Listening to anger

I get angry a lot. Sometimes the anger is apparent externally, and sometimes it is just simmering within me. Its arrival, regardless of its appearance, demands an instant response. And for me, most of the time that response shows up as criticism. Especially with my kids and my partners, people close to me.

Very, very often, shame follows on anger’s heels, and even mixes itself into my response, twisting it and shutting off the exits, making it hard for me to back down or change course. Because of the shame, part of me feels compelled to emotionally justify my feeling and my response to that feeling.

I get to where I feel pretty disgusted with myself. And then I wish for the impossible: if only I were a nicer person, a better person; if only I didn’t get angry, or I only got angry in a measured way in entirely morally justifiable circumstances.

But what if anger doesn’t truly demand instant action? What if anger is a messenger from within, a demand to pay attention not to the people in my external environment, but to myself? What if it is a clarion call for self-care? What if it takes anger to get my attention, because I’m so used to devaluing what I actually need in the moment?

Suppressed anger toxifies. Instead of flashing like lightning, it rises like gasses in a swamp, coalesces in the gut and drips down as a rain of bile.

I think of myself as an angry person, but I am coming to suspect that isn’t true: the anger speaks, over and over, attempting to get me to hear the message, but instead I react and then choke it (and myself) with shame.

So often the advice given about anger is to stop, count to ten, and then continue talking in a more calm way. This misses the effing point by about a mile. The stopping should be a chance to communicate with oneself, NOT to suppress one’s feelings.

Here is my goal for the month: a) notice when anger shows up; b) stop and ask anger what its message is, telling my kids that’s what I’m doing: “Hang on a minute, I have to listen to myself”; c) determine my self-care steps; d) ask for (or say) what I want (if that’s part of the self-care steps) and/or let my kids know what I need to do.

And in that communication with my kids, remember to give them the reason first and the request second. They respond (as do I) so much better when things are presented in that order.

I don’t want that acid to burn me, or my kids. Anger is necessary. But weaponized anger really hurts people. So I’m going to try to do a better job of listening.

Mistakes

I have heard all my life that mistakes are necessary, that they are how we learn. I have on some level considered that idea to be a fairy tale. It sounds good, but actually, says my training and habituated responses, mistakes are evidence of failure, and often of my character deficiencies. Sometimes I respond to mistakes, or to the fear of making one, as though they are threatening my survival. And so I have spent my life attempting to anticipate and prevent mistakes from happening in the first place. And when I fail to do so, punishing myself for the failure to prevent myself from making a mistake.

Think the house elves in Harry Potter. My response to my own errors has frequently been to bash myself on the head. I have been told repeatedly by people who love me that I am too hard on myself. But again, that didn’t really sink in, because after all, I could have done better. I could have not made the mistake at all.

And here’s a wrinkle: I have additionally determined the nature and degree of mistakes by weighting far too heavily other people’s reactions (or my projections of what those reactions are or will be). My calculus is off. The other day when I was thinking about this, the image of baking a cake came to me. And it occurred to me that I have been adding 2 cups of baking soda to my recipe, instead of the teaspoon or two called for. It is necessary to consider the opinions of others, especially those close to us. Baking soda helps pastries to rise; it expands the baked good and makes its taste and form better. But it is powerful: sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is also used as pest control. It kills cockroaches by causing their organs to burst due to gas collection (Wikipedia article on sodium bicarbonate). Too much of it wreaks the recipe. And when I add too much of it into my internal processes, it distorts my feelings, my decisions, causes me to fail to act, or to overreact, blurs my vision, and interrupts my connection to my heart, my mind, my guidance.

I have spent a lot of time trying to reduce the impact my fear of other people’s reactions has on me. But now I have had an idea. I need to change my relationship to mistakes. If I do not fear them so much, that will help me change my relationship to other people’s opinions, too, because I won’t need to add so much baking soda in an attempt to externally correct or punish myself.

I think I finally understand that it is simply not possible to anticipate and prevent mistakes. And the success of my life is not determined by how well I do that. In fact, just as it is true that kids need to be able to make their own mistakes in order to learn how they want to live, behave, and connect, it is true that I cannot learn well if I am spending enormous sums of my own energy attempting to prevent myself from undergoing that learning process myself. And the more I resist the possibility of making a mistake or upsetting other people, the harder it is for me to learn, and the more likely I am to screw up in the same ways, over and over again.

Also, just as with my kids, to expect myself to learn and grow and gracefully change course in the middle of the chaos is unrealistic, unfair, counterproductive and unloving. To expect myself to be in a state of clarity and calm in middle of a crisis, or to muster the same response when things are messy and emotionally charged as I can find when I am calm and centered is to set myself up for failure and self-castigation. In the Positive Discipline classes we took & the materials we read, it is emphasized that kids learn when they are feeling good and calm, not when they are being buffeted by the storm. The same goes for the adults, too.

So here are is my list of things I want to try to do in order to re-wire my brain around the whole conceptĀ and feeling of mistakes. As with everything else important, the ideas themselves are not sufficient. I have to practice.

1) Notice the positives. I need to name out loud things that go well, actions I take that work and that I feel good about.

2) Give myself 10 seconds before I speak or act in order to find compassion for everyone involved.

3) Say, “What can I learn from this situation, and what do I want to do differently next time.” And also, “What did I do well?”

4) Celebrate moments when I am able to accomplish grace and learning in the middle of mess and pain.

5) Create a list of mantras to remind myself daily that I am human and flawed, that mistakes are a vehicle for learning, and that I am not alone: help is always available from loved ones and from the universe.

6) In any given moment, ask myself what I can do and how I can act in a way that I feel good about, without reference to past or future.

Sleep training, parenting class, new words, communication, love

We’re doing another modified round of sleep training. The basic idea is that instead of spending a long time, sometimes hours, soothing the twins until they’re asleep or just about there, we’re soothing them and then putting them down and leaving the room until they are worked up again and/or out of their beds. Then we go back in, pick them up, (well, really it’s Emily, so at least for now it’s “her”, not “them”) shh and reassure her, put her back down, and leave again. Lather, rinse, repeat. This afternoon it took 45 minutes. It was literally a matter of seconds between when she stopped crying and Joanna woke up. It was something like a miracle, really, that Joanna’s waking sounds didn’t awaken Emily again. I took Joanna into our room and she was wonderfully willing to just snuggle with me while I vegged for a while, so I did get some very appreciated down time while Emily slept. Tonight it only took 20 minutes to get Emily down for the last time, so I am feeling pretty relieved.

At last night’s parenting class there was a lot of good modeling just in the conversation and relaying of information about how to talk to kids, how to encourage them while also holding solid boundaries. That helped a lot tonight. Instead of just repeating the mantra, “It’s time to relax and go to sleep,” as I have done several billion times before, I started to say to Emily, “I’m sorry this is hard, I hear that you’re sad, I know you can do this, I know you can calm down.” I was able to stay more calm myself, I think because I was empathizing with her rather than just telling her what she had to do. And she calmed much faster this way. And walking out of the room helped me to feel that I was doing something proactive and not just being trapped in the room by Emily’s emotions. Walking back into the room when she got upset helped me to feel that I was taking care of her and not just ignoring her emotions. So, progress for her and progress for me.

I thank all that is good for the parenting class, and for the wonderful resources we have.

Joanna said please today! Well, ok, she said, “Peee” very quietly, but she did it! And when she shared a toy with Emily this afternoon, Emily said, “Sank oo”. This brings happy tears to my eyes. Not because my two-year-olds are uttering politeness words, but because we are communicating! And they are communicating with each other. We talked with the parenting class leader last night about the trouble I’ve been having on nights when Ted isn’t there, and in the conversation I was reminded that just because the twins aren’t saying a lot doesn’t mean that we can’t communicate with them, doesn’t mean they don’t understand and can’t indicate that at least to some level. It was a good reminder. It helped me today.

Love leads us into profound vulnerability, through challenge and conflict, fear and anger. We risk because we love. But the rewards of communicating with love, being open to feeling love and willingness through the hard emotions, are enormous. Love is not safety, but when we communicate lovingly, we can help ourselves and those we love take greater risks because we have a solid foundation of trust and security. Words matter. I am turning myself upside down and inside out because I love my children, but perhaps even more importantly, because I choose to love myself enough to hold myself to the highest standard I can, to challenge myself, to choose compassion first.

And oh, this path is hard!

piano practice, tension, cultural realities, rehearsal, hair cut

This afternoon after Hazel played the piece she’s working on this week, she decided to play another piece. Five times. Of her own accord. She did it, too. I was suitably impressed.

This evening we had a long rehearsal, by the end of which I was starving and tired. In the middle, the conductor had to dismiss someone. He didn’t take it well, and the situation became tense. On my way home I thought about how our cultural context is such that when people get mad, you can’t be sure they’re not going to go for a gun-assisted reprisal. I know, that’s overly simplistic and an overly dramatic reaction to the evening’s discomfort, but there is this thread of uncertainty when you see irrational anger expressed, seemingly out of proportion to the situation. The presence of this thread in our cultural experience does not seem appropriate to a civil society based on laws and justice. We should not have to ask, “Does he have a gun and will he shoot me?” when someone gets upset.

There are other questions, of course, that I think we shouldn’t have to ask in a civil society, in a democracy. Those include, “Will paying my medical bills cause me to go into bankruptcy and/or cause me to lose my house?”, and, “If I walk in my neighborhood at night, will someone assault me because I’m female?”

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Tomorrow we’re going to bring a pair of sound-muffling headphones for Hazel, so that if the music gets too loud for her she can protect her ears. I got the idea at the last rock orchestra gig I did; one of the singers had noise-cancelling headphones on her baby, who was very happy to be at rehearsals. Hazel has been to one concert, thus far, which was our small ensemble performance. She hasn’t yet encountered the volume level made possibly by a vigorous brass section. I want her to have an option in case it’s a bit too much.

This will be another experience she’ll be able to tell the twins about, and induct them into once they’re old enough. I look forward to the day when I look out into the audience and see my three girls looking back at me.

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I got my hair cut today, for the first time in five months. It’s amazing what a difference it can make to my basic sense of well-being. When I have short hair I feel a much stronger desire to get it cut regularly than when it’s chin-length or more. When it gets too bushy it bothers me in the way that turtleneck shirts, too-long sleeves, a bra that doesn’t fit, or nails on a chalkboard do. It’s nice to be rid of the irritation factor, and also nice to have a cut I like in terms of how it suits my face.

Ted extremely generously came home early so I could go do that. It was great to have the time off, to have someone else wash my hair & cut it, and to have a couple of hours away from work and parenting.

I am looking forward to tomorrow’s concert, and I am also looking forward to the gardening we have planned for the early evening. It’s been a full couple of weeks.

6-month checkup, decorating the Christmas tree, sleep issues

The twins had their six-month appointment today. They’re doing really well, and are up to the 3rd and 5th percentile now. Joanna has done some catching up, and is closer to Emily in size. I love their pediatrician, who is also my ND. Their appointments are an hour long, so I get two hours to ask questions, get support, do the exams in a relaxed fashion. There was even hardly any crying today. And our nanny was there to entertain Hazel out in the lobby. Hazel was also very pleased to be given several stickers and some fun circular band aids. A very successful visit for all.

This evening our friends came over and we had breakfast for dinner. Eggs, turkey bacon, toast. That was all I was up for cooking. Tomorrow I’ll make stew & a pot pie, as well as steaming some veggies. I thought about doing a turkey for Christmas, but am not feeling up to the work involved. We’ll have to figure out what to do for our meal that day, which we’ll be sharing with family, but right now simple is good.

After dinner, Andy and Ted strung lights on the tree with Hazel’s assistance, and then Hazel got to put some non-glass ornaments on it. After they left, I took Hazel upstairs to read a book & go to sleep while Ted took the babies for a stroll. Hazel and I talked about what would happen, that after I lay down with her for half an hour I was going to go downstairs for some adult time. And we talked about what she could do if she was awake when I left, or if she woke up after I was gone. I got her nightlight and the CD player ready, just in case. Thankfully, though, she was asleep when I got up and tiptoed out. As I moved through the rooms upstairs I wondered if she’d stay asleep, or if I’d hear her cry, “Mommy, Mama!!!” start up. Again, thankfully, she stayed asleep.

This afternoon she woke up midway through her nap. After the long conversation I’d had earlier with her pediatrician, I decided not to give in, and instead talked to her through the monitor, trying to help her learn to calm down, rather than bringing the babies upstairs and lying down with all three. It was hard. But I think it’s necessary. It has gotten to the point where Ted and I hardly ever see each other any more, and I don’t get a chance at some down time when the babies are asleep. The situation feels untenable in the long run. So, Hazel is going to have to learn how to be by herself some of the time. It’s the thing she hates the most, so it may take us a while to work this out. But I feel more supported in working on it. And part of the answer is to discuss all of this with her during the daytime, and not in the middle of the difficulties at night or during naptime when she’s upset and can’t process as well.

Anyway, after I came down, Ted and I did some further tree decoration, as well as setting aside a few more non-breakable ornaments for Hazel to put on the tree. It was nice to spend some (mostly) peaceful time together. The babies weren’t asleep, but they stayed happy for a while. We were able to look through the ornaments, put some of them on the tree, and have some conversation. That was a welcome change.

Tomorrow we have some tasks we want to accomplish, and some cooking. Some of the cooking will be fun: Ted and Hazel and I will make an apple pie and custard together. One of the things I associate with holidays from my own family is all the activities to be shared together. Cooking is one of those things. Also, I’m thinking that maybe we’ll get some construction paper to cut into strips so we can make paper chains when Hazel’s cousin and aunt come over on Christmas day. And when we skype with the family, there will be singing. There always is.