Pamela Is a Philosophical Life Coach in New York City.

How I'm Dealing With My Anger

How I'm Dealing With My Anger

There's a bit of a conundrum built into the practice of life coaching: If someone is going to be helpful to you as you aim to improve your life shouldn't they be, well, good at life?

At the same time, change and growth are life's best teachers. Without a track record of learning from her mistakes and improving herself, you might lack confidence that a life coach can weather life's storms with you (rather than just sail along happily on a clear day).

This suggests a dichotomy: the perfectly put-together life coach who seems to have all the answers, and the hot mess life coach who thinks publicizing her failures is some kind of important credential, all by itself.

(Don't hire either of these people).

I have some high-level thoughts about the put-together vs. hot mess question. But it will be more useful to illustrate how I've gone about "self-coaching." That way, you can decide for yourself whether I'm someone whose advice is credible: Do I have skin in this game? Do I speak from an experienced place? Do I speak from too experienced of a place (i.e. hot mess land)?

Welcome to the "Dirty Laundry" series, first edition: Anger

As many of you already know, my 3rd child was born a few months ago. At the time, my oldest child was not even 3.5 years old.

If you've ever met an infant or toddler, you can imagine that caring for them is intense. My husband works long hours and so even on weekdays when I have part-time childcare help, that leaves 7+ hours of the effort to me.

Infants behave in ways that expediently satisfy their needs (e.g. screaming for food and attention), yet they lack capacity to take anyone else's needs into account.

Toddlers tease you with a sprinkle of rationality, cooperativeness, and reciprocity… only to rescind it all and behave like larger, louder infants at the drop of a hat.

It's not evolutionarily normal to have 3 kids right in a row. It's not evolutionarily normal to raise them geographically distant from grandparents, extended family, and other alloparents.

I've completely stacked the deck against myself in this way. Oops.

I can tolerate the boredom of parenting small children. I've accepted that large swaths of life are routine, not exciting, yet still well worth doing. But months of broken sleep and the aches and pains of physically recovering from birth take their toll, converting merely boring conditions into torturous ones.

Do you see where this is going?

I've been losing my temper with my kids, yelling at them more than can be written off as an occasional blown fuse.

After a few cycles of shaping up and then getting worse again, I determined this is a problem in need of explicit attention. My relationships with my kids aren't ruined, but we can't handle random, escalating outbursts forever.

Evaluating the problem

In this case, feeling angry is not much of a safety issue (for me or for others), but it is degrading our quality of life. I'm not willing to wait 5+ years until my kids are all more cooperative to see if it resolves on its own, without deliberate action on my part.

On one hand, the anger is understandable, a clear product of physical and emotional fatigue and depletion. It rears its head when I feel like I have no control of the situation.

At the same time, the anger is not really appropriate, targeted as it is towards fledgling agents with little moral responsibility. And even if it were in some sense warranted, on a pragmatic level it's not clear that anger usually benefits anyone involved in the situation.

How can I deal with anger?

Emotional problems aren't simple. Humans tend to have judgments about their emotions, as well as emotions about their emotions. Emotions can sometimes be changed, but this circuitous process takes time, effort, and a bit of luck.

Since you can’t usually change your emotions on demand, emotional problems involve cognitive problems and behavioral problems. If you want to change how you feel, you must first consider changing how you think and how you act. This increases the chances that your whole system will shift.

Here's how I'm handling my anger problem (work in progress):

  • Bought 2 books on anger and dug into them right away (This and this).

  • Realized anger might be related to sensitivity, bought book on highly sensitive people.

  • Visited psychiatrist to rule out diagnosable mental illness.

  • Identified the proximate causes of anger:

    • Feeling out of control (like when kids are not behaving no matter what I say or do)

    • Feeling physically trapped (like when stuck on couch holding baby)

    • Feeling sensory overload at one or more children screaming at the tops of their little lungs.

  • Began observing myself becoming at risk of an anger event prior to it actually happening, which is sometimes all it takes to prevent it.

What I have learned from my temper

This anger, my reading about it, and introspection helped me to make several important realizations:

  • Much of the time, my children's behavior and their emotions are indeed genuinely out of my control. I tried yelling as a last resort, but it usually doesn't work either!

  • It's not my responsibility to keep my children from crying or feeling sad in the first place.

  • Crying, sadness, and frustration are a part of learning about limits and about the world.

  • My anger is partially out of my control, but I can almost always refrain from acting on it. Perhaps in time it will become less of an automatic response.

  • When I'm overwhelmed by loud noises, it's ok to close my eyes or leave the immediate area for a moment.

  • Even if the kids are crying gratuitously/without learning, that's less bad for them than being yelled at.

  • Every day provides new opportunities for me to try again at responding constructively.

Acting in accordance with these lessons is really, really hard. But at least I know what I need to do, what I need to try to do. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else.

The philosophical angle

I don't really want or need what ordinary therapy has to offer this time - space for "processing," amorphous support, the cozy cocoon of someone endlessly validating.

I don't want to "make friends" with my anger. It's not even really a problem that anger feels bad - I am willing and able to withstand bad feelings. I don’t want to visualize anything, I don’t want mantras.

Instead, a broadly philosophical perspective on this problem allows me to see that my anger is in a grey area: more instinctual than rational. Even though the best thing would be not to feel it, I can decline to act on it in the meantime. I can pursue what I value despite negative emotions (from kids screaming) and messy circumstances (from kids not cooperating).

When I consider my options in a cool moment, I find that yelling doesn't even "work" in a narrow sense, and I can choose something that doesn't seem obvious when I'm already mad - I can always choose to stand down and wait it out.

Instead, by focusing on my values, my options, and their likely outcomes, I can make all-things-considered judgments about how to experiment with my life in this respect.

If you are interested in using this kind of perspective to consider your own problems and choices, I can help. Hit me up for an intro session to see how philosophical life coaching works and figure out whether we're a good fit.

Or just stay tuned for more dirty laundry to come…

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