When my children were young, I often told them to pay attention and not spill their milk – then almost immediately spill my own. I also told my children that getting angrier or more upset than the situation ordinarily warranted was usually a sign that there was something they needed to self-examine. Having ‘spilled my milk’ again and again in the past several months, distracted by all the changes sometimes to the point of not being able to appreciate the lovely trees and moss along the mountain road, I finally decided to take my own advice and look at anger.
A few years ago, a family counselor recommended Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger – a rather unfortunate title I thought at the time, until I revisited the book recently and discovered that it was apt. Anger is about relationships and familiar “stuck” patterns of behavior – that’s the dance. In order to use anger as a tool and get “unstuck”, Lerner recommends the following four steps (paraphrased):
- Identify true sources of your anger; get clarity about yourself.
- Wait until you are calm to communicate; use “I” messages without blaming.
- Observe patterns, respond in a new way; take it slow, make small changes.
- Anticipate ‘change back’ counter moves from others and yourself.
About Step Three, Lerner writes, “We cannot make another person change his or her steps to an old dance, but if we change our own steps, the dance no longer can continue in the same predictable pattern.” (14) This again reminds me that the serenity prayer is about changing myself: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Even if we try to repress or deny it, we all get angry, usually as a way to relieve stress. Managing anger might involve distancing from or pursuing others, under functioning (letting others take over for us) or over functioning (taking over for others), and blaming others (holding them responsible for our feelings and actions) or self-blaming.
What are my behavior patterns when under stress? If my feelings get hurt due to what I deem harsh criticism (sometimes it doesn’t take much), I tend to under perform and distance. As far as my household, children and sometimes work are concerned, perfectionist that I am, I’m likely to over perform and take responsibility for others’ feelings and actions.
Both under and over performing are boundary issues for me, and so is blaming for that matter, bringing me back to accepting and changing myself. What is my goal? Serenity: walking life’s uphill path, making slow, small changes and being able to see moss, trees, truth and beauty along the way.
How do you deal with anger?