between Cooper and my kids, I seem to have been given what I need to figure this out. It’s been said by many others before me that horses are intuitive and sensitive creatures.  I agree (although I thought the Black Stallion books were stupid when I read them as a kid).  They once lived in herds and were hunted as prey. They pay attention (well, some more than others…) to what others are feeling. If I ride in an angry or fearful or even an overly committed to a specific outcome state of mind, Cooper pushes back. If I approach my kids in an angry, fearful, or over-committed state of mind, they push back. I’m still learning.  I’ll try to learn faster.

P.S. I had a beautiful fall trail ride with friends today. Cooper couldn’t have been more cooperative and engaged.


About Tammy Daily

I am a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Mount Union. My training is as a Social Psychologist and I study the impact of negative images of people with mental illness in the mass media. I have been teaching a class since 2004 called Movies and Madness which examines the ways in which people with mental illness and mental health care providers are presented in the mass media.

Posted on November 6, 2011, in Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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