Rethinking Control, Part 2: Anger as a Reaction to Loss of Control

The following is the second part of a series of articles all about taking a fresh look at control, particularly when it comes to raising children. To read part one, click here.

In the time I’ve spent both as a foster/adoptive dad and knowing/working with other foster/adoptive parents, I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to feel a great deal of anger. Indeed, perhaps more than anything else, it seems to me that the most common emotional experience for foster/adoptive parents is anger.

To be fair, there’s plenty to be angry about. The foster/adoptive system, in general, is rather terrible. There aren’t enough workers, there aren’t enough resources, there aren’t enough returned phone calls, there aren’t enough respite providers. Birth parents, previous foster parents, judges, workers, and even we ourselves make decisions that confound us. The children often have emotional/behavioral difficulties that wreak havoc on our otherwise peaceful homes and we find ourselves at a loss for what to do about it.

When we boil it all down, I believe the primary trigger for foster/adoptive parents’ anger is loss of control, or, more accurately, the excruciating realization of how little control we ever had. Perhaps anger isn’t so much an emotion as it is a response to loss of control and an attempt to regain whatever control we can.

What drives me to yell at the pokey-pants in front of me who’s driving ten under the speed limit? When I examine this deeply, I understand that I’m responding to loss of control, or the realization of lack of control. On the surface, I’ve lost control of how fast I can drive, but underneath I see that I’m reacting to my inability to control whether the individual in front of me respects my time, and by extension, whether they respect me. After all, I believe that people should respect me, and when they don’t, I get angry, and when I get angry, I feel in control again.

Consider the circumstances, the behaviors, the people that set you off. Look deeply into those things and see if what I’m saying is true. Could your anger be your reaction to losing control, or to the abrupt awareness that you never had it? Is your anger an attempt to reclaim any semblance of control by any means necessary?

When you can’t control your child’s extreme behavior, do you get angry? When you can’t control whether your worker calls you back, do you get angry? When you can’t control the trauma in your child’s history, do you get angry? When you can’t control a judge’s seeming insistence on keeping a child in care longer than necessary, do you get angry? When you can’t control the school’s incapacity to understand the unique needs your child has, do you get angry?

Anger is not only a reaction to loss of control. It is also an attempt to snatch back whatever control we can. When we scream, cuss, degrade, hit, break, or intimidate, we are trying to re-exert control in a situation where we realize have lost it or never had it. At the very least, we want to feel like we’re back in control, and we think that blaming and raging will accomplish just that.

But the ironic reality with anger is that it causes us to lose more control, even though we behave angrily to gain control. There’s not a single person whose clearest thinking occurs while angry, but there’s a wealth of people whose greatest regrets were born out of a fit of rage.

When we become angry, it’s completely appropriate to fight for control–only that which we should be controlling is ourselves and our anger, not other people or situations. The first step to regaining control of our lives is taking responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors–and especially our anger.

A mantra that has been helpful for me, and that I have tried to pass along to my son and other youth I’ve worked with, is this: I cannot control what others do. I can only control how I react. This concept seems obvious and logical, but few of us actually live this way. Instead, we blame others for our reactions: “He made me mad. She made me do that.”

No one can make you do or think or feel anything. They can certainly influence you, even in incredibly powerful ways, but you are ultimately in charge of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Therefore, when something happens that you cannot control, the only appropriate response is to control that which you can control–yourself.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. It takes hard work to accept what you cannot control and control what you can, but it’s possible. I’m certainly no expert at this, since it’s something I struggle with every day. But I’m putting in the effort, and I’m starting to see results.

Here are some things I’m trying to implement every day to help me manage anger and loss of control:

Acceptance

As much as possible, when I become upset about something, I mindfully (see below) determine whether or not I am in control of it. If I am in control, then I do what I can to alleviate the trigger of my anger. However, if I’m not in control, then the only possible course of action–other than raging–is to accept the situation as it is.

When my son uses vulgar language, I could react angrily and scold him: “You can’t talk like that in this house!” But the fact of the matter is, he can and does talk like that in my house, and short of duct taping his mouth shut (which is inappropriate) there’s nothing I can do to control his language.

Of course, there are plenty of ways I can influence my son’s language, such as role modeling appropriate speech and encouraging him to consider how Grandma would react if she heard him speaking that way, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to control the words he uses.

In cases such as this, it’s much more beneficial for my relationship with my son if I just accept him for who he is and how he speaks right now. Yes, the way he wields the English language is nauseating, but at the end of the day I care much more about our relationship than I care about how filthy his language is–and I think deep down most parents would agree.

So, when he starts cussing out his Xbox, instead of getting angry and scolding him, I pause, breathe deeply, and repeat this silently to myself:

(breathe in) I accept you…

(breathe out) just as you are…

(breathe in) right now…

(breathe out) no conditions.

This acceptance doesn’t mean I never discuss my son’s colorful vocabulary with him, but it does mean that when I do bring it up, I must come from a place of total acceptance of who my son is, and also total acceptance of the reality that he is in complete control of the things he says and I am not.

I believe that the greatest influence in a child’s life is a parent or other caring adult who loves and accepts the child just as they are, in the good and especially in the ugly. However, we cannot love and accept our children in this way if we’re constantly scolding them, constantly trying to exert control over their choices. So realize that your children are in complete control of themselves, accept them at their nastiest, and influence them with total acceptance.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of devoting our full attention to what is happening in this present moment instead of what has happened in the past or what may happen in the future. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize. To be mindful of something is to recognize that something is there in the present moment. Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment….This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.

We can use mindfulness to recognize the presence of our anger. However, we do not need to fight or suppress our anger, because recognizing and embracing anger allows us to refrain from reacting in destructive ways. We can then examine the root of our anger and understand where it comes from, which allows us to better care for our anger. Here’s another Thich Nhat Hanh quote:

We are mothers of our anger, and we have to help our baby, our anger, not fight and destroy it. Our anger is us, and our compassion is also us. To meditate does not mean to fight. In Buddhism, the practice of meditation should be the practice of embracing and transforming, not of fighting.

When we recognize and embrace our anger with mindfulness, we do not have to fight or suppress it. Instead, we can recognize its reality, uncover the source of the anger, and correct our wrong perceptions, thus transforming our anger into understanding and compassion, and, as (again) Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

…compassion is the real antidote for anger. Nothing can heal anger except compassion.

(While I’m thinking about it, you should just go read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. He teaches how to use mindfulness to deal with anger much better than I can.)

Using the example of the slow driver from above, if I were to use mindfulness in that situation, I would recognize my anger and embrace it, rather than rage or try to suppress the anger. Then I examine it to find the root of my anger: I am angry because I can’t control whether or not the driver in front of me respects me. Understanding this root, I see that my anger is most likely based on a wrong perception, that the person in front of me is probably not purposefully disrespecting me but more likely is merely oblivious, new to driving, or somehow impaired. This, then, leads me to compassion when I remember that I…

  • often drive obliviously;
  • remember what it’s like to be a nervous teenager driving on the streets for the first time;
  • am dealing with an eye injury right now that forces me to take it slow while driving.

And, with the aid of mindfulness, my anger has been transformed into compassion. Almost like magic, huh?

Conscious Breathing

This is a simple one that is connected to both acceptance and mindfulness. When we become angry, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. However, in order to work their best, our brains require a good deal of oxygen. Therefore, when we’re mad and our breathing is abrupt, we’re not supplying our brains with the element it needs to function optimally.

Conscious breathing is simply the practice of being aware (mindful) of our breath, and sometimes changing the pattern of our breathing if it is necessary. Using conscious breathing when we’re angry gives our brain the oxygen it needs while not allowing us to become overwhelmed by our angry thoughts. We focus on the length of our in-breaths and out-breaths as well as the feeling of air passing through our noses and filling our lungs. This isn’t an automatic cure for anger, but it does give us some necessary space to practice acceptance and mindfulness in the height of our anger.

Here are two ways I practice conscious breathing:

  • Go for a walk and breathe in time with your steps. Breathe in for four steps, hold your breath for seven steps, breathe out for eight steps, and repeat. Or breathe in/breathe out every time you step with your right foot. I find the combination of body movement and breathing a great way to calm myself down and embrace my anger mindfully.
  • Imagine a grandfather clock with a long pendulum. As the pendulum swings to the left, breathe in and count “one” in your head, then as it swings to the right, breathe out and count “one” in your head again. When it swings left again, move on to “two.” Count just like this all the way up to ten, and then from ten count backward to one. Do this as often as you need to.

Check out part three of “Rethinking Control”!

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