What if the anger we felt toward another was all just an illusion? Maybe we are never really mad at someone else, but instead, at ourselves for the way we are reacting to them. It’s a little mind bending when you are looking at a picture and you think you know what you are seeing only to feel your eyes and brain shift to seeing something completely different. I had my own ah-ha moment a few weeks ago when I was super outraged at my 10-year old daughter, who was acting impossible. I yelled and I was so angry I wanted her to suffer under the stare of my evil, I’m totally disappointed-in-you glare. I texted my Mom (who in situations like this always seems to calm me down) and I asked her, “When I was a kid and acting terribly, did you feel like you hated me and that I had ruined your life?” Her response shifted my brain and I saw a completely different picture. She wrote back, “Yes, because I felt so bad about myself and my inability to self regulate.” Boom. I wasn’t mad at my daughter. I was mad at myself for jumping on her mood train and crashing into a wall. I had lost my battle at staying calm and thoughtful and in the moment to fearing for her future, feeling as though I had messed up the past by creating this monster and imagining how amazing my life would be if I had decided never to have kids. It was me, angry at myself for loosing control and feeling crazy. Once I read that and my brain snapped in to a different place, I stopped and hugged her and everything melted away. Roll your eyes all you want at my pollyana-ish experience but I definitely felt less angry at her and more forgiving of myself in that moment.
I’m working with a couple in which the wife was on the verge of leaving her husband. One foot-out-the-door close. The dynamic was common and simple but so complicated all at the same time. She married someone who had a very clear sense in his mind about right/wrong, good/bad and could be a bully, in her opinion, to have his way. For years she had given in on things from the minor – what to have for dinner, to the middle – what color to paint the baby room, to the extreme – having sex when she didn’t want to time and time again. Years of giving in had created a fierce resentment in her that had propelled her anger toward him to catastrophic levels. She was so tired of feeling disappointed that she no longer felt anything at all. She could see nothing that attracted her to him. She couldn’t even be around him. He was struggling to breathe, gasping for air, grasping to anything he perceived as hope. He attempted a complete turn around – in which being accused of having checked out of being a part of the family and the raising of the kids had now become wanting to do everything and anything to be included. Their marital dance became a war and they became locked in their view of the situation. Therapy gave them an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective and redefine what they had come to view as fact. For her, realizing that her anger at him was in large part due to the disappointment she felt toward herself for years of not defining what was important to her was an ah-ha moment. This change in perception allowed her to work on what she needed to instead of blaming him or waiting for him to change. His realization that he had repeated the exact relationship his parents had allowed him to shift his perspective on what he thought was normal.
All of us have a dance in which we participate in all of our relationships. These two examples show how the dance can quickly become a war when we project our fears, have expectations, blame the other and get locked in our views of what is right or wrong.
Here are some things to think about to keep your dance flowing:
Assume your anger at another is an illusion and a perfect opportunity to assess how you have contributed or are handling the situation. When we simply focus on the other as causing our pain, fear, or discomfort we are in the victim role. Victims experience fear which triggers our fight or flight response which makes us release the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine into our bloodstream. When this stress response kicks in, our ability to think clearly and act maturely becomes limited. Take ownership of your anger and reactivity and don’t be the victim. Once the wife from the example above became less of the victim, she was able to be less angry and more engaged.
Be mindful that there are multiple ways to perceive one situation. Stretch your mind to gain another perspective. All we really know is the world we live in. This has been formed by our childhoods and our experiences and by no means is inaccurate. But as many people as there are in your relationship network there are that many differences in perspective. A healthy relationship is one where there is genuine interest in understanding the others perspective without judgement. My daughter reacts visibly to her fears, and when I view her as scared and lost, I am less likely to jump on the crazy train.
Be in the moment as much as possible. Worrying about what we have messed up in the past and worrying about what might happen in the future skyrocket our anxieties and prevent us from staying calm and thoughtful in the moment. None of that other stuff exists anymore and we cannot predict the future so why not just deal with what does exist – the moment in front of you. Notice when you are in the past or future, take a deep breath and let it go. You’ll notice a change in how you feel immediately.
Break routine and do something different in your relationship everyday. This is more of an exercise for the brain. We all fall into autopilot and this is not good for us or our relationships. Challenge your brain by increasing your awareness and choosing to react in a different way than you are inclined. Hugging my daughter when I had been angry at her totally shifted the emotional climate.
Don’t forget that it is always in your power to see a situation differently. Part of the joy in life is knowing there is always something to work on in you. So just when you think you are certain you see one thing, look more closely and watch the whole picture change to something spectacular and new.