Don’t blame yourself when you start losing your temper. Do this instead.
An extra-hard kick to the back of your chair. Your child’s voice shouting: “I don’t care!” Your great-grandmother’s favourite teacup smashed on the floor. One moment, you’re just annoyed, and the next you feel like the Incredible Hulk.
Anger: a chemical chain reaction
It all starts inside your brain. A tiny nerve at the base of your brain called the “vagus” sparks a reaction. This nerve triggers a flood of hormones, and the stress washes over you. You sense the changes in your breathing, your heart-rate, your digestion, even your skin. This reaction is just your nervous system setting you up for a fight/flight/freeze response. It’s perfectly normal to react this way, even if there is a chubby preschooler or sullen teenager in the back seat of your car demanding your attention, and not a snarling bear or a raging wildfire threatening your very survival.
Unfortunately, women (especially mothers) are told that it’s not okay to be angry. As soon as you feel your body starts to shift into battle-mode, your brain starts repeating those messages, telling you all the reasons why you are already failing, you are just a mean mommy, you just can’t keep it together, you are headed over the edge, and so forth.
Meanwhile, you feel your mouth go dry, and your palms may start to sweat. Your heart starts to beat faster.
In addition to telling you what a failure you are, your brain might also be spitting out a list of worst case scenarios. Oh great, now the day is ruined. This child is headed for jail or worse. You should have fixed this by now. No one is helping you. Why does this happen every single time you make an effort. Everything just seems wrong, impossible, all stacked against you. Your brain is absolutely laser-focused on everything that has gone wrong, is wrong, or could possibly go wrong.
Before you start beating yourself about the fact that you are angry (again)…
Remember: It’s not your fault.
Anger is part of a natural, physical response.
Even if you feel that you struggle with anger more than the average person, that’s not your fault either. Some babies are born more sensitive to stress. Your body has its own way of responding, and your first reaction depends on so many things that are outside of your control. Your nervous system is set up to respond based on your genes, the way you were raised, if you have a history of trauma, the level of stress in your everyday life, and how your brain has developed to this point in time.
So that’s where you are right now. Life happens, and a wave of anger comes rushing in. Sometimes it knocks you sideways.
“I Don’t Want To Be an Angry Mom”
If you are reading this, maybe it is because anger is getting in the way.
When you are angry, it’s hard to be the kind of parent you want to be. This surge of energy isn’t helping you find the words to connect with your child, or to see what struggles might be hiding behind the disruptive behaviour. The way you respond might be triggering more reactions from people around you, which just makes the whole stressful situation spiral even further.
If I can give you one piece of advice to get you started, it’s this:
Whatever is in front of you is going to be okay.
Maybe it’s helpful to keep thinking of anger as a wave.
Imagine yourself standing on the beach, watching your children build a sandcastle, and suddenly, a wave rushes in and hits you. You’re now soaking wet. That’s how anger works sometimes.
Now, there’s no point in being angry at yourself for being wet, because that’s what water does. The same thing would have happened to anyone standing in that spot.
Neither is there any point in pushing back the wave, jumping in the water, or dripping all over anyone else (is anyone else having a Moana moment right now or is it just me?)
You are still you, you’re just soggy right now.
Using mindfulness to help you to deal with real-life challenges
As you take your thoughts and look at them through the lens of mindfulness, you tend to get more psychologically flexible, and that flexibility is a key aspect of mental health. Mindfulness about more than just staying present, meditating, or taking deep breaths. It’s a set of evidence-based practices based on six basic principles. One of the foundations of mindfulness is the understanding that you are not your thoughts.
Our thoughts are made up of words and pictures, and we can’t always control them, but instead of thinking of them as part of us, it helps to think of them as something that happens to us.
When a wave of anger rushes up inside you, remember that wave on the beach. Instead of thinking “I’m wet, I’m just a wet person, and I’m the type of person who gets wet,” you can try out the this thought: “I just got hit by a wave of anger.” You are not your anger. Instead, it’s just something that’s happening to you right now.
When you are with your kids, and you don’t have the option of moving away from the shoreline in this metaphor (let’s say you’re back in our previous example, and driving that car and getting kicked in the back by an angry preschooler) chances are good that wave is going to come rushing in again soon. However, you can change the way you think about the wave.
Mindfulness tip: observe the moment in a gentle, curious way
If you were on the beach, getting hit by a real wave, instead of thinking “I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m cold, I’m wet…” you could try to observe the wave in a different way. You can watch how the wave rolls over itself, you can look at how the light shines through it, notice the sounds you hear, and even count how many different shades of blue you can see.
In real life, anything around you or inside of you can become something to just observe. Your pulse, your hands, even your thoughts; if you can take a moment to observe them, then you are actually busy being mindful, and that gives you a chance to spend less time being angry.
Anger happens to us but it doesn’t change us
As you let that wave of anger recede, you will remember what is still true: you are still a good mama who loves her kiddo, even if he or she is being an extra spicy meatball at that moment. You are still a capable person, who will probably have some brilliant insight in about 10 minutes, when you have a chance to towel yourself off.
Be gentle with yourself. Accept that your brain is going to get soggy sometimes. It happens to all of us. Welcome to the beach.