Frustration, Anger, and Rage: The Power of Resistance
It is the end of a long night with little sleep. As Rob walks out the door to go visit a friend, I realize I am at the end of my rope. I feel like I have nothing left. All I want is to go to sleep. But sleep is out of reach for the next couple of hours, or at least I believe that it is.
As any child would, he asks me to play, to do something with him.
I have no energy left. All I want is for him, someone, to take care of me. I want to let go of being the mom right in that moment. I am angry, frustrated, and sad.
From this place of deep weariness, I feel a sense of despair well up in me. I had been holding it in for some time. Trying to pretend, trying to breathe deep as a way to avoid my feelings of anger.
The breathing, which I so often recommend to others, is not helping me to connect to my body. I am not using it as a way for me to connect to my feelings, to create present moment awareness.
Instead it is a way to avoid the anger and rage I feel building up. It is what I tell myself I am “supposed” to do according to my own advice. Rather than sink into the weariness and accept that I am angry at everyone and myself, I resist. I pretend.
Images, thoughts, and feelings race through my head in flash. Ones that I don’t even want to remember. Ones that I am deeply afraid of in that moment. In rage, fear, and panic I say, “I can’t take this anymore. I’m leaving and never coming back.” I walk out the door and down the driveway. I stop partway down the driveway.
I return to a frightened child and I feel my own fear of myself. The weight of my words on his heart feel like a punch to my stomach. I know that the impact on him is even greater. I hold the child and we cry together releasing some of the stress, anger, and sadness.
We reconnect with each other and I reconnect with myself.
But this isn’t a story about despair and pain.
It’s a story about the power of resistance.
It’s a story about breaking the cycles we experienced as children.
It’s my story, but it’s also the story of many parents.
I tell it because I know others have felt these same feelings and have done things that hurt children, in spite of their commitment to gentle, peaceful parenting. I tell it because it is too easy to judge ourselves (and others) and believe that everyone else must be doing it better than we are.
How do we get here? And what can we do?
Too often when we are growing up, we are forced to swallow the pain and hurt that adults inflict on us because they themselves are in pain. Sometimes these are small hurts and humiliations. Sometimes they are much, much bigger.
We seek to please adults when we are children, not only to gain love and approval, but to avoid pain and punishment.
We listen to the words of adults that are uttered in anger. We hear how we cannot be trusted. We are told the ways that we are not smart or good enough and we swallow it.
And, we begin to believe the lies they tell us. Lies they tell out of their own pain.
We see the violence, anger, and rage around us. We learn to fear losing control. We have seen and felt what losing control looks like and we want to avoid it at all costs. We look for ways to be safe.
Because the adults around us were not a safe haven, we carry into adulthood all the anger and rage from childhood. We learn to fear ourselves because we are afraid that we are capable of treating children the way we were treated. We’re afraid we’ll be just like those adults.
When we’re angry and lash out, we see confirmation of our fear that we’ll be just like them.
We punish ourselves the same way we were punished by adults when we were children.
We shame ourselves the same way we were shamed by adults when we were children.
We deny our feelings and experiences the same way adults denied our feelings and experiences when we were children.
Some of the strategies we used to survive to adulthood were perfectionism, suppression of our anger and rage, pleasing other people, denying our own truths, turning our anger toward others who were smaller and less powerful, the way the adults did.
When I talk with other parents who had similar experiences as children, I realize that many of us used these same strategies.
For many of us those strategies work up to a certain point. But, when we become parents, they backfire.
We want to be different. We’re afraid we can’t be. And, we don’t know what to do.
If I go back to that morning where I walked out the door and said I was never coming back to a 6 year-old child, I realize that for days I had been denying my frustration and anger. I kept trying to look for the bright side.
I would talk myself out of my feelings and focus on the positive. I told myself all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”.
Not only was I physically exhausted, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted from avoiding and denying my “negative” feelings.
This same pattern happens with so many parents I talk to. These are parents who are clearly and deeply committed to breaking the cycle of anger and rage that were common in their families-of-origin.
They, like me, struggle to deal with the anger and rage deep within them.
Sometimes this denial happens within a few minutes as we try to gain compliance from a child. Sometimes it happens over days or weeks. Both are the same experience.
If we lived in fear of angry adults when we were children, we learn to fear anger. We fear our own and others’ anger.
We fall back on what we learned to do as children.
We control, resist, and push it away.
We might even use some new tools of denial and control such as deep breathing or meditation to control our unacceptable thoughts and avoid our feelings. (As a side note, I am a fan of these tools. I have also learned that I can use these tools as a form of harmful control rather than acceptance.)
We turn away from our anger, rage, and frustration because we are so afraid of them.
We also turn away because we don’t trust our capacity to handle those emotions.
The anger inside of us that is leftover from childhood, is rebellious. This anger spent many years trying to get heard. It will not go away easily. And the more we resist it, the more it fights to be heard. The more we tell it to go away, or ignore it, the more it jumps up and down and says “NO! Listen to me!”
Just as a child (any human being) will rebel against control, our anger is like a child. Our fear is like a child. Children need to be seen and heard (in spite of our cultural norms that promote denying children this right). Children want to be recognized and loved for who they really are.
Our anger and fear, especially that leftover from our childhoods, need the same care, attention, and love as our children.
When we turn our attention to those feelings, accept them, acknowledge they are there, we are reaffirming an important part of who we are. We are extending unconditional love and acceptance to our feelings and by extension, to ourselves.
If anger and rage keep coming up for you as a parent, this is merely a sign. It is a sign that those feelings need some awareness and attention. They do not need to be eliminated. When we fight to “kill” those feelings they will fight back and eventually gain greater power over us.
This pattern of pushing down and denying our feelings is a mirror of the patterns in our greater culture. We see/sense/feel anger and we seek to control, dominate, oppress, or eliminate it from existence. But what we are really controlling and dominating is ourselves.
Fear, anger, sadness, and frustration are merely parts of the human experience.
As a child if these feelings were followed by punishment, pain, or trauma, we begin to believe that these feelings can only result in pain.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
They are just feelings.
We can feel the feelings and learn to express them in healthier, less harmful, ways. We can redefine what the feelings represent.
When we turn toward them, we are choosing to acknowledge their presence within us.
We can pause and listen deeply to the feelings. When we do this, they run their course and they move through us. There is no rebellion and we have broken the cycle of anger=pain.
The feelings have gotten what they needed. And we have gotten what we needed. We have given ourselves the gift of being heard, acknowledged, (and to push you a bit further) even to be loved when we are feeling anger and rage. These are the same things we wanted as children.
We become the parents we needed, but didn’t have.
We create space for our own feelings to be heard.
In doing so, we get better at providing this for children.
It is an interconnected process.
A child triggers us. We connect to our own feelings and discomfort. We create acceptance internally, and that flows outward toward the child.
What does this actually look like?
A starting point to face the fear of your own anger and rage is to begin to talk openly about it.
What I mean by this is to start by having your own dialogue. Notice and articulate (out loud or in your head) all the automatic thoughts and feelings coming up.
For me this means talking to myself to give space and voice to my feelings without judgement. Whatever comes up for me I just say it. “I’m feeling angry.” “I don’t know what to do.” “I feel my jaw tightening.” “I just want to scream.” “I hate it when I get this way.” “I thought I was done with this.” “Why is he doing this?” “I’m feeling really scared.” And if I am judging the feelings as bad, I acknowledge that as well.
Whatever it is I engage in my own dialogue about it.
I say the things I was not allowed to say to adults when I was a child.
It is almost as if I am the child who needs to be able to talk with the trusted adult about all the things that are coming up for me. This is part of being the parent I needed.
I might even say it out loud when I am around the children in my life. Not in a blaming way. Not to make them responsible for fixing my feelings. But as a way to make transparent my own feelings and process.
By giving to ourselves what we want to give to children, we begin to integrate our past, painful emotions. We model the process of accepting all the parts of ourselves.
We meet our own needs in ways that allow us to parent differently from the way we were parented.
We can break the cycle of anger and rage that results in harm, and show the children in our lives that we don’t have to afraid of our feelings. At the same, we learn that we don’t have to be afraid of our feelings as well.
(I first wrote this when the youngest child in my life was 6, and even years later, I vividly remember what happened that morning. I just wanted to share it again with you.)