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Turning Anger into a Peaceful Heart

Put On the Brakes
If you've ever screamed at or spanked your child in anger, you know that sick feeling you get later, after you have calmed down and start thinking about what you've done. Reasonable people can disagree about corporal punishment (we believe there are always better options), but no reputable professional thinks it's fine for a parent to vent his or her anger through raging at or hitting a child. Besides wounding a child psychologically and sometimes physically, it makes a mother feel awful about herself. Instead, walk away from the situation, put yourself on a time-out, yell into a towel or pillow, or call your husband or a friend. If you still have trouble controlling yourself, you're not alone. Most counties have anonymous telephone hotlines running twenty-four hours a day for parents to blow off steam and get practical ideas about child rearing. These hotlines can also refer a mom to support groups or other community resources, such as low-fee child care.

In less extreme situations, you might like to consider taking up the practice, for a day or longer, of not speaking to your children in an angry way. We are definitely not suggesting that you suppress your emotions, but rather that you:

  • Sense down to the more vulnerable feelings - like fear, hurt, or disappointment - that usually lie beneath anger, and focus your awareness on them.
  • Express whatever might be appropriate to your children about these softer feelings by saying things like: I feel really scared when you run ahead at the mall, like something bad might happen to you, and to me that would be the worst thing in the world. Or: I feel hurt and sad when you scream at me.
  • Do whatever you need to do in the way of correcting, reprimanding, or disciplining your child, but without losing your temper.

If you like, you can adapt this approach to your partner as well. No matter who you use it with, this practice will help you become more aware of the deeper feelings beneath anger, and more comfortable and skillful at expressing them. It's also easier for a child, or your partner, to let in what you have to say.

But we do not mean at all that you should turn anger toward others against yourself. Some mothers yell at themselves in their head, or even out loud. Some go further, pulling out their hair, abusing laxatives, or hitting or cutting themselves. If you ever do that sort of thing, please know that you are far from alone. Millions of other women have had similar issues, and feeling angry with yourself or ashamed for doing it just adds to the problem. As a first step, you should tell someone, such as a close friend, your partner, a parent or relative, or a counselor on a telephone hotline. But after that, please contact a therapist and get some professional help. The person in the world who least deserves your punishment is you.

Ask Your Heart
A client of Rick's told this story: I was arguing with my husband about going back to work and he wanted me to stay home. I was getting madder and madder, but something else was happening, too. It was like a part of me was watching the whole thing very calmly. After a while, I ran out of steam, and for a minute there was just that calmness. Then I did something I've never done before. In a way, I asked the calmness for what it thought. Immediately there was the sense of an answer, that the right approach was to be strong and confident and just go forward with what I knew to be right without quarreling about it, just start looking for work with self-respect and see what I found and then make my decision based on what was real. I didn't just hear how I needed to be; I felt that way. He asked what I was thinking and I told him, while I was feeling strong and confident, kind of dignified. He grumbled a little but didn't blow up again and he seemed to accept more what I was saying. I spent about a month looking around for work. Once in a while, I'd think back to the experience and feel that sense of strength and confidence again. I found a pretty good job and we talked about it. It felt right to me, and he got some of that feeling, too. I took it and I've been real happy that I did.

Anger is like a storm at sea. On the surface, waves are roiling and spray is flying. But deeper down, it's much calmer. At almost any moment when you're angry, you can look down there for wisdom and guidance. To make those depths tangible to yourself, we suggest you ask your heart what might be a better way to handle the situation that's making you angry. Just put your awareness into the area of your heart and imagine asking a specific question - What should I say? What does she really need here? What would be best for everyone? - or simply be open to your heart's perspective. Let both the meaning and the feeling of the answer fill you, pushing the surface froth of anger to the margins of your mind.

Key Ways to Turn Anger into Peace

  • Don't let things build up - don't overgive, blow off steam as you go along, etc.
  • Understand the thoughts or ways you are perceiving things that are the true source of your anger.
  • Try to sense down to the softer emotions beneath anger, like hurt or fear; acknowledge those to yourself or express them to others.
  • If you feel like you're going to blow up, walk away or call a friend.
  • Get professional help if you are directing anger at yourself in harmful ways, such as cutting.
  • Ask your heart for guidance.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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